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Student Spotlight – Saskia Comess

October 31, 2018

How does one combine interests in science, technology, society, math and the environment and make a tangible difference in people’s lives? Saskia Comess found her answer in the Yale School of Public Health’s Climate Change and Health Initiative. Climate change rhetoric is often framed about saving the world for future generations, and it is easy to push off the hard changes, explains Saskia. Connecting environmental change to people’s lives through the many aspects of their personal health makes this effort relevant immediately.

A student in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Saskia is a graduate fellow for the Climate Change and Health Initiative (CCHI), a research assistant with Data Driven Yale, and a Teaching Fellow for an undergraduate course in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department. She is particularly grateful for how CCHI pulls together experts in climate research from all across the university to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and discourse.

That perspective sparked an internship for her as well. After reading an article in the New York Times on how moss was being used as local indicator of heavy metal pollution in Portland, Oregon, she reached out to the U.S. Forest Service researcher, Dr. Geoffrey Donovan, who collected the data. “He had created a high-resolution map of pollution in the area, but had not connected that data to health outcomes,” said Saskia. With the support of YSPH’s Stolwijk Fellowship, Saskia worked with Donovan, a forest economist, to apply this novel exposure metric, which is particularly valuable in assessing exposure at a local level, to birth outcomes in the city.

Most cities have one just pollution monitor, and it is expensive machinery. Moss is an inexpensive mechanism through which for looking at exposure at the neighborhood level. In Portland, where there is mixed-use zoning, this micro-view can identify problem areas related to specific industries or factories relatively inexpensively. Connecting this data to birth outcomes in the city revealed potential associations between metal exposure and adverse neonatal outcomes.

Saskia values the experience for pulling together everything she learned in her first-year core epidemiology, biostatistics and health policy classes. The internship also helped her focus on what skills she wanted to develop more in her second year of the MPH program, particularly statistics. Taking advantage of Yale’s open campus, she has or is taking electives in Department of Statistics and Data Science as well as in the schools of management, law and forestry.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on October 30, 2018