Nathan Morris on researching abroad, heatwaves and making a real change

In December I met Nathan Morris during the Centre Virchow Villermé's first Young Researchers' Scientific Seminar, where he was exclusivlely joining us from Sydney/Australia. Nathan specializes in human thermoregulation, specifically researching and developing cooling interventions for unique populations (i.e. children, MS patients) and the general population. Nathan comes originally from Alberta/Canada and moved to Sydney for his PhD.

Nathan
Nathan (Picture by Nathan Morris)

After the seminar I had the great pleasure to ask him a few questions on researching abroad, the importance of travelling and where his own research can lead to substantial changes.

You find my questions marked with a "P" and Nathan's answers preceeded by an "N" below.


 

P: What drives your interest to research the effects of climate change on health?

N: I probably came into researching climate change a little bit differently than most. I did my undergrad in human movement with the original intention of going into medical school. I wanted to get into medicine to help people, as I think many people do. Through my studies though, I absolutely fell in love with physiology and how complex the human body is and trying to find out how it works. So rather than going into medicine, I decided to do a master’s in physiology, which I loved, but I did miss the aspect of directly helping people as my topic was very fundamental and not very clinical or applied. When it came time to choose a topic for my PhD and I saw the heatwave project, I was really drawn to it because it was a way I could use the fundamental knowledge I had acquired throughout my master’s and apply it in a way that could help a lot of people, especially since we found that there wasn’t really anyone approaching the heatwave problem by doing controlled lab based studies.

P: Coming from Calgary/Canada, you are now doing your PhD in Sydney/Australia, what inspired you to go abroad? Would you do it again and is there any advice you would give other young researchers that want to go abroad as well?

N: A few things brought me to Sydney, actually. First of all, I really wanted to go abroad to do my PhD. One aspect of academia that is very strongly encouraged in North America is the importance of moving around a lot early in your academic career in order to gain different perspectives, acquire different skills and hear different ideas. I had already moved from one side of Canada to the other, so I wanted to go further out. Also, I had been to Australia twice before when I was younger and absolutely loved it and wanted to go back. What ended up being the final selling point was that when I approached researchers in Europe, they said that because I wasn’t an EU citizen, my tuition would be dramatically greater and I wouldn’t be eligible for most forms of funding. At the same time I was looking for a PhD position, my master’s supervisor was looking for a new academic position. One came up in Sydney and he asked if I would come with. Australia had many more funding options and I liked my supervisor a lot so I agreed.

I would definitely do it again and if Australia hadn’t worked out, I would have gone somewhere else internationally. If anyone was thinking of travelling to do a degree but was unsure, I would strongly recommend for them to do it. Even in cultures as similar as Australia and Canada, or even at different universities within the same country, people will approach problems and situations and run programs differently. By immersing yourselves in a different system, you will be able to pick up what they do right and wrong and will give you a better perspective on what you think the best way of getting work done is.

By immersing yourselves in a different system, you will be able to pick up what they do right and wrong and will give you a better perspective on what you think the best way of getting work done is.

For anyone planning on studying abroad I would advise they take it seriously and plan their move well in advance. Getting in contact with other people who work in the lab or research group, especially other graduate students, is really important to figure out the work atmosphere and what it is like to work for the potential supervisor. It would be very stressful to move a long distance and be stuck in a stressful, toxic, environment. Also make sure to join sports teams or social groups as soon as possible to stop yourself from getting lonely.

P: Your research focuses amongst other aspects, on the use of fans in heat waves. WHO says  "When the temperature is above 35 °C, fans may not prevent heat related illness.“ (http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/112473/E91350.pdf) . Do your findings support this opinion?

N: No, not at all. As demonstrated by earlier work from our lab (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25688786), fans are definitely effective as a cooling intervention in much higher temperatures than what the current WHO guidelines state.

JAMA
Earlier work from Nathan's lab: Fans may be effective cooling devices for those without air conditioning during hot and humid periods.
A thermal ergonomics modelling paper that also came from our lab (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25134988) is probably a much better standard to go by, at least for young healthy men. While that paper is only a model, my current findings seem to support the model for young healthy males. We currently don’t have enough data to say whether or not the model is accurate for women or the elderly though.

P: Much research creates evidence on how to change policies or behaviors for better health, however also, often this potential ultimately remains unrealized. Thus it would be interesting to hear your view on the role of researchers in this phenomenon. Do you personally see yourself as a researcher or as a researcher and advocate?

Too often research is undertaken, quality information is discovered and then very little is done with it.

N: At the moment, if I had to choose one I would have to say I fall under the researcher category, however, I’m trying to move into the researcher and advocate category. I agree that too often research is undertaken, quality information is discovered and then very little is done with it. I think a large part of this problem is due to many researchers’ training being completely around how to develop quality information but little to no training goes into how to disseminate this information in other ways than scientific publications. I think this trend is starting to change a little but that a lot of work has yet to be done on this issue. That is why it was so great for me to meet the Centre Virchow Villerme group, as well as everyone else at the young researchers meeting, since they are so knowledgeable in regards of communicating research to policy makers and others who can really use the information we develop in the lab.

P: What does the University of Sydney offer to engage in climate change and health regarding education or research? Which other programs in Australia or beyond could you recommend for students with an interest in this area?

N: That’s a difficult question because the issue of climate change is so multi-dimensional and can be approached by so many different disciplines that it is difficult to know exactly what is going on. I would say for those interested in travelling to study climate change, it would be best to do their own research beforehand. Students interested in travelling should ask their supervisors and contacts if they know anyone working where they want to go, and should look up papers relating to their background that they find interesting and then contact the researchers directly.

There is the Sydney Network on Climate Change and Society (http://sydney.edu.au/snccs/), which is an effort to get all the researchers in the Sydney area working on climate change to communicate with each other and spans disciplines including Arts and Social Sciences, Law, Architecture Design and Planning, Science, Medicine and Business. If someone was unsure how they wanted to approach the climate change problem, that might be a good place to start.

P: You had the opportunity to witness a whole week of COP21 and climate negotiations. Did your time in Paris have any influences on your research or did you get any new ideas and inputs?

N: Again because climate change is so multi-dimensional, most of the presentations, despite being very interesting and informational, didn’t relate much to my personal research. Keep in mind, there were presentations on how climate change affects business, economics, technology, global justice, religion, feminism, animals, vegetation, agriculture, urban planning, human health, as well as many other areas. Climate change is a very diverse issue and even in my area of the more physiological/ health interest of human adaptation, much of the conversation was on infectious diseases and respiratory issues.

I think one of the major issues climate change advocates have, is not getting a clear message out to the general population.

The main lesson I did learn and what I will be writing my CVV blog article on is how important communication – between researchers and policy makers, researchers and the public, and researchers with other researchers – is. I spoke to policy makers who work on heatwave response policy that didn’t really have any contact with lab based scientists and most of their interventions came from what family doctors thought would be a good idea for people to do in heatwaves. As highlighted by the WHO 35°C policy mentioned above, that isn’t a very good approach. The other surprising thing is that when you go to the these workshops and you hear how the panelists spoke to each other and the people in attendance, you can tell that many of them think the general population knows about what they are talking about, or conversely, that they don’t need to know. I think one of the major issues climate change advocates have, is not getting a clear message out to the general population. One panelist who had worked for politicians in the past said that often when research is presented to politicians demonstrating changes in policy need to be made, the politicians often will not do anything until there is a fairly loud outcry from their constituents asking for the changes. That’s why I think the number one thing climate change advocates need to do is increase and improve their communication of their knowledge to the general population to cause real change.

The Interview was lead by Peter Grabitz, MD candidate at Charité Berlin. For questions mail to peter.grabitz (at) charite.de or follow  Twitter

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