Profile: Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, MD

Advancing Equity & Environmental Health

July 27, 2020

Physical activity is key to reducing many health risks, but in urban neighborhoods, kids’ opportunities to play outside are often near busy streets with high levels of traffic-related pollution, which can contribute to conditions like asthma. How do these factors interact and how do they affect health outcomes? These are some of the major questions pediatric pulmonologist Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, MD seeks to answer through her research. She focuses on disparities in health outcomes for underrepresented minorities, urban environmental exposures, and the association between air pollution exposure and physical activity patterns among young people.

By equipping a group of adolescents with monitors to track location, activity, and air pollution, Dr. Lovinksy-Desir has uncovered several key findings: many young people in New York City engage in the majority of their physical activity indoors; when they are physically active outside, it’s beside roads and in spots where air pollution is prevalent. And those who are most active near high-pollution areas in warmer months tend to have lower lung function. 

Studies like these require big collaborations, and Dr. Lovinsky-Desir is a proponent of team science. As part of the National Institutes of Health–funded Inner City Asthma Consortium, she and colleagues are studying immunotherapies and other medications for children with asthma. She is also working with physician-scientists from academic centers across New York City through the Health Data for New York City (HD4NYC) initiative to decipher large public data sets and better understand the links between housing and asthma. The ultimate goal is to increase health equity among the city’s many populations, she says. “Over the years, I’ve seen that the most impactful results and stories come from these large scale collaborations.” In addition, Columbia is home to a variety of social science and health professionals with a wide range of subspecialties, and is an ideal place for multidisciplinary, collaborative research, she adds.

Over the past months Dr. Lovinsky-Desir has shifted her attention to projects related to COVID-19. Through one study, she reviewed data on respiratory diseases like asthma as risk factors for severe COVID-19. She is also working with the Diversity and Health Equity Committee of the American Thoracic Society to explore why the number of COVID-19 cases as well as mortality rates are disproportionately high among African Americans and Latinos. 

COVID-19 has also changed her clinical work, says Dr. Lovinsky-Desir, as she now sees many patients through telehealth visits. Although she can’t conduct pulmonary function tests or do stethoscope work, she can get a short-term history of asthma behavior and determine if medication is needed or provide anticipatory information. 

Dr. Lovinsky-Desir’s work has been recognized recently by several awards including an Early Career Investigator Award from the Society of Pediatric Research and a Young Investigator Award from the American Society for Clinical Investigation, both in 2019.

All in all, her patient care and research have allowed her both to empower others and to be empowered. “I’ve had this incredible opportunity to promote healthy living in general, and more specifically identify symptoms and provide tools to families so that they are empowered to take care of asthma. At the same time, I have been empowered by my colleagues. I remember calling myself a junior staff member in a meeting and someone said, ‘you’re not anymore.’ That comment made me reflect on how much I’ve grown over the past seven years because of the wonderful people at Columbia, my ASPIRE! network of female peers in research, and so many other people I have been fortunate to learn from as a physician.”