Daniel Rainham, Elizabeth May Chair in Sustainability and Environmental Health

A day in the life

Daniel Rainham, Elizabeth May Chair in Sustainability and Environmental Health

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We’re making sure students get a solid base in the sciences early on, but in upper years, we help them understand how that scientific knowledge relates to human behaviour, and how that relates to the complex sustainability issues we’re dealing with.

Connecting health and the environment

“I never thought I’d be in academe, but I’ve always been kind of geeky,” says Daniel Rainham, associate professor in the Environmental Science program and cross appointed in five others. “I read journal articles for fun, just because I’m interested in things.”

One of those “things” has been human health—his dad was a medical doctor. “But I saw medicine as not addressing prevention,” Dr. Rainham says. “For real prevention, you need upstream intervention.”

And that, for Dr. Rainham, involves addressing causes of illness and disease. “Usually, diseases and infections occur in clusters, transmitting through space and time,” he explains. “And all disease outcomes, whether chronic or infectious, have to do with environment—including factors like education and income.”

The Environmental Science program, Dr. Rainham believes, allows all those factors to be considered. “One of the strengths of our unit is our capacity for interdisciplinary work. You need science to understand the whole picture—you’re not just studying rocks,” he explains, “but learning how humans are using rocks and contaminating soils, and the impact that has on humanity.”

“From a practical perspective, having an environmental sciences background gives you flexibility in the workplace,” he adds. “This kind of education can be very attractive to employers wanting to hire someone who can see how environmental concerns relate to everyday decision making.”

In Dr. Rainham’s Human Health and Sustainability class, students can approach such issues. Many students, he says, become interested in “the relationship between the built environment and health outcomes—how do we design, plan, organize, and construct our activities in urban areas?”

He uses the theory of biophilia, that human beings have an inherent need to interact with nature, to explain the relationship between the urban environment and health. “More and more, we’ve designed out of our lives any interaction with nature,” he says. “What are the implications of this, in terms of policy making or sustainability? Are we forgetting about the important things that maintain physical and mental health?”

But he sees hope in this complex situation. “In classes like this, we offer a way of acting on what we know—can we put policies in place or modify existing ones, and if so, how? Students have to be able to find a place to act,” Dr. Rainham states. “That’s very important.”