Can a favor be life-changing?
For environmental scientist and 2019 AAAS Fellow Marie Lynn Miranda, it certainly was. Miranda almost didn’t become a professor, let alone a dean or provost. She had no plans to stay in academia, but while finishing her Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University, her mentor asked her to teach a class as a favor.
“Experiencing the classroom as a professor was just extraordinary,” said Miranda, now a professor of statistics at Rice University. “I love the process of building a community with the students; I love the process of getting them excited and hyped up about ideas and getting conversations going.”
Miranda had another career-defining revelation when the first of her three children was born 26 years ago. At the time, Miranda was developing geospatial tools to analyze urban environmental issues, such as solid waste management. When she had kids, she realized those same tools could be applied to children’s environmental health.
“Once I started doing children’s environmental health work, it was like all the puzzle pieces slid into place,” Miranda said. “The greatest thing about it was I had this consonance between what I was doing at home and what I was doing at work. At home, I was trying to create an environment where my children could prosper, while at the office, I was trying to create an environment where all children could prosper.”
In the mid-1990s, she launched the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative (CEHI), a research, education and outreach organization with a scientific mission focused on understanding and addressing inequalities. The research team takes a three-dimensional approach to analyzing health and environmental data, using geographic information systems (GIS) to map results.
“What people are exposed to is very much a product of where they live,” Miranda said. “Taking an explicitly spatial approach often times gives you more insights. Not only is it analytically really powerful, it is an incredible outreach tool.”
Envision tens of thousands of data points about factors like air pollution and health metrics correlated to specific locations represented visually on a map. 70,000 data points revealing specific health risks are conveyed almost instantly. No matter who Miranda speaks to—be it a member of Congress, mayor, health department official or local school association—maps tell a powerful story.
Miranda aims not just to document inequalities, but use the insights to suggest policy changes or other solutions to help improve children’s health. For example, CEHI mapped lead exposure house by house in counties across North Carolina as part of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) effort to address lead standards nationwide. CEHI’s analysis helped identify the houses and children at greatest risk for lead exposure and was used to allocate limited housing renovation funding and guide health screening programs. For this work, CEHI received one of the EPA’s first Environmental Justice Achievement Awards in 2008.
To further support government research, CEHI offers state and local health department officials GIS training with CDC funding. The sessions are a huge hit, with webinars on special topics filling up instantly.
CEHI has moved and grown with Miranda throughout her career, which she started as a professor at Duke University, and has included time as Dean at University of Michigan, and Provost of Rice University.
Now on sabbatical, Miranda is taking a step back to once again evaluate what really matters.
Having worked in low-income and minority communities for many years, Miranda said it is apparent that kids are not exposed to one contaminant at a time. They are exposed to “a messy, murky mixture” of contaminants like lead, air pollution and allergens, while at the same time navigating numerous social stressors, such as residential instability, neighborhood crime and poverty.
“If we really want to understand the impact of the environment on children’s health, we have to look at the cumulative effects of environmental stressors and social stressors at the same time,” Miranda said.
It can be difficult to remain optimistic that things can change. But whenever a policy recommendation is not adopted or flat-out ignored, Miranda reminds her team they can try a different approach.
“In many situations,” Miranda said, “persistence and perseverance are what win the day.”
At the upcoming AAAS Annual Meeting, Miranda will be recognized for distinguished contributions in integrating environmental health sciences with sound social policies, especially towards the protection of children's health and well-being, as an elected Fellow of AAAS.
She is honored and hopes she can further encourage the scientific community to play a more active role talking about their work to the public and policymakers in an accessible way.
“We are trained to be circumspect, we are trained to just focus on the science, but that model isn’t working anymore,” she said. “In the absence of good scientific communication, misinformation is filling the gap. We have to work to ensure that scientific reality informs policy processes.”