Becca Lovell has worked at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in the University of Exeter’s Medical School as a research fellow for nearly eight years, and has recently been appointed as lecturer in biodiversity and health policy, teaching on the Environment and Health MSc. In this post written for the People and Nature blog, Becca describes her current projects at the Centre, her professional background and her journey to her current position.
A New Role
I recently started a new role as Lecturer in Environment and Health Policy at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School. The University of Exeter is relatively unusual in having a dedicated department within a medical school which focuses specifically on the environmental determinants of health. The Centre considers the plurality of ways in which the environment (defined quite broadly and spanning ‘natural’ to built and social environments) can influence health for the good or bad. We recognise that this is a huge topic and one to which most disciplines could contribute knowledge and expertise. As a result, we are inherently interdisciplinary, encompassing micro-biology, economics, psychology, epidemiology, ecology, sociology and many more disciplines. I, like some others in the Centre, struggle to give an answer when asked what my discipline is, much of what I do spans several disciplines.
In my new role I will, in addition to teaching on our Environment and Health MSc, continue to lead and contribute to several areas of the Centre’s research on the benefits of natural environments to health. One major area of work relates to the values of urban natural environments for various health and social outcomes. We were recently awarded funding by Innovate UK to develop a tool which will help planners, local authorities and developers reflect evidence of the environmental, social and health values of urban greenspaces and infrastructure into various different types of decision making. I am also working closely with national and local government to consider how we can integrate health and environment decision making. One key project is our partnership with Dorset Public Health through which we are considering how natural environment assets can be reflected in their developing Integrated Care Systems. The first step of this work seems basic, mapping the provision of ‘accessible’ greenspace across the county, but a poor understanding of the distribution and characteristics of assets has held back coordinated activity.
Another important area of our work relates to the design and delivery of environment based health interventions. Here we have several projects focusing on what works in the prescribing of environmental activities for people with mild to moderate mental health problems by primary care professionals. Although there is increasing interest in how community-based environmental assets or organisations can contribute to dealing with a range of health challenges though social prescribing mechanisms we know relatively little about who benefits, the most effective activities, nor how to actually present these activities to someone with poor mental health and to support them to take part.
How I Came to Be Here
My route to this role has been a little convoluted, moving between charitable, public and the academic sectors, but I have been lucky enough to maintain the central interest in how people value and respond to natural environments throughout. Everything I do, just as it is for many people, has its roots in my childhood on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. So much of what we did as a family involved an appreciation of the natural and physical environment.
No visit to a river was complete until one of us had found a bullhead, stone loach or other small fishy victim, all holidays came with a running commentary on the geological processes that shaped the landscape around us. Although I ended up doing a first degree which was profoundly about humans and their communities and societies, I found ways to place much of it in the environment, my first attempt at research was an exploration of how rural agricultural communities adapted during the Foot and Mouth crisis.
The next major influence on my career came when I was lucky enough to spend a year as a volunteer forester on the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire. In those days you could sign on to job-seekers allowance if you volunteered while also looking for a job and the Trust provided accommodation in the stables. This support was crucial for me and without it I, and many others who started out in the environmental sector in this way, would not have been able to do it. While at the Estate I learnt about, and to love, a new flat eastern landscape. My fellow volunteer Nina and I worked with Simon the polymathic Forester to identify bats by their calls, lay a hedge using the Midland style, survey fields for Roman pottery, and document the distribution of members of the Syrphidae family across the estate. Sometimes we did a little forestry management.
I returned to University after my year as a forester for a PhD funded by Forestry Commission Scotland, thanks to what must have been one of the few occasions when a chainsaw license helped secure a studentship in a medical school. Since my PhD, most of my academic work has taken place at the intersection of environment and health research and decision making. It is an enormously interesting and varied, if a little frustrating, place to work. My first post-doc position was at Forest Research, an agency of the UK’s Forestry Commission, where I worked on a Government commissioned assessment of the social values of the Public Forest Estate. This gave me my first taste of how the direct provision of evidence does not necessarily lead to wise policy decisions. We showed that the majority of the people we spoke to ‘expressed a strong emotional connection with trees and woodlands, and associated a wide range of benefits with them’ and that ‘most participants in the discussion groups expressed a strong wish to maintain or increase the current extent and composition of public woodland ownership’. It was unsurprising that when, nearly exactly a year after publication of the report, the then coalition government proposed selling off nearly half the Estate people were more than a little upset.
The Academic Community
The opportunities I have had in these roles – to speak, for example, on several occasions in the Houses of Parliament, to write reports for Go Science and the WHO, to work with and advise bodies such as the Royal Horticulture Society – are mostly due to the generous people, such as Professor Mike Depledge and Dr Ben Wheeler at ECEHH and Dr Liz O’Brien at Forest Research, that I have been privileged to work with. Sharing such opportunities with new post-docs is an increasingly important way for them to establish themselves and I am hugely grateful I benefited in such a way.
The future looks promising for the Centre. Despite the uncertainty of Brexit and its implications for funding, we are continuing to develop new areas of work; the environmental influences on the microbiome and understanding population level impacts of environmental change are two key areas for our group in the Centre. For me, how environmental policy is shaped post Brexit and in the face of increasing demand on health systems is of particular interest.