UCSF Sustainability Stories

Kailyn Klotz, Sustainability Fellow, 2017

Carbon Neutrality Fellows Incorporate Environmental Topics into Education

“Climate change is something that our profession is going to have to confront in a really big way, and that attitude is not reflected in the curriculum right now,” said UCSF medical student, Carolyn Rennels.

Second year medical students, Gabriela Weigel and Carolyn Rennels, have spent much of their fall quarter as Carbon Neutrality Initiative fellows (CNI) coordinating an elective course titled ‘Women, the Environment, and Physician Activism: Encouraging Activism through Education.’ This course consisted of ten, one hour long lecture sessions given by a wide range of professionals on topics that included inequality, prenatal health, and sustainable food practices. Dr. Robert Gould, who was the faculty adviser for this course, has been a key player in pushing these topics into the health field and education. “He’s essentially working on how health professionals should be involved in these issues. Health professionals are respected by society, so how can we use that power for good? He has really helped us organize the class,” explained Carolyn.


Dr. Gould leads a session called Generations at Risk: Introduction to Environmental Health and Health Professional Activism





The course was offered to first and second year medical students as an OB-GYN elective. “I initially got into this because I am very interested in going into OB-GYN and so the connection between woman’s health and potential reproductive justice and environmental impacts was very interesting,” said Gabriela. She continued, “Pregnant woman are way more likely to be concerned about environmental issues than just the normal, everyday person.”

Because of the heightened levels of concern, topics regarding health and the environment are first being integrated into OB-GYN and reproductive health curriculum. “It’s kind of like a pilot run to integrating it more broadly,” Carolyn described. Through courses like these the hope is to raise interest and create demand to have these types of conversations in other classes as well. The CNI Fellows explained that students are asked to take pre- and post- course surveys, which “assesses comfort and motivation to talk about the issues, and whether or not students think they are important.”

However, a course that highlights the effects of climate change and environmental dangers runs the risk of being more depressing than motivational. “We want to provide concrete ways to approach a very ominous and kind of scary topic, using the power that comes with being a health professional and the voice it gives you,” said Gabriela. “We want to leave students with action items and use case based learning where the outcomes were positive,” added Carolyn.

To achieve this, speakers were asked to talk about specific action items that students could do, or provide them with helpful resources. For example, Dr. Mark Miller, UCSF Assistant Clinical Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine (Division of Occupational and Environmental Health), Co-Director of the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) at UCSF, and the director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the California Environmental Protection Agency, presented about pediatric environmental health and made available an online toolkit that he worked to create with the PEHSU staff. The toolkit assists clinicians in incorporating preventive environmental health messages into routine pediatric care. He is also the primary author of “The Story of Health”, a multi-media E-book that promotes the environment and health through storytelling.

In addition to the ten speaker sessions, the final course session was a showing of the documentary ‘Merchants of Doubt’, a film which identifies causes of misinformation and public confusion in regards to climate change. It highlights parallels between groups involved in the tobacco industry and those pushing for oil and denying climate change. “The documentary does a good job at explaining that science doesn’t always do very well at communicating to the public,” said Gabriela. Carolyn added, “The people who are perpetuating climate change are really good at this stuff, and although we maybe have the science we aren’t very good at communicating. This is kind of the issue of our time and to not train health professionals in it seems crazy to me. You can’t just rely on Leonardo DiCaprio for everything.”

While it’s not impossible to avoid the doom and gloom, empowerment enables a sense of hope and helps to remove the barriers of fear and denial that come with negative environmental concerns and the health factors that accompany them. Everyone needs to be empowered to make change or change won’t happen. Through education and providing response tools to tough issues, students can be empowered to speak and act on these topics as health professionals and in their everyday lives.