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  • Alison Symington

Taking a Holistic View

In an earlier blog, the sustainable development goals developed by UNESCO were discussed and have since become the focus of the STAN Conference 2019 on March 28. Over the last 6 months I have been involved in the development of research proposals which examine the sustainability of global agriculture systems; it is clear that the promotion of a healthy environment through sustainable agriculture practices and a reduction of human impact leads to clean air, clean water, and a cleaner world. In Canada, part of this holistic approach is represented by the concept of “One Health”.

What is One Health?

One Health is the theory that prevention and mitigation of risk happens most at the interface of humans, animals, and their various environments. It is a holistic approach. So, for example, to prevent flu in humans we look at circulating viruses in the animal population. Canada has developed a One Health framework to tackle antimicrobial resistance and, as it is clearly a global issue, coordinates with more than 26 countries on research and development priorities.

What does this mean for STEM?

Quite often when looking at issues in humans, animals, or the environment, we look at these issues in isolation. Take Ebola for example: Canadians are at the forefront of human vaccination against Ebola. This is an urgent need, but understanding the environmental reservoir for the virus, and the social and economic environment that exacerbate outbreaks in order to develop global strategies to prevent exposure is also important. Understanding how to provide potable water is an engineering, biological, and environmental problem. …so back to STEM and scientific outreach!

When we look for solutions to these intractable problems, and work with the power of youthful imagination, we need to look beyond a specific discipline or what might seem obvious in favour of examining solutions that are at this interface (human/animal/environment) or may have been designed with another problem in mind. For example, a medical device designed to detect and identify bacteria in hospital can also be used to trace the source of a water site contamination; or, a technology that has been used to develop video games can also be used to unlock the secrets of the genome. As an outreach community, we should encourage making these connections and look to collaborate beyond our traditional influences. Recently, I have collaborated with video-gamers on new ways to visual problems. This has provided an entirely new perspective on long-examined issues, allowing for more innovation. I have also collaborated with social scientists, ethicists and economists, who provide an interesting and much-needed perspective to scientific discussion. I strongly encourage those of us engaged in outreach to bring these diverse points of view into our work; it engages more people and innovation flourishes.

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