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Stars of Stanford Medicine: Marrying environmental and human health

MD/PhD student Laura Bloomfield studies how environmental change contributes to viral transmission. She's featured in this Stars of Stanford Medicine Q&A.

When asked how long she has been at Stanford, Laura Bloomfield, MD/PhD student, has a quick answer: "A very long time." As a Stanford undergrad studying anthropological sciences, she developed a water storage container for low income communities in Burma. After graduating, she worked on water and sanitation projects in Ghana and India, then returned to pursue her dual degree in the fall of 2011. I spoke with her recently to learn more.

Why Stanford?

I'm from North Carolina, which was a beautiful, creative and supportive place to grow up. But I was looking for something totally different when I went to college.

I love it here — it's a wonderful community. The Bay Area, and Stanford in particular, fosters a distinct and aspirational energy, one that encourages you to change the world in profound, and hopefully beneficial ways. I felt that Stanford provided me the opportunity to be independent and a leader in ways that other institutions did not.

What are you studying?

My PhD is in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. My research focuses on how environmental changes, such as deforestation and agriculture, contribute to the transmission of retroviruses from monkey and ape populations into people living in rural areas of Uganda.

Clinically, it's likely that I’ll specialize in infectious diseases, but I have a growing interest in psychiatry, particularly in refugee populations and those affected by environmental catastrophes.

What is most fulfilling about your work?

My time in Uganda was really illuminating. It was so valuable to have spent time with the people who gave their time, their stories and their blood to this research, and who are potentially at risk of contracting some of the deadliest infectious diseases. I felt that it was really important to give people results from the tests we conducted on their blood even though sometimes it required walking for an hour or more to find a participant and explaining results was a challenge. People were incredibly grateful for my returning with information because it is so rare for researchers to do so.

What are you currently working on?

I am primarily working on my dissertation chapter focused on how agricultural land use at the edge of a national park influences human-wildlife contact with the potential for spillover of viruses. I am developing a model that may help us predict the risk of contact between humans and other primates.

What is the biggest challenge in your field?

As with almost all environmental research, there continues to be political opposition to the work we do. This is unfortunate as there is a strong evidence base informing ways that we could live more sustainably and equitably.

As part of the medical community, I believe we need to be better advocates of a healthy environment for our patients. Climate change and other environmental factors have profound effects on patient health. It is essential that we incorporate these factors into our education of patients, our research, and the way in which we inform health policy.

What do you do to unwind?

I enjoy dancing, hiking, climbing, sculpting, painting, writing, and reading fiction. I spend as much time as I am able with my family and friends.

What have you been reading lately?

I am reading Moby Dick again, after so many years. I am sort of obsessed with whales and life on the sea, and Melville’s writing is scintillating. I am also part of a book group and we are reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books.

Is there anything you listen to? 

I listen to audiobooks and podcasts during my daily commute between San Francisco and Stanford. I recently finished Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno. As for podcasts, I listen to Slate’s Political Gabfest, Radiolab, Waking Up and Conversations with People Who Hate Me.

Who is your role model?

Usually when I’m looking for inspiration, I look for it outside of my field. I am influenced by artists, musicians, writers, comedians and other performers such as Andy Goldsworthy, Taylor Mac, Alonzo King and so many others. I try to harness that type of creativity and abstract thinking to better my own work.

Throughout my life, I have also been inspired by my parents, incredible physicians, who have been innovative in finding new ways to improve the health of their patients.

Stars of Stanford Medicine features standout scholars in the School of Medicine.

Previously: Stars of Stanford Medicine: "It's my duty to give back", Stars of Stanford Medicine: Working to end global health disparities and Stars of Stanford Medicine: Poetry lover and aspiring physician-scientist
Photo by Alyssa Tamboura

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