by Meredith Dault
When Atunu Sarkar came to Queen's to pursue a Master's degree in Environmental Studies, he did so with a very specific plan in-mind. Already a medical doctor in India, Sarkar, who specializes in environmental health, had worked for the World Health Organization in various capacities in India. In 2003, he had also served as the head of the health program of a British NGO in Ethiopia. But Sarkar was ready to expand his knowledge, in order to further specialize within his field.
"Environmental studies isn't taught in medical or public health curriculums," Sarkar says, explaining that although he sees the two fields as interconnected, they tend to be viewed in separate silos. "Public health physicians mostly focus on health, and we simply ignore or neglect the environmental perspective."
But Sarkar says that component is crucial, particularly in the developing world. His doctoral thesis, for example, was on arsenic contamination in the ground water in India. One aspect of his current research explores the connection between modern agricultural practices, food security and nutrition patterns in developing countries, particularly in rural India.
"My argument is that modern approaches are improving food security," he explains, "but it is also changing nutrition patterns, and that's causing new kinds of public health problems, like obesity and hypertension -- problems that are prevalent in developed countries, but that are becoming bigger problems now in developing countries."
In fact, a poster Sarkar made outlining his research ("epidemiology and changing nutrition patterns and consequences in rural India") recently won a ‘best poster' award at the 13th annual Scientific Meeting for Health Science Research Trainees. It was chosen as one of nine winners from among 88 entries.
Sarkar, who expects to graduate in August of 2010, says he is grateful for the warm, encouraging community he has found at Queen's. "The academic environment is excellent. The faculty is supportive, and the students are really friendly," he says with a smile. When he first came to Queen's in 2008, Sarkar, who had never been to North America, was quickly made to feel at home. His family, including a young son, are still in India. "I am the only international student in my program," he says, "but I never felt isolated. I felt right away as if I'd known my classmates for years."
Drawn to Queen's because the possibilities for interdisciplinary work within the environmental studies program, Sarkar is working closely with Gary vanLoon, a professor who has made significant contributions to the fields of agriculture, environmental studies and sustainable development, while being co-supervised by Professor Kristan Aronson in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, and Dr. Allison Goebel in the School of Environmental Studies. He's also working closely with professors in India. Sarkar has also been busy with the Queen's branch of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
When he graduates, Sarkar says he hopes to work as a full time researcher, or to return to teaching, or to work as a public health program manager. "I am keeping my options open," he says with a laugh. With three academic books to his name, Sarkar also hopes to keep publishing, particularly in magazines that will be accessible to the people impacted by his research. "It's always good to publish in a good academic journal," he explains, "but I would also like to make my findings accessible for common people."
Sarkar says he sees the field of environmental health as a growing one, and hope more people with varied backgrounds will take an interest. "Society needs this," he explains, "and there's a lot of opportunity." He says that while only a few public health physicians in the world have equal competence in health and the environment, he decided to become one of them. "I decided that a person who specializes in environmental health should have equal competence in environmental studies. Being a physician, I can bring together these disciplines and use it in my future career."