John Nicklas ’20 GS grew up loving the natural world. Now, he hopes to protect it.
A second-year medical student currently on leave from the Alpert Medical School, Nicklas is additionally enrolled in a PhD program focused on planetary health in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences.
Planetary health is an interdisciplinary field that studies the links between human health and the health of the planet’s natural systems and resources. Together with his advisor Baylor Fox-Kemper, professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, Nicklas created a “self-designed” program over roughly three years that allows him to merge his mathematical skills, environmental interests and clinical goals. “It’s an inspiring thing to see how he’s designing (his path),” Fox-Kemper said.
In recent years, the University has increasingly focused on the intersection of climate change and human health, according to Fox-Kemper. Nicklas’s work in the field of planetary health is just one of many interdisciplinary efforts to study climate change occurring between the Med School, the School of Public Health and DEEPS, Fox-Kemper said.
Currently, Nicklas is working alongside Fox-Kemper, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine Katelyn Moretti and Professor Emeritus of Applied Mathematics Charles Lawrence on multiple research projects, including one focused on mitigation techniques for groups vulnerable to diseases as a result of climate change.
The Herald spoke to Nicklas, as well as three experts, about the study of planetary health.
Addressing the root of the cause
Nicklas’s interest in climate largely stems from “the parts of the natural world that I experienced growing up,” he said. “Going outside on a winter day when the whole world is frosted like a cake is just one of the most incredible feelings to me.”
While in high school, Nicklas took mathematics courses at the University of Michigan and patented a new design for wind turbines using principles from sailing.
These early experiences forged a love of nature, quantitative analysis and creative innovation, Nicklas said — which in turn guided him when he came to Brown in 2016 as an undergraduate in the Program in Liberal Medical Education.
Though he concentrated in applied math and biology, he was intrigued by climate change and planetary health. At Brown, Nicklas successfully patented an innovation in solar power and another in 3D printing.
The analytical skills that Nicklas gained in his undergraduate program allowed him to succeed across fields, Fox-Kemper said.
Nicklas explained that although he knew he wanted to help individual patients as a clinician, he also wanted to pursue work that could have a population-level impact. “I wanted to invent and do things to help people,” he added.
His undergraduate years, however, showed him that it “is very rare … for a doctor to cure the fundamental thing going wrong” in clinical medicine, he said. By pursuing a career in planetary health, Nicklas believes that he can help individuals and populations while addressing the root causes of diverse health challenges.
Examining how climate impacts health — and health care impacts climate
Shifting weather patterns, natural disasters and fluctuating temperatures will become more widespread as climate change progresses — in Rhode Island, for example, the annual number of days with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit has more than doubled, according to Ellen Tohn, assistant professor of epidemiology.
Extreme heat has problematic consequences for human health, Nicklas explained, noting that it is linked to rises in cardiovascular disease, suicide and violent crime while also worsening chronic conditions due to dehydration and overheating.
Climate change will have countless other health impacts: Air pollution and wildfires may exacerbate respiratory illnesses, while cold areas experiencing increasingly rainy winters will see icy conditions that lead to falls and car accidents, said Teddie Potter, director of planetary health for the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota.
Climate change’s impacts extend to nutrient sources as well, Nicklas explained, noting that recent studies show that crops lose nutrients when grown in environments with high levels of carbon dioxide.
The impacts of climate change will affect each population and individual differently, Nicklas added. “Now, it is up to humans to do something and adapt to (these) changes,” he said.
One of planetary health’s primary goals is conducting solution-oriented research that seeks to gain “information for adaptation” in order to reduce harmful health impacts from climate change, Fox-Kemper explained.
But planetary health is not just limited to understanding the environment’s impacts on human health — it also explores the impacts of human health care on the environment, according to Potter.
As health care systems aim to confront the impacts of climate change, they will increasingly have to grapple with how their own actions exacerbate the problem: The U.S. health care industry contributes roughly 8.5% of domestic carbon dioxide emissions, she said.
“If we’re really a do-no-harm sector, then we’ve got to live it,” Tohn said. “The health care sector has to work on its own emissions.” Clinicians who understand the relationship between health care and the environment must play a central role in maintaining a focus on climate change, she said.
“Planetary health gives us a blueprint of how we need to begin transforming our systems,” Potter said. “We know that harming our environment is always going to harm the people who have the least assets. Any path forward has got to be a just solution.”