Invisible Dust

London | Tuesday 26 March
Pollution level: Moderate

Hearing From Our Fellows: Isobel Routledge


Art, science, humanities, activism, climate change, women… How do they all relate? How can we cohesively (and usefully) bring these topics and approaches together? Why should we? These questions seemed interesting and complicated. I like interesting and complicated problems, especially when they can be simplified with some good ideas, which is why I was keen to work with Invisible Dust.

I am a PhD student in infectious disease epidemiology – which is the study of the patterns of where, when and who gets ill. Like many people, I have never felt comfortable in one discipline or doing one thing. There is satisfaction to be found in the intersections and combinations of seemingly disparate perspectives and practices. Although my day to day involves a lot of computer code and statistics, I also write, draw, make things and spend a lot of my spare time hanging upside-down and balancing on people as part of a contemporary circus collective. Yet the supposed dichotomy between art and science is still the dominant narrative that many of us grow up with, as if science cannot be creative and subjective and art cannot involve procedure and objectivity. There’s an equally false and problematic dichotomy in the presentation of science as masculine and art as feminine; science as action based, purposeful and “true” and art as aesthetically pleasing, something to own or experience.

As a result, the rare opportunity provided by the Under Her Eye fellowship to learn from different practitioners and researchers and create interesting work collaboratively appealed to me. I am excited to be involved in a soundscape project, under the incredibly caring eye (and ear) of UHE fellow Claire McGinn. During the Under Her Eye weekend we will work with members of the public to create imagined soundscapes, exploring our relationship with sound and our immediate environment.

Working collaboratively on this project allowed me to explore academic interests outside of the realm of my PhD. For example, the relationship between the built environment and health/wellbeing fascinates me. I am interested in how people perceive, navigate through and exist in environments not traditionally seen as conducive to good health, such as densely populated urban areas, derelict or decaying spaces and informal settlements. This is something I haven’t had the chance to explore as much as I’d like, so have appreciated being able to discuss this with another one of our fellows, the talented and lovely Natalie Lee. Her practice as an artist and researcher is highly relevant and I’ve really valued the conversations with her over the fellowship weekend – from psychogeography to meander lines to community gardening!

As I touched on earlier, my work focuses on the patterns of where, when and who gets ill. I specifically research malaria in settings which have made good progress in controlling the disease, but where some people are still getting sick. Studying these patterns can improve our understanding of the processes driving disease transmission and inform strategies to improve people’s health. So how does this relate to climatic change? Environmental and social factors, such as changes to rainfall and migration patterns, are key drivers for many diseases. This is certainly true for malaria.
Malaria transmission is dependent upon the ecology of the mosquitoes which transmit the infection, meaning it is highly sensitive to factors such as rainfall, temperature and land use. The specific impact of these changes on the global burden of malaria are hard to tease apart because they often vary together, influence each other and are very variable over time and space. However it is clear that malaria transmission is likely to be impacted by both the socio-political and ecological impacts of climatic change.

Migration and climate refugeeism is a major potential outcome of climatic and environmental change. Human population movement has huge impacts on infectious disease transmission, as people carry the microorganisms , and often diseases need a critical mass of susceptible people in order to spread. In addition, housing quality, sanitation and access to healthcare are central to the control of many diseases, something which is likely to be affected by the down-stream effects of large changes in climate.

Moving away from infectious diseases, our environment has massive impacts on a wide variety of illnesses. Many people recognise that those living near a factory producing large concentrations of pollutants or near a busy motorway may be at higher risk of respiratory diseases or certain cancers, however access to the natural world also could have health implications. The role of access to green space and the natural world has increasingly been recognised by the public health community as important in reducing the risk of many common mental health conditions and improve wellbeing. Of course, not everyone has the same level of access to green spaces and what we traditionally deem biodiverse environments (although a wealth of organisms do live on and in buildings, pavement cracks and rooftops!). Unequal access to green space and nature, like exposure to air pollution and carcinogens, can be argued as an issue of ecological and social justice. Analysis of a survey of over 20,000 residents from 34 European countries suggested that good access to green space was strongly associated with a reduced the gap in socioeconomic inequality in mental well-being, whilst other features like access to transport, financial services and even cultural facilities were not associated with the same effect. Whilst there is no quick fix to deep structural inequalities in society, I think this is an interesting example of how our relationship with health and the environment intersect with how society is structured, and how changes to our environments can disrupt and interact with these relationships.

Many aspects of women’s health are disproportionately affected by climate change and related phenomena such as land use change, in part due to their environment. Gender roles determine where people spend the majority of their time – indoors or outdoors, in agricultural fields or in wet markets. Each environment is associated with risks of health being impacted positively or negatively. For example, in many countries women are at much higher risk of respiratory illnesses due to spending more time indoors and exposed to pollutants released when burning fuels like coal and wood. Conversely in some areas working age men are at much higher risk of contracting malaria as they spend time working in places with more exposure to mosquitoes such as agriculture or mining. Gender roles determine who makes important behavioural decisions such as food purchases. They also determine who takes actions which could mitigate climate change, for example through decisions around household purchases, fuel use and use of particular medicines or interventions.

Despite the negatives and uncertainties, the potential health impacts of climate change also provide a powerful opportunity for inspiring action. Human and livestock/crop health is an area with a great deal of political, commercial and charitable support behind it. Health touches the lives of everyone. Everyone has health and most know what it feels like for it to worsen for them or their loved ones. The health impacts of climate change can also be a motivator for increased investment in mitigation and adaptation strategies. Many charitable funders, researchers, clinicians and policymakers have increasingly taken a “One Health” perspective – that human, animal and environmental health are integrally linked, and one must understand and protect animal and environmental health in order to improve human health sustainably. This is a quite a pragmatic argument for climate change action, but I feel a very strong one.

Early on in the fellowship weekend, we drew interesting and complicated, spidery diagrams linking all of us fellows together based on what we had in common. At first we tried to find deep intellectual links between our very different practices and areas of research. However the things which linked us and sparked the most enthusiasm in connection were often not so complex. Food, and love of animals were popular connections. I think this was an important lesson for us which we would return to later in the week around connecting to others in our work. I think health is one of those universal things which can connect us. Although health will and is being affected by global change, by viewing our own health as being intrinsically linked with the health of our environment, both natural and man-made, I think we can make positive steps towards better health for ourselves and our planet.


Isobel Routledge is part of the Wellcome Trust 4 Year PhD programme in the Epidemiology, Evolution and Control of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London. Her work centres around developing ways to measure and analyse the transmission of malaria in settings nearing elimination.










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