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Science Profile: Research Scientist, Policy Advisor and Eckerd-Africa Initiative Lecturer Michael Depledge

posted on 01/25/2010

by Mary Ellen Collins

When Michael Depledge comes to Eckerd on February 4 to deliver his lecture "Environment and Human Health in Africa in the 21st Century," he will bring a global perspective developed from years as a research scientist and policy advisor to governments around the world.

Currently the Chair of Environment and Human Health at Peninsula Medical School of the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, Depledge began his academic journey into the field of environmental health at Westfield College, University of London. After receiving a First Class Honours degree in biological sciences, he continued on with a Ph.D. in the toxicology of marine organisms.

"I had thought I would end up working for a pharmaceutical or agricultural company, but I ditched that idea. I so admired the people who taught and mentored me... I decided I wanted to stay in academia, doing research."

After spending time on the west coast of Scotland studying the sub-lethal effects of pollutants on invertebrates for his Ph.D., he completely switched his focus to human health when he was invited to work with David Denison at Royal Brompton Hospital, studying lung damage in severely ill patients.

His subsequent contributions to the field of environmental medicine have spanned the globe, including appointments at Royal Marsden Hospital, the University of Hong Kong's medical school, and Odense University in Denmark. The author of more than 380 peer-reviewed scientific papers, Depledge has served as an expert advisor on marine pollution to the United Nations and on endocrine disruption to the World Health Organization. Prior to his current position at Peninsula Medical School, he spent four years as the Chief Scientific Advisor of the UK Government's Environment Agency, dealing with issues ranging from air pollution to mad cow disease.

For the past several years, Depledge has been working on creating the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the Medical School. He envisions it as a research "hotel" where scientists, researchers, and individuals who work for environmental businesses can visit for varying lengths of time to collaborate, conduct research, and develop new ideas.

"We are concerned with both threats from the environment to health and opportunities to use the natural environment to promote health and wellbeing," he says. "The ethos of the Centre is to do everything we can to better understand the interconnections between the environment and human health and to use that knowledge to positively influence policy development."

The hallmark of Depledge's approach centers around collaboration and an ability to problem solve while maintaining a focus on the big picture.

"I am really interested in doing practical things - in determining what pollution actually does, and figuring out what to do about it. It's important to view your work in the context of other things. So many people have the gut reaction that, 'The problem is too complicated, so I'll just focus on my bit,' but that doesn't work. You have to be aware of the connections and the unintended consequences of solutions in one area." He cites the example of addressing flooding issues by creating ponds and canals, but not thinking about the fact that ponds and canals have created reservoirs in which insects breed and then carry disease.

If there's one piece of advice he would give to science students today, he says it would be "Not to focus on addressing one problem at a time, which is the typical scientific approach. There's not just one thing going on at one time. That's why, when you make policy, you have to have a broad group of scientists in the room."

He looks forward to spending time with students when he's at Eckerd, and says the reaction he gets when talking to young people about health and the environment keeps him energized about the work he's doing.

"There's such a level of interest and enthusiasm when you outline these issues. People really do want to make things better."

This feature is the seventh of a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Read Previous Science Profiles:
Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

Click here to learn more about The Plight and Promise of Africa: An Eckerd College Initiative

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