Dr. Golden and student researchers at night, holding field research equipment.

Grant Year

2017, 2016

Project Leader/s

Dr. Christopher Golden

Project Description

The Henry David Thoreau Foundation’s decision in 2016 to award one of our faculty innovation grants to Dr. Christopher Golden at Harvard College was a momentous occasion: it marked the first time we 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,” recalls Golden. “Having had such a positive experience with the program, I wanted to give back to students like myself.”

The result was the Planetary Health Undergraduate Scholars Program at Harvard, which educates, trains, and provides international field experiences for Harvard undergrads to examine the human health impacts of global environmental change. Dr. Jennifer Galvin, the Thoreau Foundation’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 Dr. Amalia Almada, another Thoreau Scholar alum, as the Senior Program Manager for the PHA. And his first cohort of students included a Thoreau Scholar, Camille DeSisto The seeds are growing. The dots are connecting, top down and bottom up.”

The program accepts seven students annually from a broad range of disciplines, exposing them to the field of Planetary Health through a range of opportunities. In the spring semester, Golden trains fellows in broad planetary health education, using his nearly two decades 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 then brainstorms a research project, ultimately traveling to Madagascar for a summer field experience. In the fall semester, the students develop a capstone project of their own making. Meet the first class of Planetary Health Fellows here.

The 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. “As an undergraduate at Harvard, I wanted to pursue this exact area of study. But these courses and experiences did not exist for undergraduates at that time.”

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 are spearheading this project with me, they are gaining crucial leadership skills and becoming equipped to take on high-level positions leading transdisciplinary teams,” explains Golden. Students are also 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 allows students numerous opportunities to cross-pollinate with like-minded peers and mentors.

Despite many years 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.”