For more than two decades, Brown School Professor Lora Iannotti’s work has focused on nutrition around the world, from a study of wild foods in Madagascar to an intervention aimed at feeding fish to more children in Kenya. Her new job title is certainly a mouthful, but it signifies important work that she believes will help carry public health to a new level at Washington University in St. Louis.
Iannotti has been named the first Director for Planetary Health and Environmental Justice at the new Center for the Environment at the university. The center will focus on biodiversity, planetary health, environmental justice, and environmental solutions with two underlying themes of earth systems and climate change as part of the university’s effort to elevate research and action in critical environmental domains. It will play a key role in “Here & Next,” the university’s strategic vision, and in the university’s plans to create a new school of public health, which it hopes to launch next year.
“We need to be serious about environmental change and its impacts globally,” Iannotti said. “There can be no more important issue underlying humanitarian crises, political turmoil, and overall destruction of our natural systems. It’s why I want to shift my own research portfolio in this direction and how I intend to spend the rest of my time in academia.” She said the effort is aimed at expanding the university’s portfolio in sustainability and environmental research and attract top faculty, students and staff from across the world in related areas.
In announcing the creation of the Center for the Environment, Beverly Wendland, the provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the effort was a response to “the pressing need to protect and preserve our planet and its inhabitants,” while building on the environmental research that has long been done at the university.
Iannotti’s career has positioned her well to be a leader of the effort.
She received her doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health after working for over 10 years with United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations on nutrition and food-security programming and policy; she joined the faculty at the Brown School in 2010. Her research has investigated ways to reduce stunted growth and development, and she’s led projects in Haiti, Ecuador, Madagascar and East Africa, where she collaborated with local partners to test new approaches to using animal-source foods and develop sustainable fisheries.
Her work in Madagascar and Kenya has been particularly relevant to her new post. In Madagascar, she collaborates with the Missouri Botanical Garden looking at the nutritional value of wild foods. In Kenya, she led a team that worked with small-fisher households, encouraging them to keep a portion of the fish they catch to feed their children, and to use modified traps that allow young fish to escape, thereby protecting the marine ecosystem and increasing fish biomass. The result, she said, was the kind of win-win-win that she hopes to replicate many times over at the new center: “They caught more fish, contributed to the richness of the species, and improved child nutrition.”
In 2018, Iannotti founded the E3 Nutrition Lab, which identifies affordable, sustainable and evolutionarily appropriate nutrition solutions around the world. She currently serves on public health advisory and journal editorial boards and is a consultant to the World Health Organization, among others.
A year ago, Wendland invited her to be part of the university’s strategic planning effort; she’s also on the nominating committee for a potential new Dean of Public Health.
Her new role at the Center for the Environment will require her to reduce her teaching responsibilities, but she will continue to do research, a major aim of the center. “We want the center to be about serious research,” she said. In addition to attracting new students and faculty, she is planning to accelerate research through a new climate focus at the planned school of public health, and convene workshops to encourage collaboration, write grants, and communicate the center’s challenges and achievements.
Part of her role as a public-health representative at the center is to be a bridge to a new school of public health. “Our hope is that as the school is established and grows, we will be able to attract more faculty in planetary health research,” she said.
Overall, she and the center’s other leaders will be focused on the center’s ultimate goal: saving and renewing nature’s benefits for the planet. The results will benefit the world’s population, as well as its plants and animals, she said. “We’re all in the same ecosystem,” she said. “We need to address global environmental change and human health challenges by learning how to live in better harmony with our environment.”