Climate Change Spurs Scholar’s Pivot to Evidence-Based Policy
Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou has devoted the past decade of her life to characterizing how climate change affects health. A faculty member in the Columbia Mailman School Department of Environmental Health Sciences since 2016, Kioumourtzoglou has applied the tools of biostatistics and epidemiology to vast datasets in her quest to document how air pollution affects pregnancy loss, how air pollution affects health during the lifecourse, from pregnancy loss to the progression of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and related dementias, how temperature and temperature variability affect mental health, and how tropical cyclones affect risk of hospitalizations, among others.
Yet Kioumourtzoglou seeks greater impact. “Increasingly, we know enough about climate change effects to set stronger policies and regulations to prevent dire human health consequences,” she says. “It got to a point where we could publish another study that helps us understand the health consequences better, but it didn’t seem like that was actually protecting populations.”
In 2022, Kioumourtzoglou was promoted to associate professor and took her first sabbatical—at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. There she delved deeper into the potential for policy to bridge the gap between climate risk and population health. “There’s not much that humans can do at the individual level to minimize their air pollution exposure,” she says. “I started thinking about how regulators and urban planners can reshape our cities and neighborhoods to ameliorate the effects of air pollution and climate change, and how we can do this work in an equitable manner.”
How are your emerging interests in policy affecting your ongoing projects?
Kioumourtzoglou: We are currently submitting proposals to examine New York City traffic policies that reduce car dependency and how they change pollution levels, human behavior, and health improvement. We want to know whether they actually change traffic patterns and how. We also want to know: Will reduced traffic protect health and, importantly, do we see increases in traffic elsewhere? In other words, do benefits for one community result in increased burden for another community?
What’s an example of these policies?
Kioumourtzoglou: During the pandemic, streets were opened to pedestrians and closed to traffic. In New York City, we have excellent data, so my team looked at the unintended consequences of those “Open Streets” policies.
What did you learn?
Kioumourtzoglou: Other scientists have documented the positive impacts of Open Streets on physical activity, safety, and social interaction. The journal Environmental Research published my team’s finding that locally, there was an increase in noise complaints associated with Open Streets sites. I want to promote a careful analysis for potential unintended impacts to optimize and maximize the benefits of these policies.
Electric vehicles solve the noise pollution problem. That’s good, right?
Kioumourtzoglou: Especially in the U.S., cities are built around road infrastructure and motorized travel. If all the cars became electric, there would be no noise and no air pollution. Is the problem solved? Not fully, because you still have the problem of what we’re calling community severance. The idea for this project came from Jaime Benavides, one of my post-docs. In New York City, there are these big highways—road segments that break communities in two. Even if there are no cars are on those highways, no kids will go out and play in those areas. Highways segregate communities and prevent them integrating with the rest of the city. We want to quantify that effect in a way that makes sense.
You and former post-doctoral research scientist Robbie Parks—now an assistant professor in Environmental Health Sciences—examined how temperature affects hospital admissions related to alcoholic substance abuse. What did you find?
Kioumourtzoglou: As temperature goes up, hospital admissions go up. Our paper was the first study to look at that. When we started that project, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. This was a first report, and more work needs to be done.
In 2022, you received the Dean’s Excellence in Mentoring Award. How do you think about training the next generation of climate health scientists?
Kioumourtzoglou: The world is changing faster than our research is moving. If my trainees just continued doing what I do, it wouldn’t be enough. The role of a PhD mentor goes beyond teaching, to guide and train scholars to themselves figure out how to start a research project, identify research gaps, formulate ideas, learn to translate that into essential equations. What I really enjoy is guiding them through the thought process to conduct good and ethical research. My proudest moments are when trainees ask me questions that I don’t know the answer to or come up with their own project ideas that are exciting. People tend to celebrate individual success. I’ve won several awards and grants and I didn’t do any of these things by myself. I’ve had amazing mentors who still take very good care of me and I’ve had amazing, remarkable students and post-docs.