Students link human and planetary health

Ben Mays, a Stanford medical student, has been interested in the connection between the natural world and human well-being since childhood in the woods of Maine, where his family grew their own produce and spent a lot of time outdoors.

Artist Jean Shin (left) and professor of pediatrics Desiree LaBude describe their collaboration to raise awareness of the health risks of plastic waste and its connection to infectious disease. (Image credit: Erika Weidis)

“I have always had a close relationship with the world and the ecosystems around me, and a sense of dependence on them for my well-being,” he said. As a medical student, he joined student groups active in climate and health, advocating for the inclusion of climate change in the medical curriculum.

Maynes sought academic tools and frameworks to better understand the relationship between people, the planet, and health – and how he could use this knowledge for his patients. He decided to pursue a master’s degree through the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) along with his medical degree. As part of these studies, he signed up for the Fall 2022 course, which is being offered through the Doerr School of Sustainability, human and planetary health, Interdisciplinary curriculum is cross-listed in the medical school as well as biology and sociology.

Mains was one of more than 100 students from diverse backgrounds and fields of study who were drawn to the course as the launch of the Door School of Sustainability sparked increased interest in classes addressing climate change, its impacts and solutions.

Giulio De Leo said, “This year, we saw a lot of student interest in using a systems thinking approach to understand how environmental degradation affects human health, and to recognize the inequities and environmental justice challenges that marginalized most impact the communities in which they live. One of the four course instructors.

De Leo, professor of oceans and Earth system science and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, launched the class as a mini-course for 12 students in 2018 with Cathy Burke, who is now the Human and Planetary Health lead Lecturer at Woods Institute and Dore School; Steve Luby, associate dean of global health research; and Dr. Suzanne Sokolow, executive director of the Stanford Program for Disease Ecology, Health and the Environment (DEHE). At the time, human and planetary health was still an emerging field, kickstarted by a 2015 Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet commission on the topic.

During the pandemic they converted the course into a full-length offering, which attracted about 20 students in 2020 and 55 in 2021. This year, she increased class capacity to 100 to meet student interest with co-instructor Erica Wedis, Planetary Health Program. Manager at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health.

The curriculum takes advantage of the extensive network and academic community created through three Stanford Institutes: DEHE, the Center for Innovation in Global Health, and the Woods Institute for the Environment. Their joint activities under the Healthy Planet, Healthy People initiative of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

The course focused on how to connect knowledge with action, Burke said. He said that the last block of the curriculum emphasizes on the levers of change and various options to engage the students based on their future studies and interests.

action is expected

Rebecca Spencer, a graduate student in the Earth Systems Program, discovered the curriculum while searching for classes that could shed light on how to contribute to solutions to larger issues like climate change. After sitting in on a class, she was inspired by the passion of the instructors and struck by the concept of human and planetary health, which was new to her.

Spencer and her classmates explore human and planetary health through a series of lectures and case study discussions, highlighting problems and potential solutions in four focus areas: climate and health; pollution; infectious diseases and global change; and food system. Through interactive labs, they discover ways to investigate and take action.

They learned from Bunny Banerjee, director of Stanford ChangeLabs, who highlighted key approaches to understanding complexity and identifying levers for action, and Paul Saffo, a Stanford-based futurist, who explained how to understand multifaceted challenges and anticipate the effects of solutions. published strategies for Indigenous leader and physician-scientist Nicole Redvers demonstrated the power of Indigenous knowledge in addressing planetary health issues, while Stanford pediatric infectious disease specialist and researcher Desiree Labude discussed the connection between ecological change and infectious disease. He also highlighted policy and community-based solutions, including art installations made with recycled plastic waste, a project that will be developed with Stanford artist-in-residence Gene Shin. Luby, a co-instructor, highlighted the power of community participation and circular economies to address sustainability and health concerns in low-resource settings.

Student Ben Mans hiking in the snow on Mount Shasta.

Medical student Ben Mains on an excursion into Mount Shasta with E-IPER students. (Image credit: Catherine Rocchi)

“Stanford students understand the seriousness of the planetary health problems their generation faces. As educators, we need to provide them with the insight and perspective that can help improve the situation,” said Luby .

Burke acknowledged the student engagement and participation: “It was a very community-oriented class, with students sharing reading perspectives and ideas that would shape the course in the future.”

For Mains, the course offered a fresh perspective on a subject that can often feel overwhelming and depressing. “Before taking the class, I was in a place of disillusionment about climate change and planetary health – both at the scale of the challenges, and the depth of social and cultural apathy toward them,” he said. “The speakers and readings left me with a sense of hope for action. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still disillusioned, but at least now I see glimmers of possibility and inspiration in the dark skies of an uncertain future.” Has been

everything is connected

Throughout the course, students engaged in intensive group projects on issues at the nexus of environment and health and came up with real-world solutions, which they presented at the end of the quarter. They considered issues such as antibiotics in aquaculture and the potential consequences for ocean and human health, sea level rise, and air quality concerns from wildfire smoke. They identified specific groups or stakeholders that could make a difference and proposed practical solutions to these complex challenges.

Wedis said she was inspired by the students’ final presentations, which demonstrated their sophisticated, systems-based understanding of how to effect change.

“The saying goes that if you pull a thread, you’ll find it’s connected to the rest of the world,” she said. “The students’ challenge was to deduce the principle of change and find the key levers for influence in a specific planetary health challenge – identifying key stakeholders and how they might be able to influence them.”

For Spencer, the most important achievement was learning about the leverage points at which individuals can influence larger systems affecting human and environmental health. “A key point was that everything is connected and very interdisciplinary, that all these factors influence each other,” she said. “I saw that, even as a student, you can take these points and have the power to make change.”

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