Training and capacity building is a critical cross-cutting priority for the NIEHS WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences because of its value in helping low and middle income countries address their most pressing environmental health problems. To raise awareness about the importance of training for scientists from developing countries, the first NIEHS Global Environmental Health (GEH) Day on June 29 highlighted opportunities in global environmental health for international fellows and personal stories from NIEHS fellows and emerging leaders.
Mike Humble, PhD, of NIEHS shared insights into the Global Environmental and Occupational Health (GEOHealth) program. The GEOHealth program supports seven institutions in low and middle income countries in three continents that will serve as regional hubs for collaborative research and training activities in environmental and occupational health. GEOHealth Hubs are supported by two coordinated linked awards to 1) a LMIC institution for research and 2) a U.S. institution to coordinate research training. The GEOHealth program is a Fogarty International Center-led collaboration with NIEHS, CDC/NIOSH, NCI, and the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Tammy Collins, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows’ Career Development, described how her program augments laboratory experience through additional training in leadership and communication.
Sara Terry, Ph.D., of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is helping train scientists and public health professionals in foreign countries on how to improve health outcomes by improving air quality. EPA created an open source tool named Benmap, which calculates the number and economic value of air pollution-related deaths and illnesses. Terry and colleagues are now conducting trainings around the world in how to use Benmap to help inform decision makers about the health benefits from air pollution emission reductions.
North Carolina’s Triangle region hosts numerous international students and fellows, making it a key contributor to building capacity in other countries and also giving NIEHS and other local institutions a unique resource to make personal connections and to better understand environmental health challenges in low-and middle-income countries.
Srishti Shrestha, Ph.D., an NIEHS visiting fellow from Nepal, spoke about the environmental factors contributing to that country’s struggles with infectious diseases and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She noted that COPD is the leading cause of death in Nepal, likely stemming from the use of biomass as cooking fuel and air pollution from the rapid growth of industrialization. Nepal also faces record-breaking natural disasters and continued political unrest. These difficulties hinder funding opportunities for research, especially more innovative, high-risk projects. Shrestha explained that the situation is improving as international researchers increase efforts there and said that more Nepalese are traveling to developed countries for training and higher education. The hope is that increased public health education, awareness, and policy making will improve conditions in Nepal.
Coming from the Punjab Province in Pakistan, NIEHS visiting fellow Salik Hussain, Ph.D., hopes to prove that environmental protection and economic growth can go hand in hand. With emergent and critical environmental health issues overwhelming an underdeveloped health care system, Pakistan struggles to combat and control infectious diseases such as polio, tuberculosis, dengue fever, and waterborne illnesses. Air pollution from particulate matter as well as high levels of lead, cadmium, and chromium are affecting the daily lives of individuals, especially children. Hussain now studies the health impacts of cerium oxide, a nanoparticle used as a diesel fuel additive to reduce particulate matter in diesel exhaust. He concluded by recommending more investment in public health education and better police enforcement for proper implementation of public health policies in his home country.
Osborn Kwena, a Duke-UNC Rotary World Peace Fellow from Kenya and a graduate student in the UNC Chapel Hill Gillings School of Public Health, spoke about how, having grown up in urban Kenya, he was shocked to find unfit living conditions, such as unsafe drinking water and open defecation practices, in rural areas where he worked. Kwena described how his mentors helped him to go back to school to achieve a more global perspective to health problems and their solutions. He raised concerns about governments finding funding for research and whether the poor will be fairly represented during the decision- and policy-making process. He plans to return to his home country to help create change after he completes his studies at UNC.
Temini Ajayi, selected by the Triangle Global Health Consortium as an Emerging Global Leader for 2016, spoke of his desire to create opportunities to expose young children to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Coming from Nigeria, where he feels the education system fails children, he said that if efforts begin early to ‘make GEH cool’ for kids, they will become more informed and motivated to choose GEH careers. He believes practical experiences and providing the proper setting for children can build their curiosity, and he has started a program that does this in Nigeria. Although he believes that outside organizations can improve conditions in developing countries, he recommended more focus on generating interest and getting kids into a research training pipeline earlier to help solve GEH problems.
Offering the unique opportunity to see GEH challenges through the eyes of young scientists, the first GEH Day helped connect NIEHS and Triangle region global health communities to the realities of trying to improve living conditions and public health on the ground. NIEHS will continue to support training and capacity building activities and to collaborate with regional and international partners to achieve its mission of promoting healthier lives through global leadership.
Please check out the video of their stories here.