School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Vanier Scholar - Erica Phipps

by Georgia Carley
November 2015

Erica Phipps

Vanier Scholar - Erica Phipps

Improving children’s environmental health “is strategically and ethically the right thing to do,” says Erica Phipps. “It can’t be overstated.”

This conviction has lead Phipps to Queen’s University, as a Vanier Scholar working with Dr. Jeff Masuda in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies.

“Health equity is infamously hard to address” Phipps tells me. As she put it in her Vanier application, the issue is that “today’s children are routinely exposed to multiple environmental toxicants, with serious if sometimes subtle impacts on their prospects for lifelong health.”

Phipps points out that neurotoxicants and other environmental exposures have been linked to chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, as well as decrements in intellect and altered behaviour. She calls this a “preventable stunting of human potential.”

Phipps has worked in environmental health for over 20 years, including for the past seven years as Executive Director of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE), as well as with the United Nations and the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation.  

Phipps has been motivated by the “tangible need” to “do better” about children’s environmental health. Her doctoral research as a Vanier Scholar aims to optimize her own work with CPCHE and the work of environmental health equity advocates across the country.

With so much experience outside of the academy, Phipps sees her doctoral research as the chance to apply a “structured and methodological way of learning” to issues that she has already encountered in the field. The Vanier Scholarship has offered Phipps the “tremendous opportunity” to invest three years into this research.

Phipps believes that progress will be made by “harnessing the power of human relations.” She is coming to Queen’s to explore a practical model for how to do this.

For the past several years, Phipps has been collaborating with Dr. Masuda and his Centre for Environmental Health Equity (CEHE) on the development of a concept called Equity-focused Knowledge Translation, which they pilot-tested via a week-long training program for environmental health researchers and advocates. The program brought together individuals whose knowledge of environmental health inequality came from very different places – from academic research, health services provision and from personal lived experience. Through the program, they learned to translate their knowledge into insights that the others would understand. It was, as Phipps calls it, an “experiential approach to breaking down barriers between stakeholders” as a means to open up new solution pathways.

This was a “transformational” experience for Phipps. One of her goals for her doctoral research is to determine “how to design processes that will enable that magic to happen on a more routine basis.”

The result would be “very much focused on human relationships,” she tells me. It will be centered “on how to optimize human relationships so that we can come up with more creative, courageous, out of the box thinking type solutions to problems that just don’t seem to go away.”

Phipps will use her doctoral research to determine how to facilitate this sort of co-creation of knowledge between stakeholders of environmental health.

She gives me the example of a current CPCHE initiative, RentSafe, which works collaboratively with community members, service providers and decision-makers to address housing-related health risks affecting low-income renters. Using RentSafe as a case study, Phipps hopes to emerge with a framework that can be replicated in collaborative work elsewhere.

With a Bachelor’s in Sociology from Colgate University and a Masters in Public Health from the University of Michigan, Phipps says she has “always had an interest in the human element, things like equity and justice.” She has worked with the United Nations on issues of toxics and human health in the international context. Subsequently, she worked with the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, where she first became involved in children’s environmental health. She has been devoted to children’s environmental health ever since. Her research at Queen’s continues this mission.