New UW-Madison Planetary Health Scholars Program Creates Synergy for a Healthier Future

An engineer, an anthropologist and a nurse meet for dinner. One studies the costs and benefits of aquaponics to health and the environment. One delves into how different populations understand and talk about the world. The third looks at issues of justice and caring for people in the context of their environment.

By sharing ideas, these Planetary Health Scholars, part of a new scholarship program announced jointly today by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute (GHI), and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies hope to find new insights into their work and new paths toward a sustainable, healthy tomorrow for humans and the planet.

The Planetary Health Graduate Scholarship program is among the first of its kind in the nation and brings students and their advisors together from across campus to explore how humans are changing the planet and recognize the health consequences of those choices. Together, they will work toward solutions that benefit the health of humans and ecosystems.

“Planetary health recognizes that global environmental conditions are inextricably linked to the health of populations,” says GHI Director Jonathan Patz, the John P. Holton Chair of Health and the Environment who leads the new program. “It is an orientation that makes us recognize that to sustain improved human health, we can no longer ignore the health of ecosystems. If we don’t step up to this challenge, these problems will undermine all progress we’ve made in economic development and human health.”

Through the Planetary Health Scholars program, GHI brings together students and faculty who already understand the links between ecosystems and health but probably have not met each other will be brought together in a collaborative environment. “We want to build momentum around these endeavors,” Patz says. “As these students from various departments work together, share ideas and support one another, we anticipate a ripple effect across campus, the community and the world.”

The new scholarships are funded by a gift from UW alumni Dave and Sarah Epstein, who are also members of the GHI Board of Visitors. They will be co-administered through GHI and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, where Patz serves as a member of the faculty.

Applications will be open February 1 to March 1, 2020, for the 2020-2021 academic year. Learn more.

The first, semester-long cohort of Planetary Health Scholars includes six students and their advisors from the schools and colleges of Nursing, Letters & Science, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering and the Nelson Institute. Students’ interests range from food insecurity and sustainable agriculture to natural disaster preparedness, environmental justice and communication across cultures.

“The problems facing the world are systemic problems,” says Ramin Ghamkhar, a doctoral candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering who studies the sustainability of food production systems, especially aquaponics. “We need systemic solutions for systemic problems, so we need different perspectives to be able to tackle solutions that are practical and stable. The Planetary Health program is the best chance to get connected to people with the same concerns but different perspectives.”

Ramin Ghamkhar

“If we try to solve problems using the same perspectives with the same stakeholders, we’ll come up with the same solutions we always have,” says Andrea Hicks, Ghamkhar’s advisor and an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering. She adds that looking through just one lens can lead to disastrous results: “We need to ask those who haven’t been heard. … It’s working with people who aren’t engineers to think about things differently.”

Pearly Wong, a doctoral student in Cultural Anthropology who has been working in rural Nepal, studies the context in which different populations use words as a key to building bridges between cultures. The Nepalese people she works with have been exposed to global discussions about development and recognize they are considered the least developed country by several indicators. “The term ‘climate change’ doesn’t mean much to them, even though they talk a lot about changing monsoons, changing rainfall amounts, increasing landslide events, increasing flooding events,” she says. “Climate change is a term from outside.”

Pearly Wong

In the context of the Nepalese community, sustainability is about the outmigration of young people, not climate change, Wong says. “Everybody’s leaving and going abroad, so all the production work is being stalled. They’re concerned about how to sustain the productivity and social life of the village.”

Wong hopes she can share perspectives that will help make the idea of planetary health more meaningful across communities, instead of it just being another cosmopolitan term that is not relevant.

Jessica LeClair, a nursing doctoral student and a clinical faculty member, says planetary health speaks to the language of public health nursing. “Nurses worry about context, and planetary health is about the context—the social, economic, political and ecological environments—in which we live that has implications for our health,” she says. “It’s important to have a broad understanding of how all these different areas are related, and planetary health broadens the conversation about effective strategies.”

Jessica LeClair

Through the study of planetary health, LeClair will explore many questions about justice for all species and ways to avoid colonial-era assumptions. “If we want to care for human society today and into the future in the face of planetary collapse and societal breakdown, how do we adjust our practice to be in alignment with a world we want to create that’s sustainable?”

“The Planetary Health Scholars program will create new ambassadors for planetary health,” says Valerie Stull, a GHI postdoctoral research associate who helped develop the program. “Our scholars may or may not have known much about the specifics of the planetary health movement, although their research was already parallel to the planetary health dialog,” she says. “Now, the students are going to know about it, and my hope is that they will go on in their studies and their careers to be ambassadors for holistic thinking, incorporating planetary health no matter what they’re doing. We’re hoping to change people’s perspectives and empower them.”


Here are the Spring 2020 Planetary Health Scholars:

School of Nursing:
Jessica LeClair with advisor Susan Zahner

College of Letters & Science (L&S):
Pearly Wong with advisor Maria Lepowsky

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS):
Martin Ventura with advisor Susan Paskewitz

L&S and CALS:
Ben Iuliano with advisor Claudio Gratton

College of Engineering:
Jonathan Lala with advisor Paul Block
Ramin Ghamkhar with advisor Andrea Hicks

Learn more about planetary health.

By Ann Grauvogl/ January 30, 2020