A leaf litter study in an Australian mangrove set Elizabeth Rhoades on her public health trajectory. While mucking through the ecosystem, the UCLA undergraduate learned that proper stewardship of the area was not only vital to native flora and fauna, but also to humans.
In the case of climate change, mangroves provide a critical barrier to sea- level rise and related flooding. Amid the brackish water, the Arizona native found her calling.
“I believe that the health consequences of climate change are already a crucial health challenge on the international stage, and will continue to grow into one of the major challenges of this century,” she says.
Rhoades feels drawn to the health effects of climate change, in particular those related to flooding, changing water patterns and water availability. She plans to focus her dissertation on how populations adapt, by building coastal defenses, for example, in order to reduce impacts on health.
Interactions between the environment and health do not begin and end in a wetland, however. How local governments manage the built environment (sidewalks, streets, open spaces, etc.) and fresh food availability will also have a profound impact on future generations, Rhoades says.
Despite a growing wealth of scholarship on exercise and nutrition, obesity rates in America continue to rise. New ways to tackle behavior change must be found, she says, whether it’s replacing candy bars with carrot sticks in vending machines or improving the public transit system to encourage people to incorporate walking into their daily routine.
“It’s very important that public health continue to advance our understanding of how the environments in which we live—both the ones we build and the natural environment—affect our health,” she says.
Climate Change Liaison, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Environmental Health Division