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Bascom has big plans as new lead of Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment’s Health and Environment theme

Accelerating changes to climate and its impact on human health create a renewed urgency for a University-level response that addresses the connections between health and the environment. Among the many areas of development is the Health and the Environment theme of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE). The theme investigates the complexities and connections between the health of the environment and the health of people to identify impactful solutions in a rapidly changing world.

The theme’s lead is Dr. Rebecca Bascom. She is a professor at Penn State College of Medicine in the departments of Medicine and Public Health Sciences as well as a member of the Penn State Cancer Institute, the Institute for Personalized Medicine and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. In her role as theme lead, she works to build partnerships and develop strategies for projects related to health and the environment.

“Across Penn State, I want to create the opportunities for students and trainees to go anywhere to find the people they need to build their careers,” Bascom said. “This is pay forward for the interdisciplinary training environment that made my career possible.”

Bascom’s unique background makes her well-suited for this new role.

“I am both a practicing physician and active clinical researcher with training internal medicine, pulmonary and critical care, clinical immunology, occupational and environmental medicine,” Bascom said. “I, at the same time, completed my Master of Public Health with a focus on preventive and occupational medicine.”

Among her areas of expertise are inhalation toxicology, interstitial lung disease, pulmonary medicine and occupational and environmental medicine.

“I had great difficulty with my master’s level coursework in aerosol physics, which led to collaborations with an aerosol physicist and current connections with Penn State computational fluid dynamic modelers and electrical engineers,” she said.

Recently, Bascom was recognized with the Environmental, Occupational and Population Health (EOPH) Distinguished Career Award of the American Thoracic Society (ATS) for her commitment to advancing the mission of the EOPH assembly through her demonstrated significant and sustained contributions to the assembly in the areas of research, improving public health, teaching, mentoring and service.

Bascom said the EOPH Assembly of the American Thoracic Society has been her scientific home for her entire career.

“It is an interdisciplinary group of individuals, including both doctors of medicine and doctors of philosophy, whose disciplines include inhalation toxicology, epidemiology and population health science and clinical, occupational and environmental medicine,” she said. “As a group, we focus on advancing science and connecting it to the policy needs in the U.S. and internationally. Being recognized by my peers, for whom I have tremendous respect, is a special honor.”

She added that her recent service on the ATS Environmental Health Policy Committee showed the many issues where legislators, regulators and those in public service need input from scientists and clinicians on issues related to environmental health. Penn State’s Research to Policy Collaboration is a pioneer in bridging the science-policy divide, and IEE is supporting building capacity in the health and environment space.

Health and Environment Development

The Institutes of Energy and the Environment is the home of the Health and the Environment theme, supporting researchers and scientists from across the University as they pursue solutions-based research. However, it is certainly not the only entity at Penn State that has been working in this area. By its very nature, work in health and the environment requires deep interdisciplinary partnerships that many Penn State scientists and physicians have been working on for decades.

“I’ve been at the College of Medicine for 25 years and know many of the wonderful clinicians and scientists,” Bascom said. “Penn State is awesome as a scientific powerhouse in energy and the environment. So many people I’ve spoken with at University Park and the Commonwealth Campuses have emphasized their awareness of the importance of connecting energy and environmental forecasts to human health consequences.”

As the IEE Health and the Environment theme continues to mature, Bascom said there are four College of Medicine Strategic Plan goals that Penn State can capitalize on to increase its impact in the health and the environment arena. The first goal is to become a recognized leader in discovery and translational science to improve understanding of human health and mechanisms of disease. Climate change will accelerate the environment’s impact on human health creating opportunities for discovery and translation science.

Bascom said the second goal of developing rapid advances in biomedical research is an important need in the health and the environment realm. Goal three is a focus on health system sciences to enhance health and community impact.

“Our work also aligns with the fourth COM goal of enhancing our culture of excellence,” she said.

Bascom emphasized the need to focus on social justice and to understand and address the aggregated environmental burden of racism and other factors that have resulted in disproportionate impact.

“We need to begin our work by finding those at Penn State who have established, ongoing relationships with diverse communities and ask for their guidance,” she said. “We need to understand what is special about Pennsylvania and opportunities arising from our connections to diverse communities.”

Bascom said ensuring that these advancements are globally available is crucial to success.

One of Bascom’s goals is to establish a health and environment community advisory council, which would meet regularly to provide input on the design, implementation and dissemination of the health and the environment’s priorities and work.

“We need to think carefully and creatively and how to focus our interests into clear questions, competitive grants and high-functioning teams,” she said. “I hope to build a community of fearless and cordial inquiry, where people know each other and are completely comfortable calling on each other for the smallest to the largest collaborations, from quick feedback on an idea to multi-year, multidisciplinary and multi-institutional projects.”

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