Planetary Health

From the savanna in Kenya to the rainforest in Costa Rica, Dominican’s Dr. Brett Bayles is drawing on Planetary Health – a new discipline that recognizes human health and environmental health are inextricably linked – to help identify solutions to health risks posed by poor stewardship of natural resources.

A new study appearing as the cover story in Nature Sustainability provides a win-win approach to a growing land dispute in Laikipia County in central Kenya. The area hosts about 10 percent of Kenya’s wildlife but no national parks or preserves. About 70 percent of the land is devoted to large-scale ranching and, as the area’s population grows, so does the pressure to expand agricultural and pastoral areas into grasslands now dominated by wildlife.

Bayles, Co-Director of the Global Public Health program and Assistant Professor of Global Public Health, worked on the study led by researchers from Bard College, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, as well as Stanford, The Nature Conservancy, Murang’a University of Technology, and the University of Washington.

The findings suggest that certain management practices can enable humans and their livestock to share territory with zebras, giraffes, elephants and other wild mammals – to the benefit of all.

“Our study examined what happens if livestock and wildlife are integrated in a meaningful way. We looked at different dimensions – wildlife health, human health, and the health of the ecosystem and found that integration improves the health of all three systems,” Bayles says.

“We found a solution that has profound implications for improving the health of humans, animals, and the ecosystems that they depend on.”

Bayles joined the School of Health and Natural Sciences in 2016. He and Dr. Andria Rusk helped to develop Dominican’s Global Public Health program, the only undergraduate global public health program in California. Now he’s excited about advancing Planetary Health research at Dominican in order to draw students into studies involving spatial epidemiology – the examination of disease and its geographic variations.

Currently, Bayles and six undergraduate students are examining the link between rainforest loss and an emergence of the Zika virus in Costa Rica. He believes this could be due to the mass clearing of tropical rainforests to make room for palm plantations as demand grows for palm oil.

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Bayles and some of the students worked on the ground in Costa Rica last summer, observing palm oil plantations and noting environmental conditions that make them suitable breeding grounds for mosquitoes. At Dominican, the Bayles lab is using satellite data from NASA to identify changes in landscape and forest cover in order to measure rainforest loss over time.

“Right now my undergraduates are doing real-life epidemiological investigations.”

Using statistics and spatial modeling in what has become known as the “Space Lab,” Bayles and his students are relying on data to show the relationship between rainforest loss and emerging diseases like Zika and Dengue Fever in the Americas.

After learning the fundamentals of GIS (Geographic Information Systems), the students are analyzing data and, working in subgroups, presenting their findings to peers. Bayles’ long-term goal is to publish a paper co-authored by the Global Public Health students.

“Publishing as an undergraduate is a great way to stand out when applying for grad school,” Bayles notes.

Dominican’s hands-on focus drew sophomore Gabriellah Agar ’21 to select Dominican over a larger UC or CSU campus. As a student at Sacramento’s Sheldon High School, she had developed a love of science in the school’s biotech academy. She selected Dominican because she wanted to dig into research while working alongside faculty mentors.

“With public health you must learn to think upstream by always asking what caused something to happen,” Gabriellah says. “It’s fascinating – sometimes working on a problem can start to sound like a conspiracy theory as you look for connections. I feel like a detective and I love it.”

Gabriellah plans to join the Costa Rica trip next summer – great preparation for her goal of entering Dominican’s master’s program in Healthcare Leadership, and an eventual career focused on policy.

Next semester, Bayles is introducing a new Global Environmental Health class that will incorporate aspects of epidemiology, environmental science, and global health. He also will expand students’ capacity to use GIS software, a specialized form of map-making software. This will prepare the students to study different fields within environmental health by modeling issues such as urbanization and climate change.

Since joining Dominican, Bayles has seen an increase in interest among students in pursuing graduate studies in public health.

“There’s definitely a thirst to take the training they are getting here to the graduate level in order to do impactful work both locally and globally,” he says.

Bayles received his B.A. in Biological Anthropology from the University of California San Diego, and an M.P.H. and Ph.D. in Public Health Studies from Saint Louis University.

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