EcoHealth Student: Emerging Researcher Awards encourages innovation and leadership

May 10, 2011
Ecosystems and Human Health
Addressing critical population health and environment issues through an ecohealth approach is a common vision shared by four individuals from vastly different parts of the world. Yoseth Ariza Araύjo, Sarah Olson, and Coll Hutchison, winners of the Student Poster Awards, and Dr Susilowati Tana, Ecohealth Research Presentation Award winner, were all recognized for their contributions to the field of ecohealth.

The awards highlight professional excellence in research and "the critical role that students and emerging researchers play in the future of the ecohealth approach," said EcoHealth secretary Dr Margot Parkes. They are also important tools to encourage ecohealth research. The awards were launched at the International EcoHealth Forum (IEF 2008) and, given their success, they will not only continue in London in 2010, the next biannual EcoHealth conference, but will expand to include an Ecohealth Researcher Award and Ecohealth Action Award.

The judging process for the poster presentation was an inspiring experience for the students, who were paired with EcoHealth board members or journal editors to score and discuss the 70 student posters.  Students’ work was evaluated based on its contribution to science and ecohealth. For the presentation award, moderators in each IEF 2008 session were asked to nominate exceptional examples of ecohealth research. A committee reviewed fifteen nominations and selected a winner.

Dr Susilowati Tana: Ecohealth Research Presentation Award

Dr  Tana, founder and director of the Centre for Health Policy and Social Change in Indonesia, received the award for her presentation on dengue vector management. Dr  Tana’s current research focuses on the complex ecological, biological, and social factors contributing to dengue vector density, dengue transmission, and the design of community-centred dengue interventions in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta.

Motivated to take an ecohealth approach by "the failure of past public health approaches in solving problems," Dr Tana said there is a need "to find creative solutions." Her award-winning study raises community perception of dengue prevention, lack of community education, and insufficient intervention capacity as issues to be addressed. She has proposed a number of practical interventions aimed at both the community and household level.

Dr Tana intends "to continuously develop my understanding of the ecohealth concept and how it applies to vector transmitted diseases like dengue" and to work toward community-based solutions. She advises students and new researchers to "get out of their area of expertise and to look at a reality that is very complex—work with communities and other disciplines to develop a complete and transdisciplinary picture of the public health problem before trying to solve it."

Sarah Olson: Student Poster Award

"By tweaking one thing you can help a lot of people," said Sarah Olson, a joint PhD candidate at the  Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work on the cumulative impacts of land use and land cover changes on malaria in the Amazon Basin aims to do just that.

Convinced of the importance of ecohealth, Olson purposefully chose a doctoral project that takes an ecosystem approach to population health. Through her previous epidemiological and medical research, and teaching experience in Africa, she witnessed first-hand how populations and their environments are interconnected.

Her research findings have been surprising and run counter to global temperature-driven malaria predictions. Looking at malaria case data and monthly precipitation patterns in the Amazon Basin, Olson found that the link between malaria and precipitation depends on the extent of open water and wetlands. In areas dominated by wetlands and large rivers, precipitation washes out suitable habitats for the mosquito vectors whereas in non-wetlands, precipitation creates these habitats.

The student poster awards provide extra motivation for students. Olson would like to see the awards continue and the number of students conducting ecohealth research increase. Recognition provides feedback to the students and demonstrates a "commitment to growing the program from the ground level."

Olson plans to continue to integrate environmental science and population health, and is already considering post-doctoral positions that will allow her to do so. "I want to build on what I started—that is to foster relationships and collaborations in Brazil," added Olson, noting her interest in the impact of deforestation on disease transmission in the Amazon Basin.

Coll Hutchison: Student Poster Award

"An amalgamation of ideas and interests" brought Coll Hutchison, a doctoral student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to the world of ecohealth research. About to embark on work in the northeastern province of Misiones in Argentina, Hutchison plans to explore Mbya Guaraní mothers’ perception of how their environment and changes within it affect their children’s health and well-being. He intends to use a mixed methodological approach in an acknowledgement that "there is not one way to doing things."

The award gave Hutchison "a boost of confidence;" he noted that awards in general provide incentives for new students. Another highlight of IEF 2008 for him was the opportunity to meet students from all over the world doing similar work and with shared interests. As the student representative on the 2010 EcoHealth Forum organizing committee, Hutchison remains in contact with many of the fellow students he met — "I see it as a continuing relationship."

Yoseth Ariza Araύjo: Student Poster Award

With a background in epidemiology and rural medicine, Yoseth Ariza Araύjo is well positioned to look at population health issues through an ecohealth lens. Currently finishing his graduate work at the Epidemiological and Population Health Group (GESP), University of Valle in Cali, Colombia, he is investigating the link between environmental exposure to contaminants and the high incidence of birth defects in Cali’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Araύjo assessed the exposure of women to heavy metals, aromatic solvents, total suspended particles, and pesticides. He found that women from these communities were exposed to multiple pollutants in their own homes, and that fish consumption could contribute to exposure. In designing interventions, women’s educational level and the role of the head of the household are important considerations.

Prior to IEF 2008, Araύjo said he sometimes felt isolated in his approach to complex issues. The recognition of his work through the award and the interaction with other students and researchers facing similar challenges has changed that. "The experience of being part of a greater community that shares similar challenges, achievements, and hope is tremendous."

The GESP has embarked on a new initiative with the municipal department of public health, and Araύjo plans to ensure that the ecohealth approach becomes an integral part of this work. He noted the need to overcome colleagues’ perceptions that the ecohealth approach is too difficult and time-consuming.

The 2008 EcoHealth award winners said they are honoured by the individual recognition, but stressed that the awards acknowledge the work of students and emerging researchers in ecohealth as a whole.

"Simply having awards sends the message that these individuals are valued for their efforts in a challenging, interdisciplinary field," said Dr Parkes. The awards recognize groundbreaking work in ecohealth. In the long term, such awards "help create a sense of leadership among recognized students.” Winners become mentors in the Association's student section, where the next generation of ecohealth practitioners and researchers can be found.

Dr Margot Parkes
Secretary, International Association for Ecology and Health (EcoHealth)

Dr Susilowati Tana
Director, Centre for Health Policy and Social Change, Indonesia

Sarah Olson
Joint PhD Candidate, Population Health and Environment and Resources, Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Student Representative, Board of Directors, International Association for Ecology and Health

Coll Hutchison
PhD student, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK
Student Representative, Board of Directors, International Association for Ecology and Health
Yoseth Ariza Araύjo
PhD Student, Epidemiological and Population Health Group (GESP), School of Public Health, Health Faculty, University of Valle, Cali, Colombia

International Association for Ecology and Health
Centre for Health Policy and Social Change, Indonesia
Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), University of Wisconsin-Madison
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK
Epidemiological and Population Health Group (GESP), School of Public Health, Health Faculty, University of Valle, Cali, Colombia
London 2010
Student section of the International Association of Ecology and Health