Julie Carter

Incoming master’s student Julie Carter publishes study on public health and climate change in Michigan

Transforming an undergraduate honors thesis into a published paper is a praiseworthy—but seldom realized—ambition in academia, but that’s exactly what incoming master’s student Julie Carter (BS ’19) accomplished. The Program in the Environment (PitE) grad is the lead author of “Assessing perceptions and priorities for health impacts of climate,” published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences in April 2021.

“It is quite phenomenal that Julie was able to turn her undergraduate thesis into a published first-author peer-reviewed paper,” says co-author Dr. Patricia Koman, a research investigator in environmental health sciences at the U-M School of Public Health. “Julie is a scholar with exceptional potential, and SEAS is lucky to have her starting as a graduate student in the fall.” 

Study co-author Dr. Jason Duvall (MS ’05, PhD ’10), a post-doctoral researcher, lecturer, and concentration advisor in PitE, agrees with Koman’s perspective. “Turning an honors thesis into a published paper is indeed pretty rare,” says Duvall. “As you can imagine, there are lots of obstacles that make this very difficult, not the least of which are the shifting priorities post-graduation and the extra effort needed to work through the publication process. Julie has shown a huge amount of grit and dedication for seeing this through.” 

The Research

In their study, Carter and the research team conducted an online survey in partnership with the Michigan Association for Local Public Health (MALPH). Their goal was to assess how local health departments (LHDs) in Michigan perceive the impacts of climate change on public health, such as increased incidences of vector-borne, waterborne, heat-related, and respiratory illness. Because LHDs play a central role in surveillance and preventative health services, they are among the first institutions to contend with those impacts. The researchers then explored how well LHD officials understood the related resources available to them from state and federal agencies. Duvall notes that the “study findings suggested some pretty significant gaps in expertise among this group, despite widespread recognition about the importance of the issue.”  

In their paper, the authors write: “More than three quarters of the Michigan local public health officials agreed climate change will impact health in their jurisdictions; however, only a third of officials agreed that climate change is a priority in their departments. Uncertainty regarding the resources available to local public health officials may hinder LHDs from developing necessary preparedness, so meeting this need could bolster the public health response to climate change.”

Koman notes that the study will have significant impact for state public health officials, including two of the study’s co-authors.

“This work will be foundational for our state Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) co-authors who are competing now for Center for Disease Control (CDC) grants—to try to address some of the gaps the survey identified,” says Koman. 

Koman adds another note of appreciation for Carter’s work.

“It is very inspiring to be involved with exceptional students like Julie who are leading our state as we move toward climate solutions that place health and equity as central values for our future,” says Koman.

We reached out to Julie Carter upon her return from fieldwork in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—where she was performing drone data collection as part of her internship with the Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) physical sciences group. Her experience with MTRI prepares her well for Geospatial Data Sciences, the specialization that she will pursue at SEAS this fall.

Julie Carter Q & A

SEAS: Before we ask about your recently published paper, can you tell us a bit about your projects with MTRI?

CARTER: I've been working on several projects, some related to transportation infrastructure and some related to the environment, namely wildfires and the impacts of wildfire smoke on health. Much of the transportation-related work involves using drones to capture aerial imagery of roads, airport runways, etc. Just recently, in the Upper Peninsula, I was assisting on drone data collection to locate archaeological pit features in some wooded areas. 

SEAS: Thank you, and congratulations again on your publication. To start at the beginning, what motivated you as a PitE student to take on this research for your honors thesis?

CARTER: I was always interested in that intersection where the connection between humans and our environment becomes very real and tangible. One of the most tangible ways that that interaction takes place is in regard to our health, and how the environment around us can impact our health over a wide variety of health outcomes.

So, that was the space I was interested in. And then, having been born and raised in Michigan, I decided that it made sense to focus on the local public health community in my state. It kind of snowballed from there into the thesis, and then now into this publication.

SEAS: It’s very rare to transform an undergraduate thesis into a peer-reviewed paper. How and when did you make the decision to pursue publication?

CARTER: It actually started with my relationship with Dr. Patricia Koman at the U-M School of Public Health. She was one of the academic faculty readers who evaluated the thesis. She’s very active in the space of environment, climate change, and public health, and was a big factor in encouraging me to take this further—beyond just the thesis project. So, after I had presented my research at the PitE Honors Thesis Symposium during the spring that I graduated, we decided that it made sense to pursue publication. I was going to be working with Dr. Koman in a different capacity anyway—helping out on some of her research on wildfire smoke and health —so it was a natural extension.

Also, it was important research to get out in Michigan. There had been similar studies, similar survey work done nationally and in a few other states. But as far as I could tell at the time, there really hadn't been a Michigan-specific version of this sort of question.

SEAS: The process of publication is a challenging one, even for faculty and researchers with long years of experience. What were your greatest challenges in the process?

CARTER: One of the learning experiences for me in this whole process has been navigating this team of people in somewhat different spaces—from academia to governmental public agencies—because they each have their own processes, their own roadblocks, their own review processes. All of that has to be managed. That was one area that I didn't have experience in—so it definitely took a lot of learning on the fly.

But even though it came with those logistical challenges, all of the co-authors have been really great, and without their expertise in their various areas, none of this would have been possible. On the whole, it was a really great part of the collaboration to have all of those perspectives.

SEAS: When you’re ready to publish your next paper, what will you know that you didn’t know before?

CARTER: I definitely think I’ll be more prepared for the next go-around through this process. Obviously, it was my first time through any of this, so I was just feeling my way through, and rolling with the punches as they came. Fortunately, I had a lot of great guidance through the various co-authors. I'm sure with every publication, it’s going to be a bit different every time as there are different challenges surrounding any paper. But I think that establishing a timeline, learning time management, and communication across multiple contexts—those skills are really translatable to whatever the project or publication.

SEAS: Were you surprised by any of the findings in your research?

CARTER: I think some of the results were mainly in line with what I would have thought going in, and some of them were a bit surprising. For instance, probably somewhat predictably, we saw that there was a pretty decent amount of general understanding that climate change, as this “big idea,” can impact health, and can generally impact people’s public health jurisdictions. But when you got down into some of the more granular details—like, in which ways, through what avenues might climate change impact health—the knowledge really seemed to drop off.

That’s what you might expect from people who are very busy dealing with a lot of responsibilities in the public health community, especially during COVID—that’s added so much to their plates. But it was also interesting when it came to asking about the resources that people perceived were available to them. As one example, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is a grantee from the CDC in their Building Resistance Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework. But when you ask the local folks about the expertise and resources available to them from either the state or the CDC, that knowledge was pretty low. It just wasn’t getting through on a local level.

SEAS: Do you have any ideas about a career path that you may pursue after completing your degree?

CARTER: I must admit, I don’t have the exact trajectory yet, but I see how every facet of environment and sustainability—and the intersection of public health—can greatly benefit from a strong foundation in the geospatial information sciences. So, I definitely see geographic information systems, and geospatial data sciences in general, playing a role in whatever space I work in.

SEAS: Was there a particular time/experience that motivated your interest in sustainability issues?

CARTER: Whenever I think about why I chose PitE as an undergraduate, I always attribute it to a couple of things. One of them is to the credit of a really great teacher I had in high school when I took the AP Environmental Science course. Before that, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college. I was all over the map. I really liked English. I really liked writing. I also really liked science, biology, those sorts of things. But when I took that AP course in my junior year of high school, something just clicked into place. Like, “Yeah, that’s a really interesting application of a lot of these skills that I’m developing.” I excelled in that class, and as I said, I had a really great teacher, as well.

Also, I grew up always being outside. My parents did a lot to instill a general love of nature, a love of the environment, and I loved going on nature hikes. I spent most of the summers of my childhood out in the woods in northern Michigan at a YMCA camp, and so I think that was always the “background noise” in my brain—a general appreciation for the environment.

So, when I was looking at colleges and programs, specifically after I got into U-M, I was really drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of PitE and how it really makes the effort to bring different people together and incorporate different perspectives and provide, I think, a really well-rounded environmental education. So, pretty early on, I thought, “Alright, PitE’s my program.” I declared that, and here we are.

SEAS: I saved the easy questions for last: What do you see as the greatest sustainability challenges we’re facing today—and how do you personally plan to solve them?

CARTER: [Laughing] Right, the “easy questions!” It’s hard because all of these things are so interrelated—none of these challenges are separate. You pull on one thread and the whole thing unravels a bit. I do think that climate change is one of the more important ones, and I mean that in the sense that it underscores and exaggerates a lot of other things. Issues of air quality, issues of water quality, issues of wildlife populations—all of those things may not solely be caused by the changing climate, but climate change is certainly exacerbating those things.

It’s always a debate in environmental circles: Do you try to just tackle one thing at a time, or do you try to tackle all of it in a holistic way? I don’t have the answer to that. But I do think that climate has implications that are extremely wide-reaching in terms of all of those issues and on the public health component as well. So that’s an area where a lot of focus needs to be placed.

SEAS: Just one more “bonus” question: What are you most looking forward to as an incoming member of the SEAS Class of ’23?

I’m definitely excited that it looks like things are shaping up to be a largely in-person semester, because I’ve felt for people who have been in school this last year. I can’t imagine going through this process entirely on Zoom.

I’ve learned a lot about some of the geospatial aspects of things in my current internship at MTRI, so I’m definitely looking forward to really drilling down—and building those skills out further.  

But what I’m most looking forward to is continuing to receive the same well-rounded education from multiple perspectives that I know is a hallmark of PitE, and of SEAS, as well.

SEAS: Thank you, Julie. We look forward to welcoming you to SEAS in the fall!