Professor Frank Kelly is the inaugural Humphrey Battcock Chair of Environment and Health in the School of Public Health.
Professor Kelly presides over substantial research activity on all aspects of air pollution research from toxicology through to science policy. The experimental research examines the toxicity of airborne particulate matter, diesel and biodiesel exhaust emissions, wood smoke and identities of biomarkers of exposure. A new area of investigation is ambient microplastics, where work is focusing on their identification, detection and potential health effects. He has led studies on the urban airshed within London, including the impact of the introduction of London’s Congestion Charging Zone and the Ultra Low Emission Zone.
He previously served as Chair of Environmental Health at King's College London, where he was Director of the Environmental Research Group, Director of the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit on Environmental Hazards and Deputy Director of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment & Health. The Environmental Research Group will transfer from King’s to the College under the same leadership on 1 July 2020.
I caught up with Professor Frank Kelly to find out more about him, his research and joining Imperial during a pandemic.
Can you tell us a bit about your research?
With over 30 years experience in health research, initially as a new blood lecturer at the University of Southampton, then as a Reader/Professor and Head of Lung Biology in the Rayne Institute at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, in 1997 I took up the Chair in Environmental Health at King’s College London and became Director of the Environmental Research Group (ERG).
My early research focused on oxidant/antioxidant imbalances in a number of patient groups including preterm babies, asthmatics, lung transplant recipients and cystic fibrosis patients. Since moving to London in 1992 my research addressed the mechanisms underlying air pollution related health issues including the development of a model system to access the oxidative potential of ambient particulate matter. This was initially achieved through participation in a number of European projects and through coordination of an MRC Cooperative Group investigating the mechanistic basis of particulate air pollution toxicity.
What is the Environmental Research Group and what are it's aims?
The Environmental Research Group (ERG) was originally formed in 1991 as part of a wider National Health Service (NHS) Public Health Research Centre. ERG transferred to the University of London in 1993 and joined King’s College London in 1997 when I became the Director. The ERG focuses almost entirely on air pollution, spanning the chain from emissions, concentrations, exposure and health impacts. Under my guidance and crusade to effectively reduce the significant toll of ill health brought about by air pollution, ERG has grown to be an internationally recognised team in air quality science, toxicology, epidemiology and policy. ERG’s multi-faceted approach provides a crucial scientific evidence base for government policy, facilitating departments to understand the risks associated with air pollution and how best to legislate for cleaner air.
What excites you about joining Imperial and the School of Public Health?
In 2009 we formed the MRC Centre for Environment and Health with my good friend and colleague Professor Elliott. For the past 11 years I have been the Deputy Director of the Centre and for the past six years I have led the Health Protection Research Unit in Environmental Hazard and Health another joint activity. With the recent renewal of the HPRU scheme I am pleased to say that Paul and I now both lead new HPRU’s which were (quietly) launched last week. I am also looking forward to having closer working relations with many colleagues in the School such as Professor Majid Ezzati who has been a close colleague for many years but also to initiate work with new colleagues such as Professor Elio Riboli and his work on cancer epidemiology.
How have you and/or your work been affected by the current COVID-19 outbreak?
As mentioned above we have had to virtually launch our two new HPRU’s. Our laboratories are in shut down and now we only talk via the internet. On the positive side we have more time to catch up with writing and thinking about future work such as, is there a link between particulate pollution and the spread of Covid-19.
Have you been able to continue to monitor air pollution levels in London? Have you seen any changes in air pollution following the ‘lockdown’ measures?
We are extremely proud to have formed the London Air Quality Network (LAQN) in conjunction with London boroughs and the NHS back in the 1990’s. This was followed by the development of modelling capabilities and then toxicology, health impact, policy translation and pollutant exposure research in ERG. Our Measurement team, one of seven now in ERG is led by Dr Gary Fuller, and they have had to rapidly identify ways in which they could keep our 100+ monitoring stations operating. These stations contain delicate instruments which need regular maintenance and calibration. Various plans have been tried and as each new obstacle has been identified new fixes have been found. In shut down mode the Measurement team are doing a great job.
Spring is a popular time for increased pollution as particle precursors blow in from the continent. Although we are presently seeing some increases in London’s air pollution generally these are much lower peaks than usual – because of decreased vehicle emission during the shut-down. However, wood fires and farming continue to cause pollution, so we remain vigilant.
Tell us a bit about what you enjoy outside of work
Protecting green spaces in urban areas is vital for the environment and so this is something close to my heart. My longstanding contact with greenness in urban areas not only includes a passion for the rugby pitch (during my post-doctoral training in the USA during the 1970/80’s, I found time to create the first rugby club in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) but now, perhaps sadly, extends to a devotion for growing vegetables (which does come in handy during periods of shut-down).
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