ESF’s newest major: Environmental Health

Name: Jordan Makoto C’Dealva-Lenik
Major: Environmental Health
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Graduation date: December 2016

When I arrived at ESF as a freshman, I remember feeling this sense of urgency and chaos all around me as it seemed like me and my fellow classmates were trying to figure out how to set ourselves straight on newly paved paths. To get accustomed to the homework groove (depending on your major). To establish some semblance of order during a time when our collective consciousness was being pulled in many different directions by new experiences. I am particularly fond of order. I was so determined to have everything set and figured out about the rest of my time at ESF by the end of my first semester. I honestly thought (maybe even decreed) it would be so.

I came to ESF as a freshman, as many do, wanting to do “something in an environmentally-related field.” That “something,” whatever it was, eluded me. It probably eluded others as well. All of ESF’s majors seemed fascinating, and in what is probably an understatement, I have always had a very challenging time making choices and decisions. Not a great mix when ESF has 24 majors. I picked Environmental Science because it seemed to be the equivalent of a very broad umbrella: reaching out in all directions, covering a little bit of everything. It was really never a lock-and-key fit, though. There was a lot in the major I didn’t want to do, and there wasn’t enough of the stuff I wanted to do in it, or any other ESF major really. Feeling out of place, thus began a period of extensive introspection into what made me so fascinated about environmental issues.

Think. Well, I did enjoy reading Silent Spring. What did you enjoy about it? Reading about the fates of pesticides in ecosystems. What would that encompass? Toxicology? Environmental toxicology? It continued like this for a while until I isolated the essence of what I was looking for: studying the health of the environment as impacted by humans. “Dr. Melissa Fierke shared that my interests were similar to the new Environmental Health major that was being developed.  I was elated. From that moment, I was no longer a student majoring in Environmental Science. I was going to do everything in my power to become an Environmental Health major and take Environmental Health classes. This was two years before the major went operational.

The curriculum hadn’t been developed yet, so I decided to take a big gamble with my time (and my parent’s money being spent) at ESF and predict which classes would probably be required for Environmental Health. I completely stopped taking my required Environmental Science courses. It could have easily gone very wrong, but I had some gut feeling that everything would work out. When the official curriculum was made available online, my choices up to that point were remarkably serendipitous. Not one single credit wasted.

Today I have completed over half of the Environmental Health curriculum now. I’ve even sat on a search committee for a new faculty position in the department (ESF is small, so things like that happen).

Health is a very broad word. So is environment. There are many different facets to both. At face value, the term “environmental health” is a two-way street. How do you affect the health of your broader environment, and how does your broader environment affect your own health? If we start with those two questions, clearly there will be many different ways we can start to answer. So many different things can impact health at so many different scales, so it should be no surprise that understanding environmental health necessitates a truly interdisciplinary curriculum that draws from diverse scientific and non-scientific fields. Of course no school could possibly cover everything related to environmental health in its curriculum, but ESF does cover many bases.

Be prepared to take general education courses in biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, and writing. If you are someone who enjoys chemistry, organic chemistry should be a fun challenge (if not, it’ll just be a challenge). Understanding the mechanisms of how certain chemical reactions take place is critical for those interested in dealing with pollution in different media, and also for understanding what happens internally when organisms are exposed to pollutants. Interested in studying various types of disease in humans and wildlife? You’ll have to take classes in environmental microbiology, epidemiology, and disease prevention. My personal favorite core course was Toxic Health Hazards, but then again, I’m biased. Dr. Gordon Paterson, who teaches the class, provides astonishing levels of factual information throughout the course on a variety of different substances. It’s like a biological diversity class (dendrology, mycology, ornithology, etc.) for toxic substances. He breaks the class down into different groups of substances, and then further breaks those down subsets, and sub-subsets, and so on, until you reach individual substances and get into knitty-gritty detail about each.

The Environmental Health major is far less rigid than other majors at ESF, providing students the opportunity to take courses on topics of their interest and specialize somewhat on more specific components of environmental health through focus area electives. Other ESF majors also have directed electives, but the sheer breadth of focus area topics to choose taking courses from is greater than other majors. Therefore, no single Environmental Health student’s experience will be the same. You can tailor your focus area and open electives to what fascinates you the most

I don’t know if Environmental Health will be a suitable major for you, but there’s no harm in trying it out if you find yourself interested in any of the numerous facets of environmental health. I have on numerous occasions told classmates both in my class and classes below mine to embrace introspection if they find out that their major is not what they want to be doing. It’s natural. College is about figuring out what you like and what you don’t like as much as it is about learning what interests you. If you find that during your freshman year a major isn’t for you, it’s time for self-reflection to find out what would be a better fit.

If you see me around and I don’t seem involved in anything, and you think you may need some advice about changing majors, feel free to come up to me and ask!



Jordan C


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