Jan 18

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Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Megan Latshaw, PhD

Megan Latshaw, PhD, is all about making public health work for the people. Throughout her career, she has realized public health has the potential to affect communities.

“If you think about what it is that is killing people all around the globe, it is chronic diseases and, as we know, most chronic diseases are not infectious. The Human Genome Project has not provided the key to unlocking chronic disease; I think environmental health and epigenetics is the next frontier in figuring out how we can make the world a healthier place,” Dr. Latshaw shares.

With her work in the field, she has realized that there are communities that have serious questions about public health that aren’t being answered. 

“When a woman with a newborn baby drives across five states to try to get answers to her environmental health question, our system has failed. Where did the breakdown happen that this poor woman in this community and all the communities like hers weren’t getting their questions answered?” Dr. Latshaw reflects.

“[There was a] woman who lived in a community with an incinerator, who wanted to find out what was in the ash that fell in her neighborhood every morning. After calling several state agencies and two federal agencies, this young lady decided to drive to the National Environmental Health Conference in Atlanta, along with her infant. My eyes filled with tears as I heard her plea,” Dr. Latshaw recalls.

She admits that at first, some of the environmental factors suggested by community members as issues they face may be out of line with what is generally expected, but understanding what truly is affecting a community is an important way to build relationships and, in turn, improve overall health.

Dr. Latshaw reflected on the first time she realized this. She was at a training on how to work with communities soon after completing graduate school and remembers, “I was shocked because I thought ‘Oh, I know what their issues are. They are going to say ‘we are worried about asthma and air pollution, we are worried about our drinking water and lead …’ and the communities came back and they were like ‘no, we are worried about street lights, and we are worried about graffiti, and we are worried about crime’ and… I was just like ‘wait, what? That’s not what I learned in school.’ My first instinct was ‘well you can’t say that, because that is not what I am used to working on.’ But, they can say that, and they should say that! Because I finally realized these are environmental health issues.”

While this may not be how those in public health are used to doing their work, she reminds us that engaging with communities can be a powerful tool.

“Communities drive policy. Communities are the ones who elect people. Communities are the ones that, when there is some outrage, can get something done. And, if a community thinks that what we do in environmental health is valuable, they are going to fight for us … [And,] if we want a community to think what we do is valuable…we need to walk with them, we need to understand their concerns, we need to meet their needs and answer their questions,” Dr. Latshaw suggests.

One of the most effective ways to build up these relationships with communities is to invite them to share their experiences and concerns with those who work in public health. But, it takes more than just asking them to share their concerns.

“I think honestly, it sounds so basic, but we need to respond to community concerns. If a community is worried about graffiti, I don’t care if environmental health people have never thought about that as an environmental health issue, they should. It is … impacting [these communities], and we need to respond to their concerns. Also, we have to recognize that they don’t speak our public health jargon. We can’t use jargon when we are talking to communities, and we also can’t expect them to use our jargon. We have to get over ourselves, and over that jargon, and we just have to talk plain language,” Dr. Latshaw explains.

Her work is now focused on making connections and building programs with communities that can actually benefit both environmental health and those in the communities.

“At the recent American Public Health Association meeting, community members said we talk every year about working with communities, but what are we actually doing, as an Association, to help them? I recently committed to finding a way to match communities with environmental health concerns to professionals in the Association in the hopes of creating teams whose goal is to work with specific communities on their issues.”

Dr. Latshaw also knows that creating groups to work on these projects can be difficult and funding in general can be a challenge. However, she has had success in the past creating groups and programs with minimal funding and shares some suggestions for how to make it happen.

“If you have a good idea, get the right people together in a room, lay out what it would look like ideally. Then, talk about what steps are needed to get there. Don’t even think about funding, just say ‘alright here is what we need in an ideal situation, here is how we need to get there.’ Talk about the barriers to getting there. Then… find out what pieces people are willing to work on,” Dr. Latshaw says.

Now, keep in mind, progress will be slow. Often people are willing to commit some time and effort, but if this is a project they are volunteering to assist with, they might not be able to devote a large chunk of time. However, starting the process is important and can make it easier to ultimately make the case for potential funding.

“Once you have it all laid out, like this is what we want to get to, and this is how we can get there, it is a littler bit easier to find funding for it. You can go to potential funders and can give them the vision, give them the steps, and tell them these people are on board and are willing to work on this,” Dr. Latshaw shares.

Having something to present to funders often helps lay out what the final product will be, and how you will go about achieving it. 

Dr. Latshaw shared many wonderful suggestions for engaging communities and creating a new path forward for environmental public health. Some of her take-away tips are:

  • Remember that communities are powerful assets to have on your side. Communities get people elected, get laws passed, and fight for budget allocations.
  • The best way to get communities on your side is to ask for their questions and address their concerns.
  • Don’t forget that there is often a lot of jargon in public health, but speaking simply is the most effective way to communicate.
  • If you have an idea for a project, get a group together and start planning the steps for achieving the goals. Even if there are minimal funds initially, put together a group of people and start laying out a plan, which can make asking for funding easier down the line.
  • Support each other in the field and look for opportunities for collaboration. 

We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.

This month, we held our fourth webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.

Tags: chronic diseasecommunity based researchpioneers under 40Community Impact