Johns Hopkins Grad Student Helps Scientists Share Critical Findings
If the Earth's climate is changing, as many researchers believe, how will it affect human health?Will warmer temperatures result in more mosquitos, spreading deadly diseases such as malaria?Will new weather patterns trigger more or harsher hurricanes, leading to more injuries and loss oflife? If events like these are imminent or already occurring, what can public policy makers do toreduce the human suffering?
An ambitious multi-disciplinary study is under way to address questions like these, and its findingsare being posted on a World Wide Web site set up by a Johns Hopkins University engineeringgraduate student. The site, called "Climate Change and Human Health," stems from a three-year,$3 million grant awarded to Hopkins last year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. TheEPA asked researchers to look at how climate change could affect public health and how policymakers should respond..
"One of the key purposes of the grant was to make this research public," says Rebecca Freeman, a26-year-old doctoral student in Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. "Oneof the ways to do that, obviously, is to disseminate our research via the Internet. We're trying toencourage communication among scientists and to collect feedback from informed readers."
The site, located at http://www.jhu.edu/~climate, has received awards for its attractive graphicdesign and easy navigation. Freeman, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, designed the Web site andcontinues to add information as fresh data is developed at Hopkins and 11 other participatinguniversities and government agencies. These partners include the University of Maryland, PennState, Georgia Tech, the National Climate Data Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Web site was proposed by the project's principal investigators, Jonathan Patz, director of theProgram on Health Effects of Global Environmental Change at Hopkins' School of Public Health,and Hugh Ellis, chairman of Hopkins' Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering.Ellis, who is Freeman's doctoral advisor, asked her to create and supervise the site because of herexperience in Web page design. "She did it all," Ellis says. "It's a very good site because of hercreativity, motivation and effort."
Freeman had learned cyber-skills while helping to set up an electronic course for Hopkins' Centerfor Alternatives to Animal Testing. The course was for scientists and others looking for producttesting methods that do not require the use of animals. The "Climate Change and Human Health" site is unrelated to Freeman's doctoral research. Nevertheless, she was able to draw onher diverse academic background, including some demanding science courses she took as aHopkins undergraduate. "I was a typical undergraduate," she recalls. "I didn't know what Iwanted to do. But sometimes the mistakes you make as an 18-year-old turn out to be an assetwhen you're older."
After earning a bachelor's degree in political science, Freeman obtained a master's degree atHopkins' Institute for Policy Studies. "I wrote my master's thesis on the use of animals in eyeirritant testing," she says. "I'm very interested in science policy and the way research isconducted.. Because I have a background in policy studies and in the sciences, I was in the rightplace at the right time for putting together this Web site."
The site allows visitors to learn more about hydrologic models, remote sensing, climate analysisand other research tools. It also provides links to the experts involved in the EPA study and torelated publications and web sites. Freeman hopes to add interactive features that will allowvisitors to access raw data, such as long-term temperature or rainfall figures, then use thatinformation for their own research projects.
She cautions that most of the material on this site is technical in nature. "This site is not set up asa primer on climate change and public health issues," Freeman explains. "If sixth-grade studentsare writing reports on climate change, this is probably not the site for them."
Freeman sometimes hears from earnest Web surfers who misunderstand the purpose of the site. "Iget e-mails from people who say, 'I've got a cough, and I think it's related to climate change. Canyou tell me who to talk to?' " she says. "But these are not really the people we're trying to reach.We are aiming it at the decisions-makers, who could be analysts or government officials, and tothe greater community of scientists."
Eventually, Freeman hopes to become a researcher and policy-maker herself, tackling toughenvironmental issues. "My background is in trying to reconcile changes in bio-diversity withdevelopment," she says. "These issues require a lot of research and a lot of thought about whatthe trade-offs and options are. I don't believe that we have to choose between saving the elephantor feeding starving children. We have to find policies that are environmentally sound but are notdetrimental and do not inhibit development. I don't think those things are mutually exclusive."
(Note to editors: Color slide Rebecca Freeman available; contact Phil Sneiderman.)
Materials provided by Johns Hopkins University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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