Anna Ellendersen: In the Future, Planetary Health Will Link Human Health to Environment

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Anna Ellendersen is the member of the Health Team at Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies. She involved in quite a few projects, that she describes in the interview below. It provides an easy insight into the diversity of projects we are involved and in the diversity of skills and backgrounds at CIFS Health Team. She elaborates on her visions to the future, our place in it, as well as her own.

Anna, you are a truly diverse person, you are half Brazilian, half Faroese, and you are a marine biologist and a music teacher! Tell me first, how does it feel to combine some many diversities? Especially, for the professional use, what do you use of music in biology and vice versa?

It is definitely a useful ice breaker! My mother is Brazilian, my father is Faroese, they met in Switzerland, moved to Denmark and then to Brazil, where I was born. There, I also grew up in a very musical home, as both my parents are classical musicians, and I have wanted to be a whale biologist since the age of 6 (after watching the movie Free Willy, and yes, I am absolutely the laughing stock among my peers), so the combination does not seem so far-fetched for me anymore. I speak Portuguese to my mother, Faroese to my father. I listen to music while I do biology. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major goes really well with DNA library preparation! In my music studies, I took a course called Biology of Music.

The way we create, produce, experience, process music, a lot of that is physiology, is neurons firing, is biology. There is also a lot of music in nature. Cicadas, frogs, bats, birds (including one serendipitously named Anna’s Hummingbird) and, of course, whales, arguably the most prolific singers of all, which I chose to focus my biology studies on.

They have mesmerised me the very first time I saw one, in a pixelated image on the curved screen of our fat TV, from a VHS tape back in the 90s, and they have mesmerised me the first time I saw live, breathing whales out in the wild.

You are a scientific advisor at the Health Team of Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, and I know that you research across projects. Which project did you find most interesting so far, and why?

I like finding and making sense of data, and gathering knowledge in different areas, be it health statistics, human behaviour or fish stock management, so I find all projects interesting. But as a biologist used to focusing on the non-human element of things, I really enjoy the opportunities I get to bring a wider environmental perspective to the concept of human health. I look at how protecting our natural environment and taking action against climate change can benefit human health on a global level, but also what positive effects these active (since we are way past being proactive) measures can bring to our natural ecosystem and its other inhabitants.

Furthermore, I believe that any favourable outcomes for non-human animals should not only be a happy consequence, but a priority in itself, which will likewise have happy consequences for humans. Life on planet Earth is currently going through its 6th mass extinction event, and this is human driven. It is caused by climate change, yes, but also by hunting, and improper use of resources such as land, water and energy. The possible extinction of Sumatran rhinos may seem for some like a sad but removed and insignificant event, but Earth’s biosphere is an unimaginably complex ecosystem, and interspecies interactions are crucial.  If one species disappears, others will dwindle and follow. Humans will be impacted by this. We already are. The mechanisms by which pandemics such as the one we are experiencing arise are still being understood, but it is clear that they are directly related to the way we treat animals. Solving climate change has been referred to as the “greatest business opportunity of our generation”. We have cheaper resources, better technologies, better materials, more investment. These reasons are compelling and should be me more widely discussed, but I like to envisage a future where the well-being of non-human animals and nature in general is less of a means and more of a goal.

What projects where you were involved will have wide effect on our future, and why?

I have done quite a bit of background research for the Movement Health 2030 project. This is a project that was designed and initiated by multiple stakeholders, before my time at CIFS, as a response to shared challenges in the healthcare systems spread across the globe. These include inequality in access to medical care, rise in people suffering from chronic diseases, ageing populations with increasingly complex needs, large numbers of people dying from preventable causes, and inadequate budgeting for a sustainable healthcare system in the future. I have spent some time for example gathering data on global disease burden (how different health problems impact society, measured by financial cost, mortality, morbidity, among others), and premature mortality rates and causes, which include avoidable deaths, in itself an umbrella term for preventable deaths (could have been prevented through primary care intervention) and treatable deaths (could have been avoided through secondary or tertiary care).

Another topic I pursued are the many uses genomics and other omics (proteomics, epigenomics, metabolomics, etc) have outside of human health, and the list includes identification of pigments used in ancient cave paintings, insights into diet of people who lived thousands of years ago, crop development into more weather resistant strains, forensic sciences (in a very specific example, twins’ genomes may be identical, but their epigenomes are may not be!), conservation and climate change studies, and more.

MH2030 has activities in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. I have been involved in the Latin America Team, participating in meetings regarding developments in Brazil, and I am now part of the Europe Team, for now mainly doing research in national context and health policy trends in individual European countries englobed by the project. In addition, I am currently engaged in the mapping of health organisations worldwide, to develop an overview and make it a useful tool in the event of upcoming partnerships and collaborations for MH2030. I believe this project to have an immense potential to improve healthcare systems around the world, and thus the life, health, and wellbeing of people. It is ambitious, but also inspiring, and it can be achieved through thorough research, knowledge from people on the ground, and likeminded partners.

I know that you have also worked with Tamira, she elaborated on her work in an extensive and very interesting interview (part 1, part 2)

Yes, I have also worked with our behaviour expert on solidifying a knowledge base on health behaviour, which was very interesting and, I believe, very important in the discussion we as a Health Team strive to raise, of disease prevention not only through genetic screenings and chemical testing, but also through informed life decisions, legislation and policies, and of health not only as medical care, but also influenced by social circumstances, biology and genetics, the environment, and individual behaviour.

And finally, I work to bring more strength to the holistic approach to human health, based on ideas embodied by the field sometimes called Planetary Health, referring to the health of human beings linked to that of the whole natural environment surrounding them.

Why? How would you formulate why you want to get involved?

In order for humanity to be truly healthy, we must also heal the planet. People fall ill due to lifestyle choices, bad policies, genetic predisposition, but also due to air pollution, extreme weather events and zoonotic diseases, all of which are on the rise due to phenomenon initially named global warming, now mostly known as climate change, but increasingly being referred to by scientists in the field as climate crisis. These matters need therefore to be incorporated into the thinking of the future of health. I also investigate sustainability in healthcare, what is a hospital’s carbon footprint, and what benefits a greener mindset can bring to the environment, in financial returns and for the patient’s wellbeing. Buildings certified as “green” have been shown to use about 66% less electricity than average buildings. Medical errors fell 30% at an institute that allocated better space for medication rooms and installed acoustical panels to decrease noise levels. Emissions avoided by certified green buildings have been estimated to have prevented 11.000 asthma exacerbations, 54.000 respiratory symptoms and up to 405 premature deaths.

Prior to CIFS, you are a research assistant at the Arctic University in Norway. Also being half Faroese, you are probably more involved with the Arctic agenda. What are the current challenges and how do you think they may be addressed in the future? What do you think of the future in the Arctic area?

The obvious answer to this is the climate crisis. My very move to Tromsø was motivated by it, as my research was on relations and interactions between two whale species and their changing migration routes, following herring populations that are moving further north every year due to rising water temperatures – a phenomenon attributed to climate change.

The Arctic region is more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than the rest of the globe, as any change in temperature will trigger a chain of natural events that amplify this change. Warmer temperatures mean less sea ice, which then exposes the dark sea water that absorbs heat, in contrast to snow and sea ice which reflect up to 80% of the sun light back to the space. This then leads to warmer and longer summers, and later and diminished establishment of new sea ice, which perpetuates the cycle. And as the Arctic seems to heat up at a much higher rate than the rest of the planet, this is an escalating problem, and has consequences that are not limited to the Arctic region. Arctic animals are literally seeing their habitats disappear from underneath their paws, and invasive species arriving from warmer waters may outcompete and wipe out native ones that have nowhere colder to go to. This is already happening. This also affects local economy, as fisheries must compete with invasive species as well. The latest IPCC report has warned that we have a very narrow and rapidly closing window of opportunity for us to act to secure a sustainable future for us all, and the window in the arctic will likely close even sooner.

How do you envisage your own future as a marine biologist?

In short, I want to save whales. I want to keep studying, learning, and to know them. I want to show and tell people how beautiful and incredible whales are. I want them to have a safe home on this planet, just as I hope for all species on Earth. I want to draw attention and action to the protection of nature. I want to make this planet a better place for people, animals and plants. Whether I will do that from a lab, an office or a boat, I’ll have to see.