Student profile: Rongbin Xu

Dr Rongbin Xu

PhD: The health and epigenetic effects of air pollution, temperature and greenery

Rongbin Xu

Conducting my PhD in this School was a great experience. The large student cohort made me feel part of something larger, and the support staff were always there to remind me about pending milestones, and to celebrate them as they passed.

For seven winters, Rongbin Xu witnessed the thick palls of smog enveloping Beijing. Having recently completed his PhD in environmental health with us, he now has the skills, knowledge and networks to contribute to our medical knowledge around air pollution, climate change and health.

Rongbin was always interested in preventive health; that was the subject of his undergraduate studies at Peking University, and during his Master’s degree, he helped build a tool to identify the most important health indicators for Chinese adolescents. A social media post from a visiting scholar, advertising a PhD position with Professor Yuming Guo, piqued his interest and in 2018 he moved to Melbourne to take up the post.

He says, “Professor Guo’s climate change and air pollution research greatly intrigued me. My project explored the relationship between environmental exposures across air pollution, temperature and level of surrounding greenery, and epigenetic modifications in humans. So rather than looking at how variations in these three things change our actual genes, I looked at how they influence the way our genes are expressed without changing the DNA sequence, known as epigenetic modifications.”

Under supervision from Prof Guo, Prof Michael Abramson and Prof Shuai Li, Rongbin learnt highly technical data linkage and analysis techniques that allowed him to incorporate disparate datasets across climate and genomics, as well as processing satellite imagery and GIS data.  His participant data was sourced from a pre-existing dataset: 479 Australian female twins who had participated in a breast cancer study a number of years prior, and had biobanked blood samples that could be used for epigenetic testing.

“I think the most exciting discovery I made was around how the level of surrounding greenery – so, parks, reserves, bushland – can influence your biological ageing process. It was the first time in the world anyone had used these techniques to explore this question, and the short answer is, it does affect it – we estimated that every 0.1-unit increase in the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index within 500 metres of home was associated with a 0.31-year younger biological age, which is equivalent to a 3% reduction in all-cause mortality.”

For now, Rongbin is continuing to work with Professor Guo’s group.

“Conducting my PhD in this School was a great experience. The large student cohort made me feel part of something larger, and the support staff were always there to remind me about pending milestones, and to celebrate them as they passed.

“My supervisors were wonderful. We hit a stumbling block where the participant data I needed wasn’t available for almost 12 months, but Prof Guo identified gaps on other projects where I could step in and learn the skills I would ultimately need. This meant when I did get the data, I could hit the ground running, and I got some fantastic publications along the way. He was very flexible and supportive of me.”

Read more on Rongbin’s findings around greenery and the ageing process.

Read Rongbin’s researcher profile and publication output.

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