Asthma research earns honor for grad student


Carla Keirns

Photo by Mark Garvin

Carla Keirns said the grant she just won will make life a little easier, even in the unique program she’s in that she said is designed to “keep her in school forever.”

Keirns, an M.D. and Ph.D. student at the School of Medicine and the department of history and sociology of science, respectively, is one of the five graduate students selected this year to receive a grant for socially motivated and policy-oriented dissertations in children’s health. Every year, Johnson & Johnson gives the Woodrow Wilson Foundation $10,000 to administer the grants.

Keirns, originally from Brewster, N.Y., will receive $2,000 towards her dissertation, “Short of Breath — A Social and Intellectual History of Asthma in America.” She is planning to use the money to travel to Denver to view records that may document the history of asthma treatment in the state.

Denver, because of its high altitude, was once considered the prime location where sufferers of asthma sought relief. Due to medical advances and the amount of air pollution that surrounds the mile-high city, that is no longer the case.

“A knowledge of the history of medicine gives a better understanding of treatment problems,” Keirns said. “A policy issue today might have more support than it did 20 years ago because there is a better understanding of the disease.”

Though not asthmatic herself, Keirns became interested in the social and cultural aspect of medicine in 1995 during a summer job. She was asked to look at the correlation between poor living conditions and asthma in North Philadelphia and Kensington. There seemed to be an asthmatic child in every household.

“Asthma seems to be related not only to biology but to poor health and poor social conditions. From a cultural perspective, the inactivity brought on by watching too much television could lead to asthmatic conditions. So might fast food and wall-to-wall carpeting which traps allergens — both of which are fairly modern conventions and could very well contribute to the rise of asthma.”

Even before receiving the grant, Keirns said she knew her work was significant, because at a conference on asthma in New York City, she was confident enough in the depth of her knowledge of asthma to correct some misconceptions about the disease.

Afterwards, an editor from Rutgers University Press asked if she could read Keirns’ book. Keirns said that she didn’t have a book — at least not yet.

Originally published on February 3, 2000