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Inaugural Climate and Health Scholar Builds Climate and Health Research Capacity at NINR

August 16, 2023
Climate and Health Scholar Dr. Patrice Nicholas

In 2022, NINR Director Dr. Shannon Zenk joined fellow directors from six other Institutes and Centers (ICs) at NIH to lead the Executive Committee for the NIH Climate Change and Health (CCH) Initiative. A key part of the Initiative has been the development of a Climate and Health (CH) Scholars Program, which brings in experts from outside the federal government to share knowledge with NIH employees and helps to build capacity for conducting climate-related and health research. Following a highly competitive selection process, NIH chose eight scientists who began working with NIH staff at their assigned ICs in February 2023.

As part of the inaugural CH Scholars cohort, NINR has been honored to host Patrice Nicholas, DNSc, a teaching professor and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Institute of Health Profession’s Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health, and co-director for Policy and Advocacy at the MGH Center for the Environment and Health. Starting in February 2023, Dr. Nicholas worked on identifying and exploring the contributions that NINR and nursing research can make to NIH’s CCH Initiative, bringing crucial insights to help our Institute’s researchers build climate and health research capacity in the context of our Strategic Plan’s five research lenses.

“I was drawn to NINR because I’m a nurse, of course, but also because of the Institute’s focus on health equity, social determinants of health and population health, and how those fit exceedingly well with the Climate Change and Health Initiative,” Dr. Nicholas said. “Because nursing is the largest segment of the health care workforce and often works in the community, nurses have a key role in educating the public about the health consequences of climate change.”

Dr. Nicholas stressed the importance of interprofessional health education to properly inform the public about the health consequences of climate change. Her scaffolded approach to building research capacity at our Institute began with division- and branch-level forums and lunch and learn seminars, where she discussed the importance of preparing health care professionals across all role groups for climate change, and considered the many adverse health consequences for all in a climate-changing world.

Among these health consequences are:

  • Heat-related illness like heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke, which occur when the body is unable to cool itself in high temperature environments.
  • Exacerbated cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions.
  • Exposure to zoonotic diseases and infections like influenza, Ebola, and COVID-19.
  • Vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, hantavirus, Lyme disease, and Zika virus, which are spread through the bite of an infectious organism that transmits disease — also called a vector –- like fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, and flies.
  • Water-borne diseases like cholera, giardiasis, and cryptosporidiosis.
  • Respiratory diseases and asthma resulting from increased air pollution and poor air quality.

However, Dr. Nicholas emphasized the heightened impact of our climate-changing world on populations and communities that are already experiencing disparate health outcomes, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), persons with low socioeconomic status, and other historically marginalized and underrepresented groups. These populations are projected to experience even more dire health effects of climate change.

Underscoring Dr. Nicholas’ emphasis on interprofessional collaboration in this context, she joined National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) CH Scholar Dr. Lauren Clay on June 21, 2023, to present the third lunch and learn seminar titled Climate Change, Health Disparities, and Research Opportunities. The seminar focused on health equity and social determinants of health topics in CCH research, including gaps and opportunities that nursing research can address.

Dr. Louise Rosenbaum, a Health Science Policy Analyst in NINR’s Division of Science Policy and Public Liaison (DSPPL), served as our Institute’s ambassador, introducing Dr. Nicholas to our personnel, and facilitating meetings, seminars, and discussions with NINR staff.

“Dr. Nicholas was a tremendous addition to the inaugural cohort of the NIH Climate and Health Scholars Program, particularly in the Program’s intent to build capacity in climate and health research across NIH,” Dr. Rosenbaum said. “Her vast knowledge of the literature provided the NINR staff with a robust and relevant introduction to climate and health research, and she raised awareness about topics in climate and health at multiple levels of health care.”

Although Dr. Nicholas’ last day as a CH Scholar was July 1, 2023, the lessons learned through her guidance in this inaugural CH Scholars cohort have been an asset to helping build research capacity at NINR in climate change and health.