SPHHS Hosts Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Meeting


“Health scientists meet rocket scientists” is how Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) Professor George Gray describes the fifth annual meeting of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Health and Environment Community of Practice, which SPHHS hosted. The meeting, funded by NASA and co-sponsored by the American Meteorological Society, brought together experts from federal agencies, academia, and international organizations to discuss the use of Earth observations to advance health.

“Earth observations” include data collected by satellites, weather balloons, buoys in oceans, stream gauges, air monitors, and other such technologies. GEO’s Health and Environment Community of Practice (CoP) is one of several international collaborations working to enhance the integration of these observations. The Health and Environment CoP’s focus is on using the data to improve health – for instance, by predicting disease outbreaks or damage from natural disasters, which can inform response efforts and reduce the toll to human health.

“We’re bringing together people who measure things about the Earth and people who can use those measurements to protect public health,” explains Gray, who set up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) GEO office while he was serving as the agency’s Assistant Administrator for Research and Development, the position he held before coming to GW.

Sixty meeting participants came from the US, Africa, Europe, and South America. They included representatives from US agencies – EPA, NASA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) – as well as from other countries’ agencies and universities, and from international organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and World Health Organization (WHO).

Presentations at the meeting addressed ongoing and potential new GEO projects, with an emphasis on vector- and water-borne diseases and how climate disruption will influence their spread. Air quality was also a major theme, and presenters discussed transmission of air-borne diseases like influenza and meningitis as well as air pollutants and their effects on respiratory and cardiovascular health.

Several of the meeting participants also met with GW students for an informal lunch discussion. “In hosting this meeting, we wanted not only to facilitate international collaborations for public health, but also to give students a chance to see some of the exciting work and career opportunities involving the use of scientific data to advance public health,” says EOH Department Chair Melissa Perry. “It helped students get a sense of the many different kinds of data available – for instance, some of our students were impressed to learn that satellites can measure soil moisture or ocean salinity from space.” In addition to SPHHS students, students from GW’s Columbian College and Elliott School participated in the lively discussion.

“We were delighted when we learned that NASA would provide a workshop grant to help SPHHS co-host this meeting,” says Gray. “It was a tremendous opportunity to be part of an important international collaboration.” He thanks EOH staff who helped organize the meeting, as well as Juli Trtanj of NOAA and Douglas Cripe of the GEO Secretariat, who coordinated content.

“As GEO completes its first decade, we’re able to both celebrate its accomplishments and position it to help reduce the future toll from disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and other health threats,” explains Gray. As an example, he cites the tsunami warning system that GEO helped develop after the 2004 Asian tsunami, which helped give residents of Japan a warning before the 2011 tsunami hit that country. Bringing public-health scientists together with rocket scientists – as well as scientists working with air, water, and disease data – is a recipe for improving health worldwide.