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Vice President’s Visit to the University of Miami Opens the Doors to Funding for the Department of Public Health Sciences

Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami. Harris announced a Federal Initiative to combat the climate crisis – specifically in Florida – which opens a greater opportunity not just for the Department of Public Health Sciences but for every community in the state. During the two-hour visit, Harris also explored the institution's climate research projects, including a coral reef coastline protection project and the Alfred C. Glassell Jr. SUSTAIN Laboratory, which simulates Category 5 hurricane conditions.

“To live in a coastal community is to be on the front lines of the climate crisis,” stated Harris. 

Harris emphasized the gravity of the climate crisis, stating that it poses a danger not only to the United States but to the entire world and that every community is at risk. She also highlighted that the impact of climate change affects communities disproportionately, with poor, rural, and communities of color often being hit the hardest and being the least prepared and able to recover from the impacts of climate change.

The Vice President divulged a new initiative to finance climate-related projects.

Harris was proud to announce a new Climate-Ready Coasts initiative, which will allocate $562 million to help 149 coastal communities in the U.S. to launch climate resilience projects – with Florida receiving $78.7 million.

The initiative comprises various nature-based solutions, such as the restoration of mangroves, the addition of oyster reefs, and the planting of lab-grown corals. These solutions serve to mitigate the effects of tropical storms and hurricanes, while simultaneously helping to clean oceans by filtering out polluted runoff from urban areas.

Harris also stated that natural infrastructure – which reduces the impact of storm surges and hurricanes – is often more effective than concrete barriers and retaining walls.

The Vice President acknowledged the importance of the University's research and its contribution to climate change solutions. 

The Department of Public Health Sciences (DPHS) at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine is at the forefront of climate and health research and training, and its translation to community actions. Its faculty members are conducting research on the health impacts of climate change, including the effects of extreme weather, air pollution, and the spread of infectious diseases. 

In the Fall of 2020, DPHS, in partnership with the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, launched a transdisciplinary graduate degree – Master of Science in Climate and Health (MSCH) – the first degree program in Climate and Health in the United States at that time.

The program trains and equips aspiring professionals, research analysts, planners, decision-makers, and leaders with the knowledge and skills needed to address the short and long-term health impacts of climate change and climate-sensitive environmental stressors. 

Through its research, the department has identified several areas where climate change is expected to have the most significant impact on public health in South Florida.

Dr. Naresh Kumar, Professor, and Director of the Graduate Program in Climate and Health, said “These include intensifying the burden of allergies, asthma, and immunological disorders; health-related illnesses such as cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases; increasing risk of vector-borne diseases; intensifying the burden of unintentional injuries; and intensifying the risk of pulmonary diseases due to exposure to Saharan Dust.” 

Student Austin Wells in Front of Poster at the Climate and Health Symposium
M.P.H. Student Austin Wells

Faculty and students firsthand witness, assess and examine the health effects of climate-sensitive environmental stressors. DPHS recently held its 6th annual Climate and Health Symposium, bringing together experts and stakeholders from diverse fields to discuss the latest research and innovative solutions to address the health impacts of climate change.

During the symposium, students and graduate researchers also had the opportunity to present their posters, showcasing their findings and recommendations for mitigating the adverse effects of climate change on public health.

The department is actively engaged in developing the frontiers of climate and health research to guide future policies and train future generations of healthcare and public health professionals to mitigate the health impacts of climate change. Researchers are evaluating the efficacy of urban green spaces in mitigating heat stress and chronic diseases. They are assessing global and regional ecological transformations that increase the risks of vector-borne and other infectious diseases. Faculty are also conducting environmental surveillance in real-time to facilitate prompt interventions aimed at reducing the burden of asthma and allergies.

Gradute Johnathon Penso in Front of Poster at the Climate and Health Symposium
Johnathon Penso, M.S.C.H. Candidate '23

DPHS is committed to addressing the complex challenges posed by climate change and its impact on public health. Through its innovative research and interdisciplinary collaborations, the department is leading the way in developing solutions to protect the health of communities in a changing world.

“Academia bears a social responsibility to create and share knowledge on climate health, and the University of Miami and DPHS’ unwavering commitment to this cause serves as a testament to our collective efforts,” said Dr. Elahe Nezami, Professor in the Division of Health Services Research & Policy and Director of Online Programs.

The Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County is an example of an organization that DPHS collaborates with in an effort to apply research and knowledge to promote planetary resilience. Students are actively working on novel strategies aimed at mitigating heat stress and vector-borne and infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

Harris' visit highlights the importance of the department’s research in addressing the impacts of climate change on public health. She called for continued investment in research and the development of evidence-based policies to protect public health in the face of a changing climate.

The federal government's acknowledgment and support of the climate crisis greatly impacts the scientific community, creating new opportunities for study, employment, and training. 

“We still have time to make a difference,” asserted Harris.

Written by Deycha Torres Hernández
Published on May 2, 2023