Conservation medicine program to explore links in human, animal and environmental health

Tufts University is bringing together a multidisciplinary team that will be trained to deal with the complexities surrounding human, animal and environmental health.

Tufts University is bringing together a multidisciplinary team -- expected to be comprised of veterinarians, public health experts and others -- that will be trained to deal with the complexities surrounding human, animal and environmental health. The new Master's program in conservation medicine will launch next fall with a small inaugural class.

I spoke last week with Gretchen Kaufman, director of the Tufts Center for Conservation Medicine, about what this program will entail -- and why it matters now.

What is conservation medicine?

Conservation medicine is a relatively new field. It's a one-health approach that tries to take into account intersections of human, animal and environmental health. Conservation medicine is interested in that approach as it relates to conservation and biodiversity. We look at issues affecting wildlife, endangered species, as well as fragile ecosystems that are impacted by human actions. We look at diseases that are shared between humans and animals and particularly those that include some type of environmental component -- whether it's humans causing changes in the environment or changes in the environment affecting disease and health. We also like to think of it as an applied science. It's not just an intellectual exercise. Our goal really is to devise solutions, come up changes, propose ways of responding.

What will the new Master's program entail?

It's a professional program geared toward people who have already achieved some level of expertise in some area and want to go into conservation medicine or conservation science. It's a one-year program without a research component. We're hoping to give the students those special skills associated with conservation medicine that they would not have gotten in their traditional training. The other really key feature of this, which makes it somewhat unique, is we are recreating in the classroom the interdisciplinary environment in which conservation medicine is conducted. In most similar programs, the student body is not as diverse as what we're shooting for. One of the fundamental skills needed now and in the future [is] to be able to work across disciplines in a team setting to come up with a solution. The problems we're dealing with now are going to require that kind of cooperation.

What do you mean by a diverse student body?

We're talking about a broad set of skills that people would come [to the program] with. For example, I'd love to see our first class include a couple of veterinarians, a couple of public health practitioners, a medical anthropologist, a lawyer or policy person, a civil engineer. We're going for breadth in the background of our students. That mirrors the type of team one would need to work with professionally on some of these complex issues in the real world.

So there isn't just one career path all your Master's students are working toward.

Exactly. It isn't the purview of any individual discipline to deal with these problems. It really has to involve this team of cooperation. They all have to be able to talk to each other, understand each other's values, know some of the technical jargon of the other disciplines. That's the kind of training we are going to provide.

One of the topics you'll cover is the effect of human activities on endangered species. Talk about that.

There are a lot of sensitive issues. One is where endangered species live -- in areas close to protected parks where there are conflicts between what the local human community needs for food and livelihoods and what is being asked for species conservation. Another area that's really compelling is where human activities and our rapid population and development growth are changing the environment. [This relates to] roads and dams and cities and how they're impacting the environment and, consequently, wildlife. Sometimes those impacts are quite delayed and not obvious.

Another area you'll study is the impact of climate change on biodiversity. Talk more about that.

That's very wrapped up with what people are looking at with regard to climate change and what's going to happen to people. The most dramatic affects of climate change are occurring now in the Arctic. There are changes in food supply and migration patterns of certain animals that could affect their health. This is very early, but we're anticipating various problems we might be seeing with regard to health and population numbers. We're also seeing affects of climate change on ocean temperatures. Changes in water, like desertification, are going affect people, but also the animals. [Much] is being written about how climate change is going to affect humans, but less [of that work looks at] migratory patterns of passing birds or diseases carried by mosquitoes. We're looking for those kinds of things.

Why is now the right time for this new program?

There's this groundswell of understanding with the one-health movement. This idea that we need to pay attention to not just people and not just animals, but all of us together, is very important. The problem has been that our degree of specialization from an academic perspective has created very defined professions that aren't good at talking to each other. There are barriers to working cooperatively on some of these very complex problems. Those are falling down now. This program is one of several trying to figure out the best way to do that. The solutions are going to have to come pretty fast now. The crisis is accelerating.

Image: Gretchen Kaufman

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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