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Former USC Intern Fights for Cleaner Air

Former USC Intern Fights for Cleaner Air
Otana Jakpor leads a training seminar on community demographic mapping for USC faculty and staff.

Fifteen-year-old Otana Jakpor’s essay on how she spent her time with USC would include leading demonstrations on how to map demographic data and conducting research on diesel emissions from locomotives and other rail yard equipment.

The high school senior recently interned at the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center directed by Frank Gilliland at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, where she focused on using U.S. Census Bureau information to map and study the demographics of populations living near rail yards.

“I started off by reading a lot. I learned about the Los Angeles ports, goods movement and how trucks and trains pollute the air,” said Jakpor, who woke at 5 a.m. every day to take the train from her home in Riverside to the USC Health Sciences campus. “I didn’t know about all the health effects that could come from living near a rail yard. It’s really an environmental justice issue.”

By the end of her internship, Jakpor was leading tutorials on how to do the demographic data mapping. In September, she received special recognition from Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, during Jackson’s visit to Los Angeles.

At the three-day Governors’ Global Climate Summit, in front of a crowd of more than 2,000 international attendees, Jackson praised Jakpor for her work on behalf of clean air initiatives, including volunteer work for the American Lung Association.

“I’ve learned a lot about how science can impact regular people and regular communities, and this summer I learned about the importance of community outreach,” Jakpor said. “When people have information, they can use it to make a difference.”

Mentoring such a young person with a passion for environmental health issues has been inspiring, said Andrea Hricko, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School and director of community outreach at the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center.

“We have been discussing creative methods of career development in our center,” Hricko said. “Working with a dynamic, intelligent student like Otana is perfect.”

Jakpor has become accustomed to being singled out for her unusual combination of youth and expertise. Her interest in environmental health began several years ago as she watched her mother struggle with chronic asthma.

She began to do research and, at 13 years old, presented the findings of her homemade experiment on exposure to ozone emitted by air purifiers to the California Air Resources Board.

Since then, she has been a featured speaker at a number of scientific meetings and conferences and has received awards from the Discovery Channel and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

She was honored by the Environmental Protection Agency with a 2007 President’s Environmental Youth Award and has earned recognition from members of Congress and former President George Bush.

“At these presentations, I talk about what’s important to me as a young person,” Jakpor said. “I don’t say anything novel, but people pay attention when a young person says something about these environmental health issues.”

Rob McConnell, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School and deputy director of the USC/UCLA Children’s Environmental Health Center, approached Jakpor after seeing her at a meeting of the American Thoracic Society in May.

“It was immediately clear to me that Otana was a student we wanted to know better and whose interests we wanted to nurture,” McConnell said. “I urged her to pursue a summer internship at our USC Center so that she could put her interests and skills into practice.”

Jakpor said she wants to attend medical school after college and plans to continue her advocacy for clean air.

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