Better health for people and planet
Could better environmental management help to protect biodiversity and human health? With philanthropic support from the Grantham Foundation, Hiral Shah aims to find out.
Grantham research student Hiral Shah is not your average PhD student, but his unconventional career path has proved good preparation for an exciting and unique research project at the Grantham Institute, one of Imperial’s six global institutes, which focuses on climate change and the environment. Born in London and now aged 28, Shah has a degree in chemistry and a Master’s in public health and health economics. His varied experience also includes working in health insurance, researching interventions to stop rabies deaths in India, and consulting with pharmaceutical and medical technology companies for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence back in the UK.
Now he is one year into a PhD that aims to tackle several major global issues at the same time. Shah is investigating whether environmental management can deliver benefits to human health as well as to biodiversity.
“We live in a globalised world, where activities in one nation can have widespread social and environmental consequences elsewhere. For example, the commodities we consume in the West have resulted in deforestation in other nations. This has led to a substantial loss of biodiversity,” Shah explains. “But does this also lead to a greater risk of infectious diseases in these countries and, if so, what can we do about it?” To answer these questions, Shah is combining research on sustainability with ecology, infectious disease epidemiology and economics.
“Globally, the population is rising and there’s an increasing demand for commodities like meat and palm oil. Simultaneously, people are moving from rural to urban environments, bringing humans into much closer contact with animals. That’s important because we know that around 60% of human diseases originate from animals. When we encroach on animal habitats, we alter ecosystems. This may be responsible for a rise in emerging infections such as Zika or Ebola.”
He is also looking at which countries are driving these threats to human health and biodiversity, and asking if there are any ‘upstream’ interventions that would bring mutual ‘downstream’ benefits for the environment and health: “What would happen if governments implemented a tax on deforestation for consumer countries, or created national parks to limit deforestation? Could this preserve biodiversity and save people from infectious diseases too? Could it reduce carbon emissions and air pollution?”
I feel extremely lucky to get funding to study this topic, and I hope that my research has an impact in the world."
Research Postgraduate, Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment
Shah’s supervisor at the Grantham Institute is Dr Kris Murray, whose expertise ranges from biogeography of infectious diseases, to snake bite ecology. He is also surrounded by colleagues from an astonishing variety of other disciplines: “It’s pretty cool to be at the Grantham Institute where people are researching so many different areas that all somehow link back to the environment, like hydrology, earth sciences, chemical engineering, business and physics. I’m picking up different skills, different perspectives, and taking my research across different domains.”
Funding for Shah’s PhD comes, via the Institute, from the Grantham Foundation. This brings an important emphasis, not only on carrying out research with impact, but also on communicating the results. Since joining, he has had communication training, as well as help and advice on writing blogs and briefing papers, all thanks to the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training partnership hosted at the Grantham Institute. “If we’re going to solve global problems like climate change, infectious diseases and biodiversity loss, we need to reach a wider audience. To do that, researchers need good communication skills,” he says.
According to Shah, this outward-looking attitude, combined with the range of expertise of Grantham Institute colleagues, creates an ideal niche for his interdisciplinary research: “I feel extremely lucky to get funding to study this topic, and I hope that my research has an impact in the world. I also hope I can stay at the Grantham Institute and Imperial, where I can continue doing world-class research, and help build a future with healthy people and a healthy planet.”
The Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment was established in 2007 with generous support from the Grantham Foundation. We are sincerely grateful for a further gift of £4.7 million made in 2017, which will support the Institute until 2025.
To learn more about the Grantham Institute, please visit imperial.ac.uk/grantham