Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In the age of humans

No other species has affected their surroundings as much as humans have affected the planet. This mantra was repeated throughout last week’s symposium , “Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security," at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C. The “Anthropocene,” or the age of humans, is the increasingly popular term for an era of expanding urbanization, agricultural intensification, and an ever-growing population. Dr. George Luber, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke on the extremely timely topic of the widespread public health problems resulting from climate change.

“Climate change is the grand challenge for the public health in the 21st century,” he said during his presentation.

Luber warned that this challenge is only just beginning. The coming decades will see an increase of respiratory diseases due to more ozone exposure and elevated allergen levels. Disease vectors, such certain tick and mosquito species, will spread beyond their established geographic limits into new and vulnerable territories. Governments and health care professionals will have to adapt to and address more incidents of extreme weather.

Fig.1. The black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularis, has been spreading outside of its historical geographic range, carrying the Lyme disease with it.


Predicting the future

The picture Luber and the other symposium experts painted was not a rosy one. We live in an unsustainable system in which resources are being used up at alarming rates, urban development does not accommodate the growing population, and our public health system must adapt to a changing disease geography. Luckily, the symposium's participants had some hope for the future.

Dr. James Hack, the director of the National Center for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, advocated for the increased application of computational modeling to understand economic, health, and security risks. Modeling allows scientists to create patterns from historical data and apply new parameters to see how the patterns shift. In the case of climate change and public health, historical ranges of tick populations that carry Lyme disease have been established through public health records and natural history museum specimens. Over time, museum curators and researchers have seen a western expansion of this disease in North America. Understanding historical patterns and modern demographics, public health officials can map expected regions of Lyme disease in humans.

Archived specimens, however, can only tell us so much about how diseases shift during climate change. Luber recommended a focus on vulnerable communities and the creation of a resilient health care system which can adapt to new health risks. Increasing leadership in public health with proper resources and training to address climate change threats would go a long way to fixing new human health problems.


Lessons of the museum

The location of this symposium was not lightly chosen. In his opening speech, the NMNH Sant Director, Dr. Kirk Johnson, called museums part of “the toolkit for the 21st century.” Although a different environment presents different problems, Johnson believes that museum collections hold lessons for the future. Through collaboration between disciplines and between institutions, we may yet be able to predict, prepare for, or prevent threats to our world.

One such collaboration will be SciColl’s upcoming workshop on “Engaging Scientific Collections in Emerging Infectious Disease Research.” Stay tuned for a continued conversation on how interdisciplinary work may solve some of our most pressing public health problems.


Ogden, N.H., Radojevic, M., Wu, X., Duvvuri, V.R., Leighton, P.A., & Wu, J. (2014). Estimated effects of projected climate change on the basic reproductive number of the Lyme disease vector Ixodes scapularis. Environ Health Perspect, 122, 631-638. Retrieved from:

Rochlin, I., Ninivaggi, D.V., Hutchinson, M.L., & Farajollahi, A. (2013, April 01). Climate change and range expansion of the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus) in northeastern USA: implications for public health practitioners. PLOS One, 8 (4). Retrieved from

Smithsonian Institution Consortia Online. (2014). Living in the anthropocene symposium agenda. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from:

[Tick]. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from:


computational modeling
Use of mathematics and computer science to study the behavior of systems via computer simulation.
Quantifiable statistics of a given population.


  1. I always been interested in this, thanks for post!
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  2. Hi....
    Hominins first appear by around 6 million years ago, in the Miocene epoch, which ended about 5.3 million years ago. Our evolutionary path takes us through the Pliocene, the Pleistocene, and finally into the Holocene, starting about 12,000 years ago.
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