Ultrafine Particles in the Air: The Harold Amos Scholar Behind the Discovery of this Cardiovascular Health Risk

A profile of Jesus A. Araujo, MD, MSc, PhD

    • September 30, 2008

The Problem: How does the changing environment impact one's health? Can the ultrafine particles that linger in the air from automobile combustion heighten a person's risk for cardiovascular disease? A new field of study called Environmental Cardiology, based on the research of a Harold Amos scholar, answers these questions.

Grantee Background: Jesus A. Araujo, M.D., M.Sc., Ph.D., no longer lists his bachelor's degree in piano performance on his curriculum vitae. At a critical point in his professional development, Araujo had to choose between a career in classical music or in medicine. "I thought, 'How could I help people most?'" says Araujo, who was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. "I thought that by being a doctor, your social role and ability to help others is very clear, while it was less clear for me with the arts back then. That ability to really help others in a very direct fashion was at the crux of my decision."

Once he chose medicine, his specialty—cardiovascular medicine—was never in question. "I was fascinated by the physiology; the cardiovascular exam is very rational," Araujo explains. "And because cardiology is very important, as cardiovascular diseases are the first cause of death in the western world, it was not difficult to be in love with that."

After receiving his medical degree at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, Araujo obtained a master's degree in immunology—and got his first taste for research and science, a critical element of academic cardiology. In 1994, he came to the United States and completed an internship, residency and chief residency in internal medicine at the Beth Israel Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. For a while, Araujo wondered if he would have to choose between his two medical passions—clinical practice versus research—as he once had to choose between music and medicine. But in 1998, a fellowship in cardiology brought him to Los Angeles for a program at the Molecular Biology Institute, University of California that allowed him to combine his background in science and his clinical training while pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular biology.

To support his dream of a career in both clinical medicine and academic research, Araujo then turned to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program, which accepted him as a 2004–2008 scholar.

Araujo found himself with the freedom and financial resources to pursue research in a pioneering field that helps connect environmental, medical and genetic tools. This field of research was so new that Araujo hadn't even included it in his original Harold Amos Program application; at his request, RWJF program officers gave him permission to pursue an area of scientific and medical research that didn't even yet have a name. "We call it 'Environmental Cardiology' and many people don't really know what it is," says Araujo. "It started about four or five years ago, and the beginning was best signaled by a cover of the Environmental Health Perspectives journal. It had an article called 'Getting to the Heart of the Matter.' When I saw that title, I said, 'That is it. We will evolve into Environmental Cardiology.'"

Araujo is now director of Environmental Cardiology at UCLA School of Medicine. He and his colleagues recently received a flurry of publicity based on their discovery that even the smallest air pollution particles—or ultrafines—pose serious health risks and may lead to increased risk for cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and hardened arteries. Based on these findings, Araujo has changed his own lifestyle, he told U.S. News & World Report in 2008. He no longer bikes in heavy traffic, where ultrafine particles produced by combustion weigh heavily in the air. "You won't find me stuck behind bus tailpipes anymore," he says.

Though his two young children now study piano and violin, this classically trained musician is rarely found at the piano, yet he credits RWJF's Harold Amos Program for making possible his true dream career.

"I found this whole community of people who are in various stages of their careers, in very different scenarios. These different disciplines and areas make a success of the whole scientific enterprise," he says. "The mentorship is really from all of the people you meet and conversations you have—even the casual conversations, in very relaxed ways, with people at different stages of their careers, who are all very accomplished in their own fields. That is mentorship. And you are mentoring even with your own example."

RWJF Perspective: The Harold Amos Program is one of RWJF's oldest programs, having started in 1983 as the Minority Faculty Development Program. It was renamed in 2004 to honor the first African American to chair a department at Harvard Medical School; he was also a former director of the program. The program provides four-year postdoctoral research awards to historically disadvantaged physicians who are committed to developing careers in academic medicine.

"One of the assumptions of the program," says J.A. Grisso, M.D., M.Sc., a senior program officer at RWJF, "is that if you give leadership opportunities to individuals from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups that they, in their career trajectories, are more likely to take on the issues that are particularly important to vulnerable populations. That has been true for the Harold Amos Faculty Development Program. Individuals who could be outstanding scholars in any world and for any issue have very often chosen to address these important issues that we care about at RWJF.

"This is a long-standing program that is very forward-thinking," says Grisso. "It has uniquely engaged individuals who do basic science research as well as those who do health services research and clinical research. People who are completely basic science-oriented are now getting trained in or exposed to epidemiology and public health and then are starting to talk about the social issues as they might affect biological systems. They are asking questions that are unique in my experience with basic science."