How relocating coastal communities affects health

July 7, 2023 | Laura Haas
A woman with long hair and a striped shirt smiles while standing near a body of water.

DEOHS alumna Isabel Nerenberg (MS '23) studies the health impacts of planned relocation on coastal communities

Isabel Nerenberg received an award from the DEOHS Russell L. Castner Endowed Student Research Fund to support her research. 

How can a planned relocation due to climate change or natural disasters affect the health of an individual or even an entire community?

Isabel Nerenberg studied this question with support from the Russell L. Castner Endowed Student Research Fund, established to support research in environmental health by graduate students in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS).

Nerenberg, who graduated in 2023 with her MS in Environmental Health Sciences, shares why she’s passionate about public health, her research and the impact she hopes it will have.

What interested you in studying public health and why are you passionate about it?

There are many nurses in my family, and I was originally planning to go to nursing school. I took a full year of prerequisites, but I realized that I wanted to have a broader impact instead of an impact on single person care. I took an introduction to public health class and I really liked it, so I ended up finishing my undergraduate degree in public health from San Diego State University.

I also took a couple of environmental health classes, and something just clicked, so I decided to pursue a Master’s in Public Health degree in environmental health here at the UW. Eventually I switched over to a Master of Science so that I could obtain more specialized training in the practice of environmental health.

Why did you decide to come to the University of Washington for graduate school? 

My environmental health professor at San Diego State University gave me a list of the top public health schools in the country, which included the UW. My fiancé is from Washington state, and we were moving back to Seattle anyway, so I applied and was accepted to the program.

What experiences at the UW School of Public Health have been most influential?

I really enjoy the opportunity to work with different departments and learn from a variety of people who have different perspectives. I’ve been able to use a lot of different qualitative research methods and work with people internationally, which I haven’t had an opportunity to do before. It's been a good experience seeing just how far this field stretches, and how far I can stretch my own expertise.

Tell us about your research and the kind of impact you hope it will have.

My project focuses on the health impacts of planned relocation of coastal communities due to climate change or other coastal risks. Currently, there isn’t much research on how relocation or migration impacts the well-being of people and their communities as they move, and there are many factors that affect how people live their lives depending on where they end up. While we know a little about how relocation impacts the health of an individual, we know even less about how it impacts the health of an entire community, so my research will hopefully help build upon this evidence base.

Communities planning to relocate together are pretty few and far between. There's a lot of work to be done to make planned relocation equitable and safe for communities because everything is very contextual when you're trying to move an entire community versus an individual or a household. Decisions made by government agencies and researchers with limited community involvement can actually be more damaging to the communities than helpful. So, having community input is significantly important so that does not happen.

The main issue we are finding is that not many communities have the resources to move together; we need more resources and support from the government and other facilities to help them move.

My research explores how people perceive these health and well-being impacts in the US and Japan. The US uses a buyout system for relocating individual households, while Japan uses a more systematic approach. The instances of relocation in Japan that we have the most information from occurred in response to an extreme event like the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. This meant that their relocation measures were more community-wide compared to individual relocation.

Unfortunately, both methods have significant issues. Buyout programs in the US are inherently inequitable, with families getting the value of their home (at its best), but with increasing inflation of the housing market, that money does not go as far as it did before.

The primary issues from relocations in Japan were that, despite being community-based, they were government funded, which left very little room for people to have a say in what, where and how they were relocated. Many social and spiritual things were left behind, making their transition harder.

How will the Castner Award, which you are a recipient of help support your research goals?

The Castner Award allowed me to conduct, transcribe and validate my interviews for the project, which was crucial for the timeline of the study. It was also used to purchase a license for the NVivo qualitative data analysis software that was necessary for this research, as well as supported my participation in a poster presentation event at the Washington State Environmental Health Association conference.

What is one piece of advice that you have for potential new public health students or one thing you wish you knew before beginning your public health studies?

My advice to potential students is to be open-minded. Students often come in with a very narrow perspective and may only want to focus on the toxicology aspect of environmental health, for example. Having an open mind is beneficial because even if you become a toxicologist, you still need to know how all of those things that you are learning impact not only humans or the environment, but also animals, and it’s good to just have that greater public health understanding.

What interests do you have outside of (or related to) public health?

I like to run and I just competed in my first marathon this past summer. I run as a stress release, but it is also enjoyable. I also have a dog and I love spending time with her and just being outside here in the Pacific Northwest. I love that I get to live here now and enjoy what's around me. It makes environmental health seem that much more important.





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