I can’t think of any two greater challenges than the health of our planet and the health of the people who live on it. —Christopher Golden
Principal investigator(s)Christopher Golden
The Henry David Thoreau Foundation’s decision to award one of our faculty innovation grants to Christopher Golden at Harvard University is a momentous occasion: it marks the first time we have awarded a grant to one of our own Thoreau Scholar alumni. “The support that the Foundation provided me as an undergraduate allowed me to pursue my interests in environmental conservation and human health, by formalizing a support role with a wonderful undergraduate advisor,” recalls Golden. “Having had such a positive experience with the program, I wanted to give back to students like myself.”
The result is the Planetary Health Undergraduate Scholars Program at Harvard, which will educate, train, and provide international field experiences for Harvard undergrads to examine the human health impacts of global environmental change. Jennifer Galvin, HDTF’s Director, is thrilled at the ways in which the Foundation’s vision of raising up future environmental leaders is coming to fruition: “I was very excited to work with Chris on his new program. Chris is also working with Amalia Almada, another Thoreau Scholar alum, as the Senior Program Manager for the PHA. The seeds are growing. The dots are connecting, top down and bottom up.”
The program will accept seven students annually from a broad range of disciplines, exposing them to the field of Planetary Health through a range of opportunities. Beginning in the spring semester, Golden will train fellows in broad planetary health education, using his seventeen years of research and data collection in Madagascar to examine pressing policy issues that connect Madagascar’s political context to the broader Planetary Health research agenda. The cohort will then brainstorm a research project, ultimately traveling to Madagascar for a summer field experience. In the fall semester, the students will develop a capstone project of their own making.
The new program brings into focus many of Golden’s own experiences as a researcher, practitioner, and advocate, while filling a gap he experienced in his own undergraduate education. “Fifteen years ago, as an undergraduate at Harvard, I wanted to pursue this exact area of study. But these courses and experiences did not exist for undergraduates.”
As with other faculty innovation grants, the Foundation was moved to support Golden’s vision of a self-sustaining program that involves students as co-designers and creators. “Because students will spearhead this project with me, they will gain crucial leadership skills and become equipped to take on high-level positions leading transdisciplinary teams,” explains Golden. Students will also be embedded within the broader Planetary Health Alliance, a Harvard-based consortium of more than 50 universities, NGOs, and government agencies working to create and curate educational resources and translate research into impactful policies. This connection will allow students numerous opportunities to cross-pollinate with like-minded peers and mentors.
Despite his nearly two decades of experience in the planetary health field, Golden relishes the opportunity to gain new insights from the students he is training. “They bring a fresh set of eyes from across a range of disciplinary strengths and passions to tackle a common challenge. This fits perfectly within my broader interest in training young investigators and creating cross-disciplinary bridges to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems. I can’t think of any two greater challenges than the health of our planet and the health of the people who live on it.”
Tracking tenrecs by radiotelemetry at night to determine the home range and activity patterns of the most common species of wildlife consumed for food. © Jon Betz/National Geographic Society
Chris Golden and the MAHERY (Madagascar Health and Environmental Research) team in Madagascar, where Harvard students will travel for field research. MAHERY, founded by Chris in 2004, is a consortium of local Malagasy researchers, spanning a diverse array of disciplines: ecologists, botanists, physicians, veterinarians, economists, and animal biologists. © Jon Betz/National Geographic Society
Chris Golden working with two members of the MAHERY team: Ben Rice, a PhD student from Harvard University who studies the genetics and genomics of malaria transmission, and Luciano Tantely, a post-doctoral fellow from Institut Pasteur de Madagascar who is a medical entomologist studying the vector dynamics of malaria transmission. © Jon Betz/National Geographic Society