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Healthy Planet = Healthy People

Jacob Jones’ childhood summers were spent largely outdoors, where he enjoyed regular Boy Scouts camping trips and family outings. One might think that attending medical school would mean the end of alfresco adventures, but that hasn’t been the case for Jones, a third year M.D. student at the George Washington University’s (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS).

During summer 2012, Jones worked with the Livingston County Department of Public Health on a self-proposed research project investigating the potential health impact of natural gas extraction — specifically high-volume hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking — in Livingston County, N.Y. “I studied the prevailing wind patterns, along with the depth and thickness of shale layers, at numerous water sources, schools, and camps to determine which areas are most likely to be fracked and what risks they face,” says Jones. “I also looked at the economic impact that fracking could have throughout the county.”

This unique opportunity was available to Jones thanks to his involvement in the Environmental Health track, one of nine elective paths offered to medical students by the Office of Student Opportunities. Through distinct learning objectives, special seminars, one-on-one mentorship, and hands-on experience, the track program offers students a broader health care perspective and exposure to leadership opportunities.

Jerome Paulson, M.D., professor of pediatrics at SMHS, professor of environmental and occupational health at GW’s School of Public Health and Health Services, and track director for the Environmental Health OSO track, says that the goal of the track is to prepare students for practicing medicine “in an age when they’re going to need to take environmental health issues into account in their decision making and in their management of patients.” Paulson adds that there is “a tremendous opportunity for those who want to do basic biomedical research after they finish medical school and have a career that is spent trying to answer a variety of questions about the impact of environmental factors on human health.”

Paulson sees his passion for teaching environmental health as an outgrowth of his involvement with The Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment (MACCHE) at Children’s National Medical Center, one of 10 pediatric environmental health specialty units in the United States. MACCHE’s role, according to Paulson, is to educate the community about children’s environmental health issues and to serve as consultants to physicians, nurses, public health officials, parents, teachers, and anyone else with questions about children’s health and the environment.

“People who want to pursue a career in medicine should recognize that there is a connection between the passion they have for environmental issues and the passion they have for medicine,” Paulson says. “They can combine those in a way that’s going to be useful to them throughout their career.”

Jones, who presented the findings from his summer in New York during GW’s 18th annual Research Days event in April, is fascinated by the relationship between the health of human beings and the health of the planet. He recommends the track to “any student who is passionate about the environment and its direct effect on us.”