Environment and Disease

Michael F. Tibbetts
tibbetts@bard.edu
Associate Professor of Biology,
Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
Bard College.
Biology Program Director

Abstract

Environment and Disease is a team-taught laboratory course for first-year students at Bard College that explores the link between environmental factors and large-scale human health problems. The key topics covered are the relationships between global warming and malaria, ozone depletion and skin cancer, habitat fragmentation and lyme disease, and the health impact of persistent organic pollutants such as DDT. To understand these topics students must acquire some basic knowledge in several disciplines, including physics, mathematics, computer science, biology, and chemistry. But students also discover that there are certain ideas and practices that bridge all of these disciplines, including risk assessment, the necessity of evaluating the quality of data, the advantages of using models and their limitations. The course is taught by faculty from multiple fields and each section ends with lectures from a political scientist that offers students a chance to use the scientific knowledge they have gained to inform their discussions of the political issues.

The laboratories are designed to give the students an appreciation of the challenges of collecting data that could be used in the formulation of public policy. There are laboratories that focus on computer modeling, the use of statistics as they are applied to epidemiological studies, and the acquisition of proxy (indirect) data to infer conditions present before reliable measurements could be made. These laboratory experiences give the student a hands-on experience in the collection of scientific data specifically as it is used in public policy debates.

To further reinforce the connections between science and public policy, students are required to write a paper on an article or set of related articles from the popular or technical press that addresses a topic related to one of the problems addressed in the course, but not directly covered by it. It is expected that the paper will integrate both the scientific and political aspects of its subject.

Course Learning Objectives

  • Expose students early in their careers to the value of multidisciplinary approaches and to faculty from multiple fields.
  • Expose students to the laboratory. Specifically, to: different strategies for asking questions, the importance of how data is gathered and the use of quantitative techniques in interpreting data.
  • Give students the opportunity to engage in informed discussions of the topics covered in the course and the public policy surrounding them.
  • Give students a sense of the importance of models in scientific inquiry.
  • Foster the development of “fearless scientists”, who pursue answers to questions without being hindered by disciplinary boundaries.

The Course

Syllabus

Syllabus for Environment and Disease

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Course Format

The course met twice a week for 1 hr and 20 minutes and once a week for 2 hr and 30 minutes for the laboratory. Although there were different lecturers, one faculty member was present at every meeting and provided continuity – periodically interrupting a lecture to point out connections to other lectures. Because of the diversity of faculty teaching, the lecture format varied significantly from standard lectures to class discussions to small groups working on problems. In addition to the three exams, paper and five laboratory reports, there were also periodic homework assignments.

Malaria: Environment and Disease Labratory

Malaria Lab

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Climate Modeling: Part A: The Energy Balance Model

The Energy Balance Modeling Lab 

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Climate Modeling: Part B: The Java Climate Model

The Java Climate Model

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Using Tree Rings as Indicators of Past Climates

Tree Ring lab

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Linking Science and Social Issues

What Basic Science is Covered and How is it Linked to Public Policy Questions?

This course is broad in its scope, however a few themes clearly link science and public policy. They are: risk assessment, the necessity of evaluating the quality of data, the advantages of using models and their limitations, and the roles of multiple scientific disciplines in the debate. Our ability to successfully deal with the problems addressed in this course will require scientific and political collaboration and therefore the ability to communicate across many disciplines is essential. Some basic understanding of chemistry, physics, computer science and biology will make for a well-informed participant in the debate.

What Strategies Does the Course Use to Both Advance Science Education and Foster Civic Engagement?

The entire premise for the course is the need for a multidisciplinary approach to formulate meaningful public policies. The introductory lecture for each topic is used to define the scientific and political issues. The course is taught by individuals from multiple fields and the sections each end with lectures from a political scientist. These lectures in particular are a chance for the students to use the scientific knowledge they have gained to inform their discussions of the political issues.

The laboratories are designed to give the students an appreciation of the issues involved in collecting data that could be used in public policy debates. There are laboratories on computer models, their strengths and limitations; the use of statistics as they are applied to epidemiological studies; and the acquisition of proxy (indirect) data to infer conditions present before reliable measurements could be made. It is our belief that these experiences will give the students a realistic view of scientific data specifically as it is used in public policy debates. Finally, each student is required to write a paper on a topic relating to the course but not directly covered by it. It is expected that the paper will cover both scientific and political aspects of their topic.

A Table Showing the Links Between Science and Civic Issues

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What are the Capacious Civic Questions or Problems Addressed in the Course?

Many of the problems facing society today occur at unprecedented scales. Global warming, water contamination by persistent organic pollutants, the loss of stratospheric ozone and the loss of biological diversity are a few examples of human generated large scale problems that have both direct and indirect impacts on human health. How we deal with issues like these will affect millions or even billions of lives, and will largely define this period in history. We believe that in order to successfully deal with these challenges, we must develop new approaches and foster new attitudes about science for both practitioners of science and the general population.

The course we have developed, intended for first year students, deals with these issues head on and from multiple perspectives. Because of the complexity and scale of the problems a multidisciplinary approach is essential. We approach each of the topics addressed above from physical, chemical, computational, biological and political perspectives. Our goal is to give the students an appreciation for the scope of the problems and the need for multidisciplinary approaches to fully understand and devise solutions for them. In addition, the global nature of these problems means the solutions will require large-scale public policy changes and international cooperation. We feel students need to be aware of the unique challenges these present and have therefore incorporated a discussion of the political history and issues of each of the topics.

Evaluating Learning

All examples of Learning Evaluation can be found in The Course section of this model course.

Related Resources

Text

Ecosystem Change And Public Health. eds. J.L. Aron & J.A. Patz. The Johns Hopkins University Press. © 2001

Outside Resources

  • A guide to the climate change convention and its Kyoto protocol http://unfccc.int/resource/guideconvkp-p.pdf
  • Epstein, P.R. Is global warming Harmful to Health? Sci Am. 283 : 50-57 (2000)
  • Desowitz, R.S. In another village a mother dies.
  • Chapter 8 of The Malaria Capers: More Tales of Parasites and People, Research and Reality. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991, pp. 107-122.
  • Roueché, B. Shiver and burn. The Orange Man and Other Narratives of Medical Detection. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971, pp. 39-68.
  • Pocklington, R., Drinkwater, K. and Morgan, R. Reasons for Scepticism about Greenhouse Warming Canadian Chemical News. October 1993; pg.19-22
  • Karl, T.R., Nicholls, N. and Gregory, J.The coming climate. Sci Am . 276: 78-83 (1997)
  • McGuffie, K. and Henderson-Sellers, A. A History of and Introduction to Climate Models.
  • Chapter 2 of A Climate Modelling Proimer 2nd edition. John Wiley and Sons Inc. © 1999
  • Smith, T.M., Karl, T.R. and Reynolds, R.W. How Accurate Are Climate Simulations? Science296: 483-484 (2002)
  • Grassl, H. Status and Improvements of Coupled General Circulation Models Science288: 1991-1997 (2000)
  • Reiter, P. From Shakespeare to Defoe: Malaria in England in the Little Ice Age. Emerging Infectious Diseases6:1-11 (2000)
  • Zucker, J.R. Changing Patterns of Autochthonous Malaria Transmission in the United States: A Review of Recent Outbreaks Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2:37-43 (1996)
  • Garrett, L. Health Transition: The age of optimism – setting out to eradicate disease. From: The Coming Plague: newly emerging diseases in a world out of balance. Farrar Straus and Giroux ©1994
  • Sachs, J. and Melaney, P. The economic and social burden of malaria. Nature415: 680-685 (2002)
  • Martens, W.J.M., Niessen, L.W., Rotmans, J., Jetten, T.H., and McMichael, A.J. Potential Impact of Global Climate Change on Malaria Risk. Environ. Health Persp . Volume 103 (1995)
  • Rogers, D.J. and Randolph, S.E. The Global Spread of Malaria in a Future, Warmer World Science 289:1763-1766 (2000)
  • Dye, C & Reiter, P. Temperatures Without Fevers? Science289 : 1697-1698 (2000)
  • Butler, D. What difference does a genome make? Nature419: 426-428 (2002)
  • Miller, L.H. and Brian Greenwood, B. Malaria – a Shadow over Africa. Science298:121-122 (2002)
  • Clarke, T. Mosquitoes minus malaria. Nature419: 429-430 (2002)
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants, pg. 9
  • estrogen receptor web site http://www.ks.uiuc.edu/Research/pro_DNA/ster_horm_rec/dbd/
  • Safe, S.H. Endocrine disruptors and human health – Is there a problem? Environ Health Perspect. 108 487-493 (2000)
  • Longnecker, M.P., Rogan, W.J. and Lucier, G. The human health effects of DDT (dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and an overview of organochlorines in public health. Annu. Rev. Public Health. 18: 211-44 (1997)
  • Fisher, B.E.. Most Unwanted persistent organic pollutants. Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 107, Number 1, January 1999
  • Ozone Depletion & Skin Cancer, pg. 10 Leffell, D.J. and Brash, D.E. Sunlight and Skin Cancer. Sci Am.275 :52-59 (1996)
  • Harvard Health Letter. July 2000. Skin Cancer: Is Sunscreen an Enabler?
  • Ostfeld, R. The ecology of Lyme-disease risk. American Scientist, 85:338-346 (1997)Ostfeld R. and Keesing F. Biodiversity and disease risk: the case of Lyme Disease Conservation Biology , 14: 722-728 (2000)