If the Earth's climate is changing, as many researchers believe, how will it affect human health? Will warmer temperatures result in more mosquitos, spreading deadly diseases such as malaria? Will new weather patterns trigger more or harsher hurricanes, leading to more injuries and loss of life? If events like these are imminent or already occurring, what can public policymakers do to reduce the human suffering?
An ambitious multidisciplinary study is under way to address questions like these, and its findings are being posted on a World Wide Web site set up by a Hopkins engineering graduate student. The site, called Climate Change and Human Health, stems from a three-year, $3 million grant awarded to Hopkins last year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA asked researchers to look at how climate change could affect public health and how policymakers should respond.
"One of the key purposes of the grant was to make this research public," says Rebecca Freeman, a 26-year-old doctoral student in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. "One of the ways to do that, obviously, is to disseminate our research via the Internet. We're trying to encourage communication among scientists and to collect feedback from informed readers."
The site, located at http://www.jhu.edu/~climate/, has received awards for its attractive graphic design and easy navigation. Freeman, a native of Cleveland, designed the Web site and continues to add information as fresh data is developed at Hopkins and 11 other participating universities and government agencies. These partners include the University of Maryland, Penn State, Georgia Tech, the National Climate Data Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Web site was proposed by the project's principal investigators, Jonathan Patz, director of the Program on Health Effects of Global Environmental Change at the School of Public Health, and Hugh Ellis, chairman of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. Ellis, who is Freeman's doctoral adviser, asked her to create and supervise the site because of her experience in Web page design. "She did it all," Ellis says. "It's a very good site because of her creativity, motivation and effort."
Freeman had learned cyber-skills while helping to set up an electronic course for Hopkins' Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. The course was for scientists and others looking for product testing methods that do not require the use of animals.
The Climate Change and Human Health site is unrelated to Freeman's doctoral research, which she prefers not to divulge. Nevertheless, she was able to draw on her diverse academic background, including some demanding science courses she took as a Hopkins undergraduate. "I was a typical undergraduate," she recalls. "I didn't know what I wanted to do. But sometimes the mistakes you make as an 18-year-old turn out to be an asset when you're older."
After earning a bachelor's degree in political science, Freeman obtained a master's degree at the Institute for Policy Studies. "I wrote my master's thesis on the use of animals in eye irritant testing," she says. "I'm very interested in science policy and the way research is conducted. Because I have a background in policy studies and in the sciences, I was in the right place at the right time for putting together this Web site."
The site allows visitors to learn more about hydrologic models, remote sensing, climate analysis and other research tools. It also provides links to the experts involved in the EPA study and to related publications and Web sites. Freeman hopes to add interactive features that will allow visitors to access raw data, such as long-term temperature or rainfall figures, then use that information for their own research projects.
She cautions that most of the material on this site is technical in nature. "This site is not set up as a primer on climate change and public health issues," Freeman explains. "If sixth-grade students are writing reports on climate change, this is probably not the site for them."
Freeman sometimes hears from earnest Web surfers who misunderstand the purpose of the site. "I get e-mails from people who say, îI've got a cough, and I think it's related to climate change. Can you tell me who to talk to?' " she says. "But these are not really the people we're trying to reach. We are aiming it at the decisions-makers, who could be analysts or government officials, and to the greater community of scientists."
Eventually, Freeman hopes to become a researcher and policy-maker herself, tackling tough environmental issues. "My background is in trying to reconcile changes in biodiversity with development," she says. "These issues require a lot of research and a lot of thought about what the trade-offs and options are. I don't believe that we have to choose between saving the elephant or feeding starving children. We have to find policies that are environmentally sound but are not detrimental and do not inhibit development. I don't think those things are mutually exclusive."