A Scientist's Life: Jennifer Vanos

Biometeorologist is at intersection of weather and human health

Update: Jennifer Vanos is no longer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography as of Fall 2018.

Jennifer Vanos received a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a PhD in atmospheric science from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She specializes in the study of human biometeorology and bioclimatology, connecting weather and climate to human health. She is interested in the effects of environmental exposures to extreme heat, air pollution, and ultraviolet radiation on the general well-being of the population, as well as children and other highly vulnerable populations in urban areas. This year, she began a joint appointment between Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Family Medicine & Public Health in support of the UC San Diego cross-campus research theme of Understanding and Protecting the Planet. The university has hired six new faculty members with appointments in multiple UC San Diego divisions this academic year as part of this new endeavor.

en: What do you do for a living?

JV: A human biometeorologist works at the intersection of weather and human health. What I’m interested in specifically is understanding how extreme heat and air pollution affect human health both now, and how humans have been or will be affected over longer time scales. Although I classify myself as a biometeorologist, there are very few biometeorology departments because it’s so interdisciplinary. There are a lot of opportunities for biometeorologists to make big differences because we’ve been working across fields for years, and it’s quite vibrant and active.

When we think weather, we think hour-to-hour or day-to-day. If I’m looking at climate time-scales of 30 years or more, I’d generally say that I’m studying bioclimatology, which I also do, and this distinction just depends on my data and research questions. Because we are already experiencing many of the health issues that come along with extreme heat and air pollution now and have for a while,  the research and impacts are critically important to understand in order to prepare, mitigate, and adapt. This means that whether we have climate change happening or not, dealing with pressing issues now, such as high levels of air pollution in cities connected to high rates of asthma and inactivity, can have sizable impacts on environment and health in the short and long-term. Expressing climate-related issues in this way empowers people today to make a difference in their home or community today, rather than feeling disempowered by something that seems far into the future.

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en: What are some of the main questions in your field?

JV: We are pushing forward to shift paradigms of exposure analysis to work at the scale of human experience. The reason for this is to reduce “exposure misclassification.” Whether I am focused on extreme heat, solar radiation, or air pollution, or a combination of the three, my goal is to keep collecting and using finer-scaled environmental data to connect with a myriad of different health outcomes, from asthma to inactivity caused by an unsafe environment. Exposure misclassification exists when we assign an exposure value such as outdoor air pollution level to an individual’s health outcome, but the given exposure did not occur for various reasons. Maybe they were indoors. For example, an air pollution station 20 miles from an individual does not fully represent the air pollution experienced by that individual, or of someone who is indoors. And some cities don’t even have air quality monitors.

Because of this, I have moved from working at population levels to understanding what is occurring at the ‘microscale’ or ‘human scale’ to better understand the influence of complex environments on human health––like we have in urban areas––on people. Low-cost sensors will play a huge role in this area in the future. In terms of extreme heat, if we can know where and when a person is experiencing 90 degrees Fahrenheit for eight hours a day, then we gain some new understanding of vulnerability and risk. As society becomes more connected with cell phones, we can start tracking some of our individual exposure-health response, or even that of a loved one from afar.

If we think about these issues on a longer climate timescale of 30 years or more, and how we can adapt to exposures or mitigate heat and air pollution itself, we start to deal with what we call “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are difficult to define, there is often not just one solution, and sometimes implementation of a solution can lead to unforeseen consequences. For example, an adaptation strategy for extreme heat is air conditioning, but this may not be a solution for low-income people, and more air conditioning means we use more energy, create more human-made heat, and put the power grid at risk.

Yet when we think about the fact that citizens in our country are still, in 2017, perishing due to heat exposure, then it’s clear there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. When a heat wave comes along, what makes it devastating? Sometimes a heat wave comes along and everyone’s fine, and then a heat wave two weeks later may be devastating. Oftentimes it could come down to human behavior and response, or deadly combinations of heat, humidity, and air pollution like what occurred in 2010 when 55,000 people in Moscow died. Because a lot of the issues are the result of decision-making, prediction, and sociodemographic issues, then it takes a strong team of researchers to find solutions. It takes sociologists and psychologists and public health officials, meteorologists and climatologists, statisticians and policy makers, physiologists and anthropologists. I’m probably missing many more disciplines that can come together to solve some of these big challenges, as well as the climate-related sustainability challenges worldwide that are well-represented by the United Nations Sustainability Goals.

en: What tools do you use for your research?

JV: I am generally an observationalist, which means in most of my studies I like to collect my own meteorological and human data to make real-world assessments. Sometimes that isn’t always possible, so I can make use of public health data sets and data from mesonets – which are networks of weather stations – within urban environments. In terms of health data, if we are studying full county, city, or neighborhood populations, we can use mortality estimates, emergency department visits, or ambulance call data. Yet when I get down to the specific individual level to study a person’s response to heat, I will use heart rate monitors and accelerometers, GPS units, skin temperature sensors such as adhesive thermocouples, and core temperature pills. The most advanced sensors we are working with are flexible tattoo sensors collecting physiological data that transmit information via Bluetooth. UC San Diego bioengineering professor Todd Coleman and I will be completing a pilot study with these sensors this summer.

One environment that I have begun studying more and more of in the last three years is a children’s playground, which often presents a distinct micro-environment. When I’m quantifying the weather in that space, then I am defining an urban microclimate. An urban area is often so intricately designed that we enter into numerous micro-climates during one short stroll, such as moving from a high-rise concrete jungle into an open courtyard and a forested walkway. This is where being able to collect my own data with meteorological tools helps me improve the understanding of the microscale differences in heat, wind, radiation, and humidity, and why we see them. How is energy being partitioned over an asphalt surface versus over a grass surface that is shaded? Understanding this at a fundamental level and bringing that evidence base to public health officials or for application by urban planners or landscape architects is really important.

The data I collected can be interpreted for human thermal comfort, heat stress, building energy, or even how hot a surface might become in terms of a burn risk to a child. My main application involves determining a human’s heat balance, so based on the environment and what they are wearing, are they very hot and potentially experiencing the first signs of heat stress, or are they comfortable?  We want to simultaneously collect information from humans both in subjective surveys of how they feel and then objectively measuring things like skin temperature or heart rate. One person might say they’re comfortable in the heat. Another might say they are not comfortable, so that’s why it’s so important to dig into human perceptions and simultaneously obtain micro-environmental measurements at the human scale. A person vulnerable to the heat who might be elderly or on medication is likely to have a different subjective thermal comfort than a healthy individual, and these within-population differences are important to tease apart. 

en: Why did you come to Scripps?

JV: It’s a very exciting vibrant community here with all these interdisciplinary positions. I have a joint appointment at UC San Diego between Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the School of Medicine. There are quite a few of us who have been hired to bridge these gaps to start getting at the nitty gritty details of the solutions of climate and human health or climate and policy. I don’t know of any other place that has a system set up like this with the Chancellor in support of joint hires. Traditionally if you’re hired in one department, it can be scary to go outside those bounds if that’s not in your job description, but being in this position, we are encouraged to do so, which is really exciting. With an active and passionate research community, and all of the resources we need in one place, I think that UC San Diego will quickly become well-known for interdisciplinary research that finds real solutions and answers to challenging problems. I’m excited for the ability to work on such issues and do so with a great city to study in my own back yard.

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