UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, May 2015

Spotlight: UCSF OEM Fellow Latifat Apatira

PhotoFor Latifat Apatira, the inspiration to pursue medicine arrived in a UC Berkeley classroom. She had been fascinated by the natural sciences for as long as she could remember. An Integrative Biology undergrad, she was impressed by Tom Carlson, an “amazing lecturer” who happened to be a practicing physician. A light bulb went off for Latifat. “Okay, I’ll follow in his footsteps. I’m going to become a doctor,” she decided. “And that’s how I ended up a med student at UCSF.”  The Center for Occupational & Environmental Health (COEH) Website ran an article recently highlighting her two passions:  medicine and the environment.

After med school, Apatira began a joint internal and preventive medicine residency at Kaiser Permanente and returned to UC Berkeley for a Master’s Degree in Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences.  She recently worked for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on the Sustainable Climate Resistant Health Care Infrastructure Initiative — a project designed to help hospitals become resilient to extreme weather events associated with climate change.  Currently, Apatira’s research explores how the built environment influences physical inactivity.

The Office of Sustainability had a chance to ask Apatira a few questions.

1.  What class or experience shaped your passion for the environment?

My passion for the environment started in childhood. My parents instilled in me a love for the natural world. Despite being raised in the heart of San Francisco, we spent our weekends outdoors, north and south of the city, from Point Reyes National Seashore to the Santa Cruz Mountains and all the parks and open spaces in between. In elementary school I told my parents I wanted to be a naturalist and a park ranger. I collected rocks, pine cones, and pressed flowers and leaves. In high school I took AP Environmental Science and worked for the San Francisco Department for the Environment as an EarthCorps member where I taught grade school students about “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” In college, I took a variety of environmental themed courses and read the works of historical environmental giants such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abby, and Rachel Carson. Now, as an adult, I still fancy myself a student of natural history and environmental science and enjoy every opportunity to learn and experience more.

2.  How do you see the connection between environmental health and physical movement?

For most people and for most of the time that man has been on earth, being physical activity was a necessary part of life. On the specific point of transportation, even on a horse or camel or wagon, getting from point A to point B required some active physical endeavor. Walking was an everyday occurrence. I don’t mean walking for exercise, rather I’m talking about simple act walking for the purpose of getting from one destination to another. But with time, came change. We’ve moved from the farm to cities and suburbs. Highways became and still are the arteries that connect our points of daily interest which have gotten further and further apart. The way we’ve designed our cities and suburbs, known as the built environment—the space we live, work, school, play and transport through—has had a profound impact of the way we move on a day to day basis.

3.  What are your thoughts on the Park Prescription and getting patients outside and moving?

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Healthy Parks Healthy People Leadership Meeting. The National Park Service and other state, county and city recreational agencies participating in Park Prescription programs are doing wonderful work highlighting the benefits of engaging in physical activities in natural places and spaces. Tons of scientific studies have been published documenting the effect of contact with nature and green spaces with various significant positive health outcomes. According to the American Public Health Association, access to nature has been associated with lower levels of illness and death, higher amounts of outdoor physical activity, relief from stress, a greater sense of well-being, and improved social capital. With the development of the Parks Prescription and Health Parks Healthy People programs, I’ve come to appreciate the practical ways local parks and open preservers can serve as low-cost and potentially accessible health promotion strategy worthy of a “prescription”.

As I go forth with my career, it’s my intention to be an active participant with such programs for three reasons:

1) to learn more about the land and become a stronger advocate to empower public policy statements for nature’s role in promoting and maintaining general wellness,

2) to assist in integrating equitable access to natural environments with health care services to support prevention of illnesses and treatment of disease, and

3) to give back to parks and open spaces- a most valuable resource which must be protected for my generation and prosperity. 

4. What one call to action would you suggest for the UCSF community to be healthier?

Simple. Walk. I’m not saying run on a treadmill or go to a gym, I’m saying re-instate walking as an activity of daily living. If you are physically capable and have somewhere to go that’s less than two miles away and if it’s safe to be a pedestrian, break the dependence on passive transport and walk. Make walking the default. Not only is doing so a great way to unintentionally incorporate physical activity into our lives, it’s an opportunity to notice the details of the world around us we would otherwise miss as we wiz by in our self-contained cars. It’s an opportunity to say hello to your neighbors, strike up a short conversation with a stranger, build on social capital. Similarly, if you have less than six stories to go up in a building, take the stairs. Make the elevator a personal taboo. It’s the very small things that may make a big difference in our health and overall quality of life.

Note:  This piece previously ran on the COEH Website.