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The UBC Bridge Program--Strengthening Connections Among Public Health, Engineering, and Policy Research Areas


The Bridge graduate fellowship program at the University of British Columbia ( UBC) is the first of its kind to integrate public health, engineering, and policy in a way that cultivates interchange among the disciplines. The program is one of 51 innovative Strategic Training Initiatives announced by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research ( CIHR) last June, which aim to encourage transdisciplinary research.

The program's goal is to produce a new generation of researchers who will work together to develop creative evidence-based prevention strategies to solve complicated public, environmental, and occupational health problems facing Canadians. To this end, the program creates a milieu of research innovation while providing integrated research training that brings together public health, engineering, and policy research trainees. The primary goal is to identify and prevent disease and injury associated with the interaction between human activity and technology. But the Bridge program also promotes expertise in knowledge translation through 4- to 8-month graduate research internships in the private sector, government policy agencies, and other research institutions.

The Bridge graduate program sits as a superstructure over existing research degree programs in the Faculties of Medicine, Graduate Studies, and Applied Science. The program requires that students' thesis research involve components from each of the three key areas: public/environmental health, engineering, and public policy. Moreover, teams of Ph.D. students and faculty will develop problem-based cross-disciplinary training modules for a new undergraduate course for health, engineering, and policy sciences. The Bridge program also includes compulsory courses, such as the integrative research development course on how to write a research proposal, which is what the current group is occupied with this semester.

This year, I am the only Bridge fellow with a basic biological research background, and my goals and experience differ from those of the rest of the diverse collection of fellows, most of whom have a background in engineering. The program has provided me with a unique opportunity to extend my doctoral research in environmental health studies in a new direction, by incorporating human exposure assessment and air pollution research into engineering practices and, ultimately, the improvement of government policies.

During my 8-month internship in industry, I plan to develop a unique set of transdisciplinary skills that will enable me to start an environmental consulting firm with clients coming from government, engineering, and industry. These skills will range from learning the language of engineers and government policy-makers to understanding the problems they face. Moreover, I hope to become skilled in identifying new areas of engineering and policy that can benefit from better connections to environmental health research. What is more, the academic training and grant-writing experience provided by the Bridge program, combined with the academic nature of my doctoral project, will also make me well suited for faculty positions. I am therefore optimistic that the broad training the program provides will open doors to different careers in my future.

My desire to bridge science with engineering comes from recognizing how much human health and welfare may benefit from both fields. It amazes me how much physics and math go into training an engineer versus how little they study biology and human health issues--after all, the purpose of engineered innovations is to promote better quality of human life. Also, engineers recognize the need to consult with environmental health experts but are often frustrated by having to conform to many external policy regulations, which they feel are not always relevant. Poor communication between environmental consultants and engineers may be part of the problem. Because policy is often a matter of politics, environmental health science and engineering must complement each other in order to validate or refute existing environmental health regulations and implement improved ones. Finally, environmental health research in particular can also have very limited scientific reward if it is not directly applicable to everyday situations. Customizing scientific questions to engineering applications can be both academically satisfying and useful in modern day settings.

Through Bridge, I hope to become familiar both with the manner in which engineers approach problems and with the language they use to solve them. I am also looking for gaps in their understanding of human health and the environment I can fill in with my own scientific experience.

Whereas I am primarily interested in bridging science with engineering, the majority of inaugural Bridge fellows are planning to transcend engineering to enter the realm of policy research. The engineers amongst the trainees seem to approach the Bridge program with similar goals of developing policy research skills. Their hands-on experience in engineering public and environmental health innovations seems to have uniformly brought them to Bridge. For example, Jennifer Hinton, a hydrogeologist with an M.Sc. in mining engineering, has been involved in the design of innovative ways to reduce artisanal miners' exposure to mercury in the Amazon. She is now interested in applying her engineering skills to formulate more effective policy in artisanal mining and implement changes in these people's everyday work.

As part of the required Integrative Research Development course, we are currently writing a transdisciplinary research proposal to CIHR that Bridge members--if the proposal is funded--will carry out in future years. Coming to agreement on a topic for study was not an easy task for our diverse academic group. This year's group leader Kay Teschke, a professor in epidemiology and the key creator of the Bridge program, keeps our often tangential group discussions centred on human disease endpoints. Moreover, she has been able to integrate the heavy engineering expertise of the group with human health outcomes by teasing out a research project that examines sources of drinking water-related gastrointestinal illnesses. This is an ideal project that combines my colleagues' project-based engineering experience to identify problem sources with my basic biological research training in assessing the biological outcome. Unfortunately, incorporating policy with engineering and public health into a research proposal is a very difficult thing to do, and what tends to happen is that engineering and public health issues are addressed while the policy implications are left for future grant applications.

Perhaps almost as effective as the formal training we receive from the Bridge program is the informal learning from one another by socializing in the pub after class. By getting to know each other personally, we are beginning to harmonize our interests and develop the discourse required to approach the transdisciplinary realm as a unified group. The socializing smoothes out the edges of our diverse professional backgrounds that are sometimes reinforced inadvertently within the structure of any academic program, including Bridge.

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