University Seminars Take on the World
When avian flu first broke out, says Gretchen Kaufman, it might have been seen as something that killed a lot of chickens but was of little importance to humans. “Somebody had to make the connection that this could turn into a human pandemic,” she says. “If no one had thought of that, it would have a completely different focus, namely that it’s a chicken disease.”
Instead, says Kaufman, a professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, there is a concerted effort to understand the disease in animals and how it could mutate and eventually spread among humans. Because of this awareness, countries are working together to prevent a potentially devastating outbreak of the disease.
The connection between animal and human diseases and the environment and how all three are interconnected is the focus of one of two seminars that will be taught next fall by teams of faculty from different schools and departments. The second seminar will focus on water and diplomacy, especially in the western United States and in South Asia. They are the first offerings of the University Seminar, an interdisciplinary program proposed by Provost and Senior Vice President Jamshed Bharucha.
The goal, says Bharucha, is to build on Tufts’ strengths as both a liberal arts college and a research university by bringing together scholars and researchers to work together on challenges facing society.
“Complex societal problems, be they domestic or global, cannot be addressed from the perspective of a single discipline anymore,” says Bharucha. What’s needed, he says, is to bring experts with strong, rigorous disciplinary training together to address societal problems, which forces them “to learn about each other’s perspectives, because you have to if you want to address the problem.” The seminars will be open to upper class undergraduates and to graduate and professional students.
Kaufman’s seminar is called “Toward a Deeper Understanding of Global Health: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Health of People, Animals and the Environment.” It will focus on a concept known as “One Health,” which recognizes that human and animal health are connected and that both are dependent on a robust environment. “If you look at human medicine,” she says, “there is a sense of detachment from the rest of the world.”
The seminar will explore three main themes. The first is avian flu, including the role the environment plays in spreading the disease. The second theme focuses on sustainable agriculture, including food security and food safety, as well as the environment in which animals are raised. Finally, students will study biodiversity and how it affects human and animal health and what happens when biodiversity is lost.
Joining Kaufman, the director of the conservation medicine program at the veterinary school, are J. Michael Reed, a professor and conservation biologist whose work identifies the characteristics of species that put them at risk to threats caused by humans; Joann M. Lindenmayer, a professor at the veterinary school, who is involved in integrating veterinarians into the public health system; and Elena N. Naumova, a biostatistician at the School of Medicine whose work includes research on infectious diseases.
An additional 10 faculty members from the department of civil and environmental engineering and the biology department as well as from the Fletcher School, the School of Medicine and the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy will participate in teaching and discussions.
The idea is to build an interdisciplinary foundation “for looking at health across the campuses,” says Kaufman. “There have been many attempts to do that in little pieces over the years, which have gone far and done well, including joint-degree programs. But there hasn’t been a campus-wide discussion, and it’s very exciting for us to move that forward.”
The second fall seminar is called “Water and Diplomacy: Integration of Science, Engineering and Negotiations.” Shafiqul Islam, professor of civil and environmental engineering and dean of research for the School of Engineering, will be joined by William Moomaw, a professor at the Fletcher School and senior director of the Tufts Institute for the Environment. The third core member of the team is Jay Shimshack, an assistant professor of economics, whose research emphasizes the regulation, monitoring and enforcement of environmental legislation.
“Science can address well-defined problems, but as we have seen over the last several decades, when science is applied to a natural system like water, where it crosses different boundaries, it is difficult to answer the questions raised,” says Islam. “If there is a limited amount of water, for example, who needs it more, the farmer or the fish? How do I look at water needed by Native Americans versus water for a hydroelectric company? If water flows from Georgia into Florida, which state has more rights?”
The main idea of the seminar, says Islam, is that “science alone can’t solve the problems, while policy in absence of science cannot do it [either]. We have to jointly define the problem.” An example is controversy surrounding the Klamath Basin in northern California and southern Oregon. During a drought in 2001, federal officials shut off water from the basin that farmers were using to irrigate land, a move that helped endangered fish but at the same time may have resulted in some $250 million in lost agricultural production.
Islam said Tufts has an advantage in studying problems where policy and science clash, because it not only has strong liberal arts and engineering programs but also the Fletcher School, which focuses on policy and negotiation.
A key component to both seminars will be consultation with the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching through the spring to develop innovative curricula and offer help on how different disciplines can work together.
Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at email@example.com. This story ran in the February 2008 issue of the Tufts Journal.