IGCoffeeConvo with Alasdair Cohen

 August 21, 2020

Written by Sarah Kuchinsky

As more and more meetings become virtual, we are all keenly aware of “Zoom fatigue”. And yet, as I was gearing up for my final Zoom meeting of the week, this phenomenon didn’t cross my mind. I was excited to attend my first IGC Coffee Convo, and spend some time conversing and connecting with other members of the IGC community. On August 13th, fellows Nicole Ward (Biological Sciences), Becca O’Brien (Fish and Wildlife Conservation) and I (Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology) spent an hour chatting with GCC faculty member Dr. Alasdair Cohen (Population Health Sciences).

Topics of discussion ranged from working with PIs in the field and supportive mentors to universal access to safe water. This Coffee Convo even served as networking opportunity for Nicole, as a 5th year PhD student with thoughts on job prospects, and a potential connection with a colleague of Dr. Cohen.

Much of our conversation centered around Dr. Cohen’s work with The Berkeley/China-CDC Program for Water & Health and future parallel projects in rural Appalachia. He discussed his work on assessing behavior changes in a public health intervention using electric kettles as a tool for safer water and cleaner air. The public health intervention was simple: use a kettle to boil water instead of burning biomass. The idea was that rural households in China were already boiling their water everyday but by using a different means to do so, not only would one achieve the goal of safe drinking water but also reduce household air pollution. The expansion of the Berkeley/China/Virginia Tech Program for Water & Health will allow Dr. Cohen to work with communities in rural Appalachia. He is in the project planning phase and hopes to collaborate with faculty in Appalachian Studies. He stressed the critical role community engagement has on multiple aspects of implementing public health initiatives.

Finishing out the hour was a dialogue on whether some public health initiatives may be at odds with environmental goals, such as bottled water campaigns. While bottled or packaged water is a partial solution for accessing safe water in low-and middle-income countries, its dependence may be seen as a risk rather than putting effort into seeking sustainable solutions (ceramic filters, electric kettles, and community based dissemination of sanitized municipal water). Cohen has written about this topic here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326424524_The_global_risks_of_increasing_reliance_on_bottled_water.

This hour-long discussion showcased the importance of interdisciplinary work, a cornerstone of the training for IGC fellows. Public health interventions involve collaboration between public health experts, infectious disease experts, environmental experts, policy makers and other public officials. I am looking forward to future conversations demonstrating the when/how/where science and policy work together for the betterment of our global community!