Stephanie Cleland is interested in how environmental exposures to climate change-related elements - like wildfire smoke - impact human health outcomes, and uses large data sets in creative, integrated ways to find evidence of linkages

New assistant professor brings creative, collaborative quantitative approaches to planetary health research

November 06, 2023

by Sharon Mah 

New assistant professor, Stephanie Cleland – who joined the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) in September 2023 – is bringing unique skills and perspectives to the faculty as a quantitative environmental health researcher.

Cleland addresses her research questions by sourcing and collecting large data sets from diverse sources, linking them in ways that allow her to evaluate and measure the impacts of climate change-related environmental exposures on human health outcomes.

Recently, Cleland – who also holds the new Legacy for Airway Health Chair in Promotion of Lung Health – has focused on examining the health impacts of wildfire smoke. Her interest in the topic began when family and friends living in the Pacific Northwest – where Cleland grew up – started reporting that wildfire smoke was drifting into their communities regularly during summer and fall.

“That wasn't a part of my childhood,” she recalls. “Seeing it hit close to home and affecting my friends and family really motivated me. It's clearly an increasing issue.”

Wildfire smoke is not Cleland’s only area of interest – she finds all extreme weather events linked to climate change compelling. “It’s really changing the landscape of public health,” she observes. She notes that many communities in Western North America are experiencing new types of weather events – such as the 2021 Heat Dome – or are seeing a change in the intensity and/or frequency of known events, such as floods and wildfires. “Climate change is really affecting the environment – what does that mean for the health and the well-being of communities? How do we best protect communities in the face of climate change and how do we increase resilience? We can’t [answer these questions] until we better understand what these [events] do to the health of people.”

Cleland’s data-based approach to evaluating wildfire smoke health impacts demonstrates how the tools for collecting evidence are already available – they just need to be applied in an integrated and interdisciplinary way. To help demonstrate the harms of wildfire smoke, Cleland conducted exposure assessments, mapping large data sets from air quality monitoring networks and combining it with air quality modeling and satellite data to measure and track the public’s exposure to wildfire smoke over time and space. She then paired these exposure estimates with an epidemiological study, where she used app-based health data to understand the health risks posed by wildfire smoke exposure, and a health impact assessment, where she analyzed large health data sets containing information about hospitalizations to estimate actual impacts or “burdens” on the health care system resulting from wildfire smoke during this period.

Cleland points out that policymakers often better understand the implications of data that indicate an increased burden on the health care system versus the abstract, harder to visualize concept of the increase in risk from a one to two degree Celsius rise in temperature. “They [want to know how] many hospitalizations were due to heat exposure, because that's something they can digest and use to inform policy. But we can't get those estimates unless we understand the change in risk [resulting from exposure]. That's why I like to do both [types of analyses]: epidemiology is really important for understanding initial associations and what's going on, and [measuring] burden is really important for understanding how is this actually impacting community, cities, countries at a larger scale.”

Although Cleland is a specialist in terms of her analytical skills, she sees herself very much as a generalist in terms of the topics she investigates within the realm of environmental health. “I don't have one exposure, one population, one health outcome [that I focus on. My work is] more about trying to leverage my quantitative skills to answer whatever questions seem to be the most relevant or pressing. That's something I really enjoy because it allows me to be flexible.” Focusing on multiple research topics requires Cleland to be more collaborative with other subject matter experts who can, as she frames it, “bring more depth” because they focus on more specific realms. In exchange, she offers innovative and integrated ways to collect and present evidence that are easy to understand and insert into a policy framework.

As she settles into her new role, she looks forward to working with public health and medical researchers, as well as practicing doctors. She foresees there being great opportunities to discuss climate change and air quality impacts on health with clinicians so that they can better support their patients. “I'm very interested in and care a lot about working locally, especially in a place like BC that is affected by heat waves, that's affected by wildfire smoke. Being able to use my work to help my local community, both in Vancouver and BC more broadly, is a really valuable thing that I can do.”