Syracuse University Magazine

Targeting Toxicity


Brooks Gump

Brooks Gump had every intention of following his father into the medical profession, but as a philosophy major at Swarthmore College, he was more interested in the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and physiology. So when it came time to apply to medical school, things didn’t quite work out as planned. “During my medical school admissions interview, I talked about Freud the whole time,” says Gump, a professor in the Department of Public Health, Food Studies, and Nutrition at the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. “It was suggested that maybe medical school wasn’t the right place for me.”

In due time, Gump found his rightful place in the field of epidemiology—the cornerstone of public health—which studies the causes of disease in human populations, how it spreads, and on developing and testing ways to prevent and control it. An expert in cardiovascular behavioral medicine, he conducts research on how children with low levels of such toxicants as perfluorochemicals (PFCs), lead, and mercury in their blood may be at risk for cardiovascular disease. “Early on, there was no one in my field doing research on how toxicants might alter cardiovascular and endocrine reactions to psychological stress,” says Gump, who holds advanced degrees in general psychology, experimental psychology, and epidemiology in public health. 

While studying for his doctoral degree at the University of California, San Diego, Gump worked in an area called health psychology, assessing how a patient’s hospital roommate can affect the outcome of bypass surgery. Later, as a psychology professor at SUNY Oswego, he began to investigate how children’s cardiovascular systems react differently to psychological stress as a function of very low-level lead exposure. His research over the past 10 years contributed to the recent reduction of what are considered acceptable lead levels in children, which were lowered from 10 micrograms per deciliter to five. 

Since joining Falk’s public health faculty in 2010, Gump has continued to focus his research on how toxicants in food and the environment affect children. His latest project, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, will compare lead levels in white and African American children as a predictor of heart disease and IQ deficits. “We know many African American children have higher levels of lead in their blood than white children,” he says. “Preliminary data suggest their hearts are already showing signs of change because the lead is causing vascular constriction, which triggers a rise in blood pressure. We also hope to link the well-known detrimental effects of lead on IQ to this vascular constriction because reduced blood flow may be having a negative impact on brain function.” 

Going forward, Gump will examine how children react to low-level mercury exposure—which typically occurs because of fish consumption—and assess the relationship between metal toxicants and autism. And because the level of lead in our bodies is now 600 times greater than it was in pre-industrial times, he will explore chelation therapy as a way to detoxify metal agents by converting them to a chemically inert form that can be excreted from the body. Gump has also received National Science Foundation funding to train undergraduates who are military veterans to conduct research with other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “Most of my research is not boundary specific in terms of a particular field,” he says.

Gump says one thing he likes most about being on the faculty of Falk’s public health program—one of the few undergraduate programs of its kind in the nation—is that his research initiatives receive much needed support from the college. “Funding for my research in the toxicant field is a challenge because most funders are not clear about why my research matters,” he says. “The college’s research center helps me write grants and administer budgets, so I can concentrate on my teaching and scholarly activities. Having that support has been terrific—I feel much appreciated for what I do.” —Christine Yackel