Sherilee Harper is looking for answers

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photo courtesy of School of Public Health, University of Alberta

To celebrate International Women’s Day (Sunday March 8, 2020), MEOPAR is spotlighting some of the incredible women from across our network—like Research Management Committee member Sherilee Harper—and the impactful work they do. This is the first of a five-part series.

 

Sherilee Harper can remember the exact moment she got hooked on research. After growing up in a small town in Ontario, she went to university thinking she had three career prospects: teacher, physician or nurse.

“I had this really great biology teacher in my first year. There was this lecture in my second semester—I remember exactly where I was sitting and what I was wearing because it was one of those Aha! moments—and he started talking about research, and how there are so many things we don’t know,” she says. “I didn’t understand it was an option or that research existed at all. It blew my mind, I was in complete awe that there was this powerful tool to answer these questions, many of which have really important consequences for society and humanity.”

After that lecture, she applied for 50 research assistant positions. That curiosity lead to a summer studying ornithology, then later a semester in Kenya where she became fascinated with the links between the health of the environment and human health. She pursued a Master’s degree and a PhD in epidemiology, studying environment and health in northern communities and, as she says, “the rest is history.”

Now an associate professor at the University of Alberta, a Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health (and a new member of MEOPAR’s Research Management Committee), Harper’s research focuses on the associations between weather and Indigenous health in the context of climate change. Mostly, she works in partnership with Inuit communities in the Arctic, investigating how the changing environment impacts everything from nutrition to mental health. She’s also the co-lead of the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC) program, an international research initiative working with Indigenous populations in the Peruvian Amazon, Canadian Arctic and Uganda.

“This is a really exciting time to be studying climate change because I don’t think there’s ever been a single issue where people have united around the globe in the same way—in the history of humanity,” she says. “It’s also interesting to see the role science is playing in those protests. If you go back to Greta [Thurnberg]’s messaging, her main message is for decision-makers to listen to scientists and take these IPCC reports seriously and take action based on them.”

Harper was a lead author one such report, last fall’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. Of the 100 climate change experts from 36 countries who spent two years writing the report, she was the only health scientist.

“There’s a lot of physical science in that report but also science on what those changes in the physical environment actually mean impact for people on the ground,” she says of the work. “It’s not just how is the ocean chemistry changing? How is the ocean warming? It’s how do those things impact human populations who depend on the cryosphere?—which as our report argues, is pretty much everyone on the planet.”

Harper says last summer, the landscape for climate research and action fundamentally changed. We’re in a new era for work like hers, one she’s inspired to be a part of.

“People in the North, there’s no question to them that the environment affects their health. The community’s interest in the research, their drive to do the research and continue it—their enthusiasm for the topic—is what drives me,” she says.

“Climate change is a big scary thing. It causes a lot of anxiety and when you’re thinking about it day-to-day, it can be overwhelming. Seeing these international movements lead by youth gives me a lot of motivation to move forward. Especially seeing them communicate the importance of science and evidence in making decisions on how to respond to climate change. It gives me a lot of hope.”