Planetary Health Alliance

Nov 13, 2017

5 min read

Yale-Harvard Planetary Health Retreat

A statement of collaboration


In 2016, graduate student groups at Harvard and Yale Universities recognized the need for solidarity and partnerships on issues pertaining to human health and the environment. It was understood that student groups could and should support each other, not only within but also across their respective universities. This meeting on cross-university collaboration for planetary health was ultimately inspired by the Planetary Health Alliance (PHA)
Inaugural Conference that took place in Boston, Massachusetts in April 2017. We view this inaugural student meeting as a small first step toward enhancing cross-university support and collaboration among student groups that are involved in planetary health.

The PHA defines planetary health as “characterizing the linkages between human-caused disruptions of earth’s natural systems and resulting impacts on public health.” From October 7th-8th, twenty-five students from Yale, Harvard, and Cornell congregated in New Haven, Connecticut for an exploratory workshop to learn from each other’s work, find ways to collaborate and share resources, start taking collective action on planetary health issues, and bring in future partners such as other New England and international universities. This has been a multidisciplinary effort, with participants coming from the fields of public health, medicine, nursing, forestry, environmental science, environmental engineering, agriculture, management and public policy. The meeting agenda included conversations with the Yale University Dean of Nursing, Ann Kurth, PhD, CNM, MPH, FAAN and the Yale School of Public Health — Faculty Director of the Climate Change and Health Initiative, Robert Dubrow, MD, PhD. In addition, participants reviewed planetary health concepts together, presented individual research for feedback, and formed working groups around three themes: 1) translating research in order to inform policy and communicate to the public, 2) tackling health and human rights challenges related to climate change, and 3) improving food security. On the second day, participants drafted a joint statement to clarify the group’s solidarity on planetary health and planned next steps.

This event was co-sponsored by the Health and Environment Club at Yale University and the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative.

Where we stand on the issues

  • The Importance of Planetary Health
  • The Importance of Collaboration
  • Environmental Justice, Equity, and Inclusion

Human health is intrinsically linked to the health of natural systems. Acknowledging and acting upon this relationship is critical to public health, sustainability, and survivability of current and future generations. The emerging movement for “planetary health” seeks to address human health and the stability of ecological systems in tandem.

Planetary health cannot be addressed in isolation. There is a need for transdisciplinary collaboration between academic and professional fields. Only through cross-learning and joint support can practitioners, academics, decision makers, and students make strides to ensure and improve planetary health.

We recognize the disproportionate impacts of planetary health on marginalized populations across the globe, and acknowledge our own privilege existing within academic institutions. We have a responsibility to create a more just and inclusive dialogue, highlighting voices that have traditionally been excluded — either intentionally or inadvertently — from these conversations.

Next steps

Over the course of the weekend, participants set short- and long-term goals for both the group at large and for their thematic breakout groups with focuses on food, climate change and health, and policy implications. First and foremost, in order to share broadly and soonest about our successful meeting of minds, we highly prioritized the timely dissemination of this summative report via university platforms and other appropriate communications channels.

Group collaborations. Breakout groups engaged in productive conversations about potential projects, papers, and other exciting ideas; the possibility of collaboration on a interdisciplinary paper or study leading to an international conference presentation or poster was of particular appeal. Several communications platforms for group work were raised as possible shared online “thinking areas” for continued dialogue and resource sharing; regular check-in calls, Skype conversations, or Slack messaging were also discussed as effective means of staying connected while apart. Project communications norms will be tested by the groups in the coming weeks and finalized shortly thereafter.

Exploring additional alliances. In view of the robust and ever-increasing interest in planetary health across college campuses, we discussed the possibility of including students from other (likely regional) universities at our spring retreat. Through this initial engagement, we could initiate conversations with our like-minded peers from those institutions and see if they might be interested in establishing a formal partnership with us. In addition, we hope to involve more faculty and staff as well as community leaders and environmental justice groups in our events. From an educational standpoint, we are also curious as to how other universities integrate planetary health in their public health and other graduate curricula.

Organizational structure and rebranding. More formal organizational structures (e.g. an executive board, secure funding sources, etc.) will likely be necessary, especially if we expand our current Yale-Harvard alliance beyond a two-university endeavor. We are entertaining the idea of hosting a branding contest to come up with a new name for the organization (complete with a prize).

Spring 2018 retreat and events beyond. We look forward to beginning the planning and preparation necessary for a fantastic spring 2018 retreat, to be hosted by Harvard. The date is slated to be set in the coming weeks, with regular planning meetings then to be scheduled for the months leading up to it. Location-wise, a similar or even more natural setting for the meeting was proposed. Attendees enjoyed the thematic structures in place and agreed it best to retain them for the spring retreat. Additionally, we hope to engage more faculty and hear them present on their relevant work. Brief updates will also be shared by each of the breakout groups on their project progress. Beyond our semi-annual retreat, we also brainstormed one-off event ideas, such as a 24-hour “Planetary Health-athon” (a la MIT’s famous “Hacking Medicine” hackathon) to stimulate further cross-institutional dialogue and spawn innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to solving planetary health issues.

This statement of collaboration was written by the attendees of the retreat:

Yale University: Rose Sulentic; Saskia Comess; Sappho Gilbert; Hanna Ehrlich; Rona Chen; Elsie Moore; Trevor Thompson; Yoni Held; Jieqiong (Jean) Zhou; Amruta Nori-Sarma; Annie Arbuthnot; Bowen Chang; Victoria Shirriff

Harvard University: Nicholas Arisco; Matthew Schaefer; Jayson Toweh; Chris Sauer; Jessica Huang; Yun Zhu; Xiaoxing Xing; Angela Shields

Cornell University: Lauren Yeaman

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Planetary Health Alliance or its members.