Bryan Brooks

Season 3 - Episode 302
January 10, 2020

Bryan Brooks
Bryan Brooks

An internationally-recognized leader in water quality, the environment and health, Bryan Brooks has galvanized stakeholders from around the world to partner, identify and address the planet’s most significant environmental challenges. In this Baylor Connections, Brooks, the distinguished professor of environmental science and biomedical studies and director of Baylor’s environmental health science program, examines meaningful environmental issues and shares how partnerships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Environmental Health Association have launched initiatives designed to spark meaningful change.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Dr. Bryan Brooks. Dr. Brooks is the distinguished Professor of Environmental Science and Biomedical Studies at Baylor, and Director of Baylor's Environmental Health Science Program. He's an Internationally recognized leader in topics related to water, environment and health. As Director of Baylor's Pioneering Environmental Health Science Program, Brooks works with students and International stakeholders in transdisciplinary research to address issues related to urban growth and water resources, chemicals, public health and more. Brooks serves as principal investigator and as the lead author on influential papers examining key environmental health issues in the UNCOVER EH program launched by Baylor in 2017 along with the National Environmental Health Association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Brooks thanks so much for joining us.

Bryan Brooks:

Thank you for having me.

Derek Smith:

It's great to have you here, your research on water quality has really elevated that conversation, and Baylor's Environmental Health Science program really has led the way in a lot of ways.

Bryan Brooks:

What we have been doing for many years is working on water challenges. And so if you look at the history going back to the mid to late 60s, I consider the pioneers at Baylor, people like Professor Owen Lind who's now retired, but made tremendous contributions in the space. In fact, he was the first Director of something called the Institute of Environmental Studies. Started in 1969 one of the oldest environment programs in the country. And then when we think about the pre-medical and the health related activities that Baylor has been involved with in different dimensions for so many years, environmental health science provided a unique opportunity to bridge to historic strengths. And so thinking about how environment affects human health, is really the core of that activity. But the broader efforts at Baylor certainly don't need to be diminished. Because It's a pretty exciting time to think about what's happening in water and health.

Derek Smith:

For you personally what are the questions that drive your research and the work you do?

Bryan Brooks:

It's pretty fascinating because oftentimes we're always excited by what's next or what we're doing now. We don't always reflect back, but I think about when I was just a curious undergraduate in a world class faculty member, it took time to mentor me.He was a really an outstanding water researcher and an open up to a whole new world that I never considered, I had not thought about pursuing questions related to water resources, water quality and ecosystems and health, and so I became fascinated by what I consider an urbanizing water cycle. The phase of the planet has really been changing. We have more people living in cities now than ever before, and by 2050 over 70% of all people will live in urban areas. And so what we're doing is we're concentrating the resource use in those cities, as we're concentrating the human densities. Things like food, energy and water, now present tremendous opportunities for innovation, for a more judicious management in these concentrated ways. But we're also concentrating things like chemical use, and unfortunately if you look not just in our backyard but even more so around the world, in low to middle income countries, some of the real challenges that urbanization and resources and the connections with health are actually quite profound.

Derek Smith:

Where does your work take you and maybe not just in terms of this continent or that continent because you've traveled to a lot of them, but the places that we might find you conducting your research, what do they look like?

Bryan Brooks:

Well, we've studied over a dozen watersheds in the State Of Texas. Texas is quite fascinating. We have a number of the largest and fastest growing metropolitan areas in North America. We also have a pretty pronounced climate gradient, if you think about the little rainfall and in El Paso relative to the much higher rainfall that we get in Houston for example every year. And so we're at this cross ways of the intersection of urbanization and climate. So that's provided unique opportunities. So we are obviously working in our own backyard so to speak. But, those types of issues are pervasive around the world. And so our research is based upon questions and sometimes those questions take us to different places. We're honored to work with colleagues on six continents and that provides tremendous opportunities for us to learn from their unique experiences, disciplinary expertise, cultural perspectives, but then also to be able to provide platforms for our students to engage questions that scale certainly around the world.

Derek Smith:

Talking with Dr. Bryan Brooks and Dr. Brooks you talk about environmental science, you talk about health. What are the various disciplines that come to play when we're talking about this research? Because it touches so many different areas.

Bryan Brooks:

I have lots of hobbies. I think I embraced this curiosity and so in some ways instilling the opportunities to ask new questions with students is really what I love about the things that we do here at Baylor. But the life sciences, it was really my training and then I picked up more expertise in the Chemical Sciences, and so on one day maybe it looks like we're working on an Ecology question and another day maybe it looks like it's an Environmental Chemistry or Engineering. Another day it maybe a Toxicology or Public Health. And so those types of connections and in fact the way that undergraduates are involved in research in our lab and how we recruit graduate students specifically from the life or chemical physical sciences into our, our research program here reflects those interests.

Derek Smith:

Talking with Dr. Bryan Brooks, and Dr. Brooks you and your students, you do this, you want to help people, and there's a sense of mission that's been evident in your work. But where did that sense of mission come from for you and what impact did your own family experiences as growing up on that?

Bryan Brooks:

Well, you never anticipate, I think what you might do if you're just following your interests, and I think that's where the curiosity has taken us. But I remember early on, hearing stories from my grandfather who had served as a missionary in different places around the world. I remember him talking about the challenges with water, he was drilling wells in the late 50s early 60s in the Philippines for example, just trying to provide a higher quality drinking water supplies for people. But as a younger person, I never anticipated that I might be working on similar challenges and similar low resource settings. So it's certainly a humbling, but it's a tremendously gratifying to see the opportunities that our students are able to have and the contributions that they're making to hopefully result in more sustainable water and health for everyone.

Derek Smith:

Well, you as an Environmental Scientist take an interest, certainly you have public servants who are interested, industry takes an interest in topics like these. So what is UNCOVER EH, how did it come together and what is it that it's working to do?

Bryan Brooks:

It was an idea and I was very fortunate some years ago to participate in something called the Environmental Public Health Leadership Institute that our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put on. And I was able to connect more closely with some colleagues at CDC, but then in working with students and local practitioners, basically environmental health professionals that are responsible for keeping our water safe, our food safe, our homes healthy in cities and states, around the country in our own backyard. The idea was very simple. Can we provide an opportunity to think together. In some ways we might consider it the science of science, but it's very simple. And we built upon a horizon scanning model, which is to say, "Look, these folks are doing incredibly important work, but it goes under the radar." We oftentimes don't know the important work that is going on in somewhere like the McClinton, at McLennan County Public Health District. But if those folks aren't there, our health of our community would really be negatively impacted. And so can we identify what the challenges are that are facing them now, what they see coming in the future and thus that may be able to position us to actually avoid the problems that we see creep up when disasters happen or the new vector borne disease moves in, or basically something shows up on the nightly news on the front page of the paper because people got sick, and sometimes perished.

Derek Smith:

And just to clarify explicitly. We were working to help the people on the ground in a lot of ways and certainly public health professionals as you mentioned, the people who serve them, but who all is weighing in on this, because it would seem just from reading about this a little bit, just how hard it's going to be to get so many very busy people together just to be able to focus on this.

Bryan Brooks:

It's all about partnerships, it's all about people. And I think we see that obviously at the University because our mission is the people that we're training or mentoring. But it's like that, of course in any profession, it's all about the people that are doing the work, and so I'm a simple guy, let's just ask people that are working in health departments, in local governments and state governments and federal settings, what they see coming, what are the challenges they face, what are the opportunities that maybe presenting to address those challenges? And so we had a wonderful partnership. This project is funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and certainly some outstanding leaders there, Commander Justin Gordon, Captain John [inaudible] retired from the public health service, but really he's an incredible leader in the space. And we partnered with the National Enviromental Health Association, and so we were able to tap into establish networks of environmental health professionals and then did additional outreach to try to be as inclusive as possible. I think it was a challenge, no one's seriously tried to do this since the early 1960s, but I think that's why there's so much interest in what we're seeing, the information that is being provided that actually is perhaps a little bit surprising, but is helping us to identify some areas where we do need to put some decided attention in the future.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections, we are visiting with Dr. Bryan Brooks, distinguished Professor of Environmental Science and Health here at Baylor, distinguished Professor of Environmental Science and Biomedical Studies and Director of Baylor's Environmental Health Science Program, and Dr. Brooks, you mentioned some interesting findings. What are some of the things that as you visit with people you came away most eager to investigate or most in intrigued to study more?

Bryan Brooks:

Well, where there's multi-facets it's hearing, so it's tough to prioritize, but what we were able to do, is provide an opportunity for environmental professionals to feed in. So the environmental health professionals from across the country, I mean 48 States, multiple territories, not Puerto Rico, because when our survey was initially filtered, there had been a major hurricane, and so things like disaster, risk reduction we now see is one of the third most common program areas that environmental public health professionals are engaging. But what we did is after we received information from them, we had synthesis workshops and one of these essentially focuses on common areas like food and water and healthy homes, vector born diseases. And so from each of those areas we essentially have problems, statements that were developed, and not by me, we're facilitating, but by the people that are actually doing the job. The folks that are working in different capacities in different places around the country. And so I think there are some common threads that we're starting to see, and certainly we see the gradients in terms of development, in some cases resulting in limited resources and more rural, Peri-urban spaces across our country. But then that growth can also stress existing challenges. And we see intersections with the urbanization and the climate as I was describing earlier in Texas, that also tends to play out. And then the extreme events, the new threats, anything from cannabis products and food to a special events that may stress existing resources and the movement of new vectors as the climate is warming into new regions that have not caused problems in the past. So there's gradients, I think then there's some trends that we're certainly observing across the country that are affecting local communities.

Derek Smith:

Are these part of those six key areas that you are able to really put forward as those statements?

Bryan Brooks:

That's right, yes. So the areas were basically defined based upon the information that came in. And so there was a qualitative research method that essentially identify the common themes, and then they essentially the input from over 1700 people across the country was partitioned among these themes, and then synthesize by these representative enviromental health professionals to form the problem statements across the different themes.

Derek Smith:

What are those problem statements we can ask all at once?

Bryan Brooks:

Like I said there's 29 and so they're partitioned among drinking water, waste water management. We don't think about the connections between wastewater and drinking water, but in many places what we realize is it really everywhere around the world, we're going to have to embrace a one water concept. We've been recycling water on space stations, on battleships desalinising and having innovative treatments that are developed and water reuse or water recycling, this one water concept is incredibly important in places like Texas to be able to meet our future water demands, but then the intersections with food safety and a vector born diseases or other topical areas. So there are some decided challenges, but I see that as challenging as some of these topics may appear, there's always opportunities and really it's helping us identify where we should be trying to push our efforts forward to address those challenges.

Derek Smith:

Dr. Brooks we've been talking about UNCOVER EH, I want to ask you about the Global Horizon Scanning Project that you've been involved with. In what ways is it similar to what we've been talking about, but in what ways is it different?

Bryan Brooks:

So UNCOVER EH with our partners CDC and National Environmental Health Association has really focused on environmental public health professionals that are working in government agencies that are in the communities. These are our friends and neighbors, our family members that are being protected by their efforts, but we don't really know what they're doing. Now, the Global Horizons Scanning Project focuses more on science and engineering types of research questions that are needed to be answered to move toward addressing some of the biggest challenges that we see. A Grand Challenges, for example, is a term that is used early on by the Gates foundation by other bodies, including the academies, the United States, to essentially think about moonshots. What are the big challenges that are out there? In some ways what we're doing with Global Horizon Scanning, is simply asking people from around the world, from different disciplines, not just from academia but also from business and government, what they think we ought to be doing. But we do it in a structured way. So we're trying to almost reverse engineer toward meeting those Grand Challenges in five year project blocks. And so after asking people what their questions are, again Horizon Scanning a model, this comes into synthesis workshops with people from the different disciplines, from academia, government, business, and then we had multiple workshops around the world so that we could focus on the challenges that may be, nationally important, but then even more Continental importance. For example, our work in Latin America, which was published last year.

Derek Smith:

What are those conversations like? Obviously when you get different stakeholders together, you think it would enrich the conversation. What leaps out to you when you hear people from these different disciplines talking together?

Bryan Brooks:

I think it's been so well received and it was incredible. You might think there might be some disagreements, but here in a day and age where it seems we can't always agree on much. Someone who facilitated this project and all these workshops, there was never a strong disagreement. In fact, the reaching of consensus was perhaps the easiest I've seen despite coming from different countries, different disciplines and business versus government versus academics, they don't always agree as well. And so I think that the idea of the process being completely transparent, inclusive, bottom up, there's no hidden agenda. We're just trying to think together.

Derek Smith:

Talking to Dr. Bryan Brooks and Dr. Brooks as we head into the final couple of moments of the program, what do you do, whether it's such as say Latin America, just because that's so much part of our home here, right on our doorstep. How do you, after you visit, obviously as an Environmental Scientist, you and your students, this is what you focus on. But if you're a business person or another stakeholder who life keeps on moving with the demands you face, how do you work together to make sure that these stay forefront and to keep that sense of momentum?

Bryan Brooks:

Well, I think there's several ways. Before we were doing this project, we were already engaging our colleagues in substantive research. For example, there's a current graduate student working with us here at Baylor that was an undergraduate student working with a colleague of mine in Brazil. We continue to have students that visit us from various places, Argentina, Puerto Rico, elsewhere. The point is that the common research questions oftentimes scale space. And in some ways there are natural connections to places like Latin America, Asia, where some of the challenges that I think globally we face at the intersection of things like water and health are so pronounced.And so as we think about engaging in the future, we've learned some lessons through not only individual research but these Global Horizon Scanning activities, the science of science. Imagine a process that is just transparent, inclusive of the disciplines of stakeholders, it's not surprising why multiple entities in Latin America in Brazil, for example, have selected the key research questions identified through this project for strategic funding. And these are some of the biggest challenges are facing local and global health around the world.

Derek Smith:

Talking to Dr. Bryan Brooks and at Dr. Brooks, final question though wish we had time for more here as we tie this all together, when you talk about bringing stakeholders together, you're thinking about the future and you're working with your students, you're thinking about the future. How does all this that we've been talking about impact the work you do with your Baylor students and hopefully helping them become those leaders as we look out on the horizon?

Bryan Brooks:

Well, let's think about it. In the sciences and engineering exercises, rote memorization in a classroom is not sufficient to be able to develop the critical thinking skills, the additional abilities that businesses and government agencies are looking for. We always joke that people describe the challenges getting jobs, we see no challenges really for our students getting jobs. In fact, they tend to be in pretty high demand, not just because I think they're being prepared well here at Baylor, but also because the challenges are pervasive and the job prospects are certainly out there. And so if I think about the integration of students into research, it's that curiosity that we're cultivating in more of a structured way that allows you to dive into questions of interest to you. And of course when we're thinking about the connections between water ecosystems and health, well some of these challenges are so meaningful. And oftentimes students have some personal connection whether they've been on a vacation and come back with a bug and maybe they've been involved in a mission trip and they've seen how other people live every day. Or just because they've read articles or books or watched videos that have opened the world to them. And so that integration within research I think is absolutely the purest form of teaching. Because textbooks are oftentimes several years old and by the time you start using them, and so if you're staying with the current knowledge, then you're allowed to be put in a position to ask the question to truly move science understanding, but then also the translational benefits of that work to really benefit the natural world and the health of our family, friends and neighbors.

Derek Smith:

Well, I've seen you've really painted that picture and some pretty important topics, so we'll look forward to hearing more about this work that you're doing in the number of weeks, months and years ahead and maybe talk to you again down the line, is more coalesces around some of these topics. Well, Dr. Bryan Brooks, thanks so much for joining us, it's been great to have you here on the program.

Bryan Brooks:

It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Derek Smith:

Dr. Bryan Brooks, distinguished Professor of Environmental Science and Biomedical Studies at Baylor our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith, a reminder you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on, Baylor Connections.