Master of Public Health Alumna Kelly Worden’s interest in the built environment’s impact on health is what initially led to her studies at the Milken Institute School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. Her decision to apply to and ultimately attend GW was strongly influenced by her belief that Washington, DC, provided the widest array of potential opportunities for her to obtain meaningful work experience to complement her studies. Worden’s success in landing a practicum—and ultimately a job—at the nation’s most influential institution devoted to promoting and assessing green building attests to the wisdom of that decision.
Worden says that she initially learned about the influential Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification program, which recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices, and its impact on health in Associate Professor Peter LaPuma’s class. She first heard about the opportunity to do a practicum at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which created and maintains the LEED program, during her first semester at a GW Practicum Preceptor Panel networking event organized by Associate Dean for Public Health Practice & Associate Professor of Global Health Pierre Vigilance. Chris Pyke of the USGBC was one of the panelists, all of whom had previously been approved by the university to serve as preceptors to guide students during their practice experiences.
“It was exactly what I was interested in,” Worden recalls. This was reassuring because she was only too aware that she was trying to venture outside the traditional public health job, she says. Although Worden wasn’t able to speak with Pyke at the event because he had to leave early, she was able to catch up with him via email soon afterwards. Then they met up for coffee and determined that Worden’s skills and interests were a good fit with what the USGBC could offer.
By the next spring, Worden began her practicum. “I was really lucky to be put on a project that they were just getting going,” she says. The project focused on leveraging green building certification as a tool for health promotion. It was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the University of Virginia School (UVA) of Medicine and USGBC. The project was lead by Dr. Matt Trowbridge from UVA with Dr. Chris Pyke serving as Co-PI. Worden’s practicum supported this work by identifying health-related strategies within version 3 of the LEED program (LEED 2009).
USGBC offers a number of different rating systems for LEED certification aimed at different kinds of projects, including building design and construction, interior design and construction, building operations and maintenance, neighborhood design, and homes. Each rating system is made up of credits organized into categories such as location and transportation, materials and resources, water efficiency, and indoor environmental quality. A project becomes LEED certified by achieving a certain number of these credits.
During her practicum, Worden conducted a critical review of health-related terminology and metrics used in seven LEED 2009 rating systems. Her team found that while health is included as an intended outcome of LEED certification, the domains of health currently addressed by LEED are limited in scope. References to health in LEED 2009 are frequent; however, the language used to describe these intentions and strategies is diverse, sometimes inconsistent, and potentially difficult to link to public health practice. “The lack of a formal public health framework within LEED makes it difficult for project teams to intentionally address health through their project design and execution,” she explains.
After she completed her practicum, which lasted for a semester, Worden was offered a paying summer job at the USGBC as a fulltime graduate associate. She continued working with the USGBC during her second year to complete her Culminating Experience. Once she graduated, Worden accepted a position as USGBC’s first health research associate with the team that she has been working with since she began her practicum.
What she learned about toxicology from Professor George Gray’s Toxicology: Applications for Public Health Policy class remains relevant to her job to this day, Worden says. This includes her understanding of how testing is used to determine if chemicals and materials are deemed to be hazardous or safe, as well as the different possible routes of exposure, she explained.
“My focus now is building capacity for the ability to create partnerships with traditional health organizations, continuing research into ways to highlight the relevant health-related strategies that are currently present and translating traditional public health research into practical tools for use by built environment project teams,” she says. She is also working on ways of verifying the intent of green design, building, and construction practices.
“We’ve thought about ways to test the efficacy of active design guidelines,” Worden says. As an example, she points to the lovely open staircase and flowing wall fountain, which is aesthetically appealing to both the eyes and ears, in the center of the USGBC offices. “The idea is that the beautiful staircase would encourage people to take the stairs more than the elevator,” she says. For example, an iPhone app might be used to test how often the stairs were actually used and perhaps even encourage their use, she explains. In addition, she says that Apple’s newly announced ResearchKit opens up infinitely greater opportunities for measuring and influencing the impact of the built environment on health.
Worden and her team are also investigating how to integrate public health frameworks, such as the Health Impact Assessment (HIA), into LEED certification. “One of our most recent and exciting collaborations has been with the Health Impact Project and Enterprise Community Partners,” she explains. These three organizations are collaborating to translate core HIA principles into tools that guide the design, construction and operation of our built environments: the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria and the LEED certification program. Another part of her job is investigating how to build up relevant health data cataloged in the Green Building Information Gateway (GBIG) platform that provides information about green strategies utilized in buildings around the world.
While not directly related to Worden’s work, the U.S. Green Building Council also received a large grant from Google looking at the health impacts of materials which helped the organization increase transparency around the impacts of chemicals and materials on health and the environment.
Worden had completed most of her coursework for her MPH before the new Milken Institute School of Public Health, which is certified as LEED platinum (the highest possible ranking) was opened. She is not surprisingly delighted by the green and health-promoting features of the new building housing the school, and she expresses her hope that sometime in the not-too-distant future, buildings like ours will be “the standard for new construction in the United States.”
Worden recommends that EOH students scan postings about Practicum Preceptor Panel events to look for panelists whose professional expertise match their interests. She says that she expects that the USGBC will continue to be a place with opportunities for students interested in doing practica. “Preceptor Chris Pyke is a researcher at heart,” she stresses.