Following an early-morning bus ride, the members of a new Upper School course, “Hot Topics in Public Health,” arrived at their destination: the Yale School of Public Health, with whom Chapin enjoys a robust partnership.
Eager with anticipation, the 32 students in Classes 9-12 and their chaperones (Science teacher Jill Hirsch, the course’s liaison; Director of Academic Program Ilana Pergam; and Director of College Guidance Karey Boals) posed for a photograph in front of a YSPH banner before entering the stately building on College Street and riding elevators to the fourth floor.
Tossing off their coats, they scrambled into seats around a conference table to hear from Associate Professor of Epidemiology Dr. Krystal Pollit, who team-teaches Chapin’s remote, 11-session evening class* and is a specialist in air pollutants and their harmful effects on health, a far-reaching topic that served as the eventful day’s overarching theme.
Dr. Pollit told the students that her interest in environmental health continued to grow after receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto, leading her to a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from King’s College in London.
“Understanding the environment and what it meant to health was very important to me,” she recalled. “We can’t escape what we’re breathing. I wanted to understand what was in our air.”
Through her research, Dr. Pollit was determined to “develop tools to better understand what we’re exposed to and to come up with solutions,” she noted. Clicking through a series of slides, she showed the class images of global locations devastated by air pollution.
“That poor visibility is not fog,” she said, pointing to an arresting photo from Delhi, India. “It’s pollution, and it impacts daily life.”
In addition to increasing overall life expectancy, significantly reducing air pollution would help lessen health conditions that are strongly linked to air pollutants like asthma, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other neurological problems, the students learned.
Factory emissions, vehicle exhaust, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, fireworks and chemical fumes are among the top causes of air pollution, officially known as “particulate matter” or PM, Dr. Pollit explained. She added that PM is comprised of airborne solid particles and liquid droplets in different sizes and infused with a mixture of lead, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other toxic substances.
Fortified with takeaways from the eye-opening presentation, the students then had the opportunity to test the air in New Haven using portable, low-cost air sensors connected to apps on their phones. Dr. Pollit led the group on a walking tour that wove along a heavily trafficked road and ended up on the car-free Yale campus. Along the way, the young scientists checked their hand-held sensors for changing chemical levels, drawing comparisons between the two areas.
Next on the agenda was lunch at a dining hall in Trumbull College, one of the university’s undergraduate colleges. Dr. Sten Vermund of YSPH, one of the “Hot Topics” teachers and a trusted Chapin advisor, joined the students as did two recent Chapin alums who are first-year Yale students, Sarah Moeder ’22 and Abby Solomon ’22.
After putting on the required masks and storing their belongings in lockers, the group spent the next 45 minutes in the lower level of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library for an interactive archive session with librarian Anna Franz, the Assistant Program Director for Education.
The students sat at a long table surrounded by a wide assortment of historic documents and materials, all related in some way to air pollution. With great care, they examined the items in front of them, which included photographs (gloves were needed to handle these), children’s books, essays and more.
“Whose voice is represented? What surprised you? And what questions do you have?” Ms. Franz asked.
When the pairs reflected on their items, a lively discussion ensued that touched on privilege, racism, sexism and class, while also underscoring just how long air pollution has been a societal concern. Examples included a book from the 1600s by the English writer John Evelyn, as well as more recent works by the American environmental pioneer Rachel Carson (1907-1964).
For the final part of the day, the students returned to the YSPH building for a tour of Dr. Pollit’s lab, which focuses on wearable technology that tests the air. As well, her colleague, Dr. Anne Wyllie, also an epidemiologist, welcomed the group to her SalivaDirect lab, detailing the experiments she conducts using saliva to detect, for instance, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid. The students were captivated by both labs and asked the scientists thoughtful questions.
As the class boarded the bus back to Chapin, there was no doubt that this illuminating excursion had been an overwhelming success and an invaluable component to “Hot Topics in Public Health,” which explores issues around environmental health and engineering as well as the history of public health; the legalization of marijuana; and adolescent health. The remainder of the classes and an upcoming trip to a local sewage treatment plant will further deepen their understanding of an incredibly important field that affects all of us. Perhaps some students will choose to pursue public health in college and beyond.
*“Hot Topics in Public Health” is taught by Yale School of Public Health faculty Dr. Sten Vermund, the Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health, and Dr. Krystal Pollit, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, along with Dr. Marian Moser Jones of Ohio State University and Dr. Marie Brault of the University of Texas, San Antonio, with assistance from teaching fellow Mahima Kaur, a Yale MPH candidate.