How our scientists are striving for a healthier tomorrow

7 April 2022
World Health Day 2022: Our planet, our health
This year, World Health Day focuses global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being. Find out how our researchers are contributing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes. This includes the climate crisis which is the single biggest health threat facing humanity.

These are just a handful of the University of Sydney people, projects and partnerships that aim to tackle or plan for climate change and create a healthier tomorrow.

How do we improve conditions for workers facing extreme heat?

Professor Ollie Jay and Dr James Smallcombe working in the climate chamber

Professor Ollie Jay and Dr James Smallcombe in the University's climate chamber.

As we face a warming world, the Heat and Health Research Incubator in the Faculty of Medicine and Health aims to improve conditions for vulnerable workers.

While their current projects explore occupations from construction to sport, one they are particularly passionate about is improving the conditions of workers in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry.

“This industry can be problematic in many ways, but one pressing issue is the physical conditions workers face,” said Director Professor Ollie Jay.

Monitoring of the environmental conditions in factories shows workers are often subjected to ambient temperatures above 40°C with high humidity, making them vulnerable to uncomfortable levels of heat stress and at risk of heat-related illness.

The international multi-disciplinary project is a collaboration with Griffith University (Queensland, Australia), with partners at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Dhaka, Bangladesh).

University of Sydney lead, Dr James Smallcombe said the project has now moved into the lab phase, using the incubator’s state-of-the-art climate chamber to recreate the worst conditions and measure workers’ physiological responses while sewing or ironing.

“We aim to identify if there are sustainable, low-cost cooling strategies that could be easily implemented in factories in Bangladesh right now to improve conditions,” he said.

The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust and has ethics approval from the University of Sydney Human Research Ethics Committee [2021/583].

Can we create buildings that improve our health and that of the planet?

A photo of a multi-story eco building looking up from the street level

A contemporary green building. Photo: Gábor Molnár/Unsplash.

Dr Arianna Brambilla from the School of Architecture Design and Planning has a vision for a new approach to buildings that not only improve the health and well-being of occupants and visitors, but at the same time provides energy and resources for the urban community.

“Buildings can no longer passively ‘take’ from our ecosystem, but must rather take an active role in ‘giving-back, repairing and restoring natural environments for future generations to thrive,” she said.

“Our vision is to lay the groundwork for a new generation of buildings that are self-sufficient in energy and water consumption and would produce on-site food to encourage healthy eating habits. They would contribute to regulating heat stress and pollution within dense urban environments, acting as cooling islands and purifiers in an otherwise increasingly uncomfortable and unhealthy urban environment.”

The project, known as The Sydney Nano Grand Challenge Eco-Active Building Envelopes, is co-lead by Dr Brambilla and Professor Deanna D’Alessandro from the Faculty of Science and is funded by the University of Sydney Nano Institute.

Dr Brambilla says recent advancements in nanotechnology such as nano-structured coatings offer new, transformative opportunities for the building sector to meet these ambitions. However, large-scale adoption at the building scale remains significantly underexplored.

“We can make this vision tangible and offer a strategic opportunity for Australia to be at the forefront of international innovation and lead the change to meet global sustainability targets,” said Dr Brambilla.


How can we help governments, industry and communities reach net-zero?

A windfarm at sunset.

Photo: Unsplash.

The University of Sydney recently launched the Net-Zero Initiative, an ambitious, industry-geared program, led by the Faculty of Engineering, that will advance research in renewable energy, climate change modelling, decarbonisation, low emissions technologies, and carbon capture and conversion.

The Net Zero Initiative is about helping Australian industry (urban, regional and remote) gain first-mover advantage globally by understanding, developing and adopting innovative and commercially viable emissions reduction technologies early. 

“The pursuit of net-zero emissions and a sustainable future for our planet is among the greatest challenges of our time. Our decades of research excellence are playing an important role to help tackle it,” said Professor Willy Zwaenepoel, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering.

Is ‘climate distress’ a heavy burden or a driver for change?

photo of young activist Greta Thunberg holding a sign that says School Strike for Climate

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Photo: Flickr

Dr Blanche Verlie's research investigates the very real phenomenon of ‘climate distress’: the emotional, embodied, and interpersonal experiences of anxiety, loss, grief, frustration, and existential overwhelm many people feel about the threat of climate change.

“I've previously explored the experiences of undergraduate students who were studying climate change, and how educators can best conceptualise and respond to climate distress in classrooms," said Dr Verlie, postdoctoral research fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Sydney Environment Institute.

“I'm now broadening the focus to consider how climate distress is experienced differently by different people, and how it can inspire climate justice activism as seen recently with the school strikes.”

Dr Verlie believes that while nightmares or panic attacks can be considered distress ‘about’ climate change, it also demonstrates a much more intimate interconnection between our 'human' minds and bodies and the 'nonhuman' world.

“I hope this work can help generate or reinvigorate our understanding of human interconnectedness with nature and inspire greater efforts at sustainability,” she said.


How can businesses plan for ‘climate risk’?

Professional photo of Dr Tanya Fiedler of the Sydney Business School.

Dr Tanya Fiedler, University of Sydney Business School.  


Dr Tanya Fiedler’s research interests sit uniquely at the intersection of business and climate science. As an accountant she wants to help businesses access the practical information they need to shift their behaviours and impact.

“I have personally tried to be involved in research on this since around 2010 – but it is only really over the last few years that people are beginning to take it more seriously,” said Dr Fiedler from the University of Sydney Business School and Sydney Environment Institute.

“Climate risk is all about the interconnectedness between planet and health. From a business perspective, it refers to the transition risks associated with the move to a lower-carbon economy and the physical risks resulting from climate change itself.”

For example, Dr Fielder refers to the risk to individuals and communities in supply chains that are vulnerable to impacts like extreme heat and rising sea levels, as in the case of Bangladesh.

Or the risk to employees who work in areas where the frequency and intensity of hurricanes might be intensifying, for example with oil and gas platforms operating in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finally, the risk to customers, like those that have or will soon buy homes designed at standards that means they will be unliveable in another 10 to15 years  - also resulting in problems for banks and insurers.

The key to overcoming these challenges is multidisciplinary research carried out in partnership with industry says Dr Fielder – partnerships that unite the interests of the physical and social sciences, industry and society.

What comes next after COVID-19?

A close up of a new visualisation of the Covid-19 virus

A new visualisation of the Covid-19 virus. Photo: Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash

Professor Michael Ward has a hefty goal on his hands: predicting the next pandemic.

He and his team in the Faculty of Science are trying to predict which microbes are more likely to be involved in the pandemic that could follow COVID-19.

“There is a vast array of potential pandemic scenarios,” said Associate Professor Ward. “Ultimately, we want to narrow this down to certain microbes and environmental, geographical, and societal changes, to give us a better chance of finding these microbes and implementing timely prevention strategies to prevent a repeat of COVID-19.”

But what does this have to do with climate change?

The answer is that pandemics do not occur just by chance. A complex interaction of all the microbes that are known to exist (as well as those we don’t even know about) and risk factors such as the landscape, how we interact with the environment, animal populations, economics, warmer temperatures and human behaviour create the perfect storm in which a pandemic might occur.

The team’s modelling suggests pressure on ecosystems, climate change and economic development are key factors associated with the diversification of pathogens (disease-causing agents, like viruses and bacteria), leading to potential disease outbreaks.

“Understanding this complexity helps us to predict what might happen, so we can attempt to mitigate the risk and enjoy a healthier planet,” said Professor Ward who has partnered with the Punjab veterinary school in India on the project.

Declaration: World Health Day is an initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO) that encourages people to share stories or steps they are taking to protect the planet and their health, and prioritise the well-being of societies. The introductory text on this page is drawn from WHO’s campaign website, however, these projects are not funded or supported by WHO. They are examples of the work the University of Sydney is doing to address the theme ‘Our planet. Our health.’

Banner image: World Health Organization