Science Wednesday:Listening to the Doctor

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Tarlie Townsend

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland and I have a lot in common. For instance: after getting her medical degree she completed a master’s in public health at Harvard. Just a few days ago, I was looking over the website for that exact degree program!

Hm, I guess maybe we don’t have so much in common after all. Unlike Dr. Brundtland, whose recent talk to EPA staff allowed me to see her up close (and during my first week working in the office!), I wasn’t the youngest and first female Prime Minister of Norway. I also haven’t served as director general for the World Health Organization or as Special Envoy for Climate Change for the UN Secretary General.

But we do share some fundamental interests. Maybe what I should say, then, is that I have a lot to learn from people like her.
Dr. Brundtland’s commitment to sustainable development offers one major example. Although she began her career in medicine, perhaps the most straightforward way to improve human health, her greatest impacts stem from her recognition that a healthy person cannot exist independently of a healthy environment. Rather, we need air we can breathe, water we can drink, food that’s nutritious and non-toxic—and enough of those things. It’s with this realization that she worked to incorporate issues of environmental health and sustainability into policy.

This is inspiring to me for several reasons. As an undergrad considering possible career paths, I’ve questioned whether to pursue public health, environmental science, or science policy. Indeed, a graduate degree requires specialization in some area, but I am seeing now how intrinsically related these fields are—how valuable it is, for instance, for a specialist in environmental science to grasp the relevance of their work to public health and policy, and to collaborate with members of those fields on crucial issues.

Dr. Brundtland addresses EPA staff

Dr. Brundtland addresses EPA staff

Other groups, too, should be involved—businesspeople, for instance. Dr. Brundtland highlighted the value of incorporating sustainability into a company’s business practices: new technologies may simultaneously reduce the environmental impact and improve industrial efficiency, increasing the bottom line in the long run. And since sustainable development is just that sustainable—businesses that apply it may be/are themselves more likely to endure.

In that case, why not pursue business and policy strategies that are both great for business and great for human health?

About the author: Tarlie Townsend – When she’s not pretending to be Dr. Brundtland’s protégé, Tarlie can be found interning with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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