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ColoradoSPH Takes On Climate Threats to Human Health with First-of-its-Kind PhD Program

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Written by Tyler Smith on August 28, 2023

The Colorado School of Public Health on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is preparing to play a lead role in investigating and responding to the rapidly intensifying effects of global climate change.

The school is launching the nation’s first PhD program that focuses specifically on climate change and its multiple impacts on people’s health and the communities where they live. The inaugural class of the PhD in Climate & Human Health program is set for the Fall 2024 semester, said program director Katherine James, PhD, MSPH, MSCE, associate professor of environmental and occupational health and in the Center for Health, Work & Environment at ColoradoSPH. 

The Department of Environmental and Occupational Health has a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program that trains students for public health leadership, James said. The new PhD program will provide training for students interested in transdisciplinary research and education as the next generation to tackle the impact of climate on health.

James said the new PhD program springs from a now well-established move of the department toward the study of the growing impact of climate change on worker health and safety. She has contributed to that with research in the San Luis Valley on the health challenges posed to residents by drought, dust storms, wildfires and other climate-driven changes.

“When you establish a PhD program, you want to focus and center on your department’s expertise,” James said.

Contributing to a broad area of climate change study

The PhD program promises to bolster existing climate change and human health study from the Center for Health, Work & Environment (CHWE), James said. The center recently launched its Targeted Research Training Program in Climate and Worker Safety and Health (TRT), a first-of-its-kind training program led by Lee Newman, MD, MA, director of the CHWE. The TRT will offer funding and training opportunities to students in the new PhD program who are focusing on climate impacts in occupational cohorts, James said.

In addition, James and senior research instructor Miranda Dally lead CHWE’s Climate, Work and Health Initiative. That program offers graduate students opportunities to explore how extreme heat, droughts, flooding, increases in air and water toxins, and other climate-related environmental changes affect the health of workers in agriculture, construction, and other vulnerable occupations.

The broader CU Anschutz Medical Campus is a bastion of climate change research, James noted. For example, under the leadership of Jay Lemery, MD, the University of Colorado School of Medicine offers the nation’s first non-governmental fellowship in Climate and Health Science Policy. Lemery also co-directs the Climate & Health Program with Rosemary Rochford, PhD, for clinicians concentrating on understanding and addressing the health effects of climate change. Both Lemery and Rochford have secondary appointments in ColoradoSPH in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.

Addressing the layered challenges of climate change and health

James called climate change a “complex problem with multiple prongs.” The PhD in Climate & Human Health program therefore takes a transdisciplinary approach that aims to address a variety of issues. For example, James noted the work of multiple researchers at CU exploring the impacts of drought on water and air quality, wildfire smoke exposure, disaster preparedness and response, water- and vector-borne disease modeling, and justice, equity, and social determinants of health.

“Research is focusing on acknowledging the impact of climate on human health and adaptation and mitigation strategies that can be implemented now,” James said.

Other key areas of the coursework include applying ethical principles to research and strengthening the ability to communicate research findings to a variety of audiences. James pointed to the communications course, which Newman and Liliana Tenney, DrPH, MPH, have led for several years, as vitally important.

“We are requiring it because we think it is an integral part of being an effective researcher and trainer,” she said.

Another broad purpose of the PhD program is to help establish a workforce equipped to address the climate change challenge head on, James concluded. She called the work a step in “planting the seeds of innovation” in an area vital to the future of public health.

“We will have the next generation of educators, trainers, researchers, and policymakers who can protect human health and also support populations, workforces and communities in adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change on human health,” she said.