A habitable planet for healthy humans

Cambridge Zero symposium gathers researchers to examine the connections between planetary and public health

Cambridge academics gathered to discuss "planetary health", from the “trapping” of heat and health incidents in high-rise buildings, to microplastics in our “air, water, food, blood and placentas”. 

Climate change is causing the intensification of catastrophic weather events such as extreme heat, storms, droughts and floods. These events put pressure on agriculture, infrastructure, and transport, threatening the global supply of food and medicine.

Additionally, the type of medicines we use or food we eat, and where we source them from, can influence our contribution towards climate change.

"Planetary Health" is concerned with the state of Earth's climate and its relationship to human health.

A range of keynote speakers and early career researchers delved into the applications of their research to climate change, touching on topics such as the risk to food security, the habitability of cities, and the health implications of a warmer world on immunity.

Keynote speakers cut across disciplines

Modelling a healthy "net zero" future: Keynote speakers included Dr Sarah Whitmee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Dr Whitmee shared insights from her work on the Pathfinder Initiative, which aimed to address climate change and public health in unison. Their findings identified the importance of reducing air pollution, adopting healthy diets, and promoting physical activity to protect planetary and public health.

"What if every ministry had a planetary health portfolio?" asked Professor Tolullah Oni, Clinical Professor of Global Public Health and Sustainable Urban Development at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, in her discussion of the links between planetary and population health risks in cities.

"Some of these legumes are resistant to climate extremes," said Dr Nadia Radzman. The Research Associate at the Sainsbury Laboratory encouraged a focus on neglected vegetables, such as the African Yam Bean, in a talk on the importance of diversifying sustainable plant protein sources for ensuring food security.

"We found strong evidence that built environment design is trapping health incidents," said Dr Ronita Bardhan. The Associate Professor of Sustainable Built Environment presented her research on how buildings and human-made spaces affect people's health, particularly with the growing rise in extreme temperatures.

Professor Tolullah Oni, Clinical Professor of Global Public Health and Sustainable Urban Development at the MRC Epidemiology Unit

Professor Tolullah Oni, Clinical Professor of Global Public Health and Sustainable Urban Development at the MRC Epidemiology Unit

A diverse spectrum of perspectives

Early career researchers presented bite-sized talks, sharing their diverse perspectives on critical issues from resilient food supply chains to the impact of heat stress on immunity.

  • Mariel Alem-Fonseca, a PhD researcher from the Department of Engineering, discussed her research evaluating the resilience of the emerging alternative protein industry.
  • Malignant microplastics: Phoebe McElligott, MPhil Student from the Department of Land Economy, introduced a novel framework for understanding plastic pollution, drawing parallels between plastic pollution and infectious diseases like COVID-19.

"The best feature of plastics is actually its worst: its persistence." - Phoebe McElligott

  • Johanna Jung, a PhD Researcher in the Department of Medicine, delved into the links between heat stress and immunity. Notably, her research highlighted a significant hindrance in the development of new immune cells in the bone marrow of mice under heat stress, potentially compromising the body's defence against infections.

“It was a great experience to connect with diverse disciplines and learn how to address planetary health challenges.”

Mariel Alem-Fonseca, Early Career Researcher from the Department of Engineering

Toward a sustainable future

“The event underscored the importance and urgency of interdisciplinary collaboration and proactive measures to secure a healthier and more sustainable future for the planet.” – Cambridge Zero Head of Research Engagement Dr Erik Mackie

To see the full list of talks given at the event, find the symposium programme here.

The event was organised by Cambridge Zero in collaboration with the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge Global Food Security, and Cambridge Public Health, in the Alison Richard Building on 29 November 2023.

Dr Nadia Radzman, Research Associate at the Sainsbury Laboratory

Dr Nadia Radzman, Research Associate at the Sainsbury Laboratory

Cambridge Zero hosts numerous collaborative research symposia each term. To keep up-to-date with Cambridge Zero's latest news and events, sign-up to our research newsletter here.

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Published 13 December 2023

Images: Ellie Austin

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Cambridge Zero is the University of Cambridge’s ambitious climate change initiative, harnessing the power of research to tackle climate change at one of the top global research universities in the world.