University of Vermont

Christine Vatovec Combines Environmental Science and Public Health in Her Research and Teaching

Christine Vatovec joins Rubenstein School faculty as a research assistant professor.
Christine Vatovec joins Rubenstein School faculty as a research assistant professor.

Research Assistant Professor Christine Vatovec’s academic career has followed a winding path to her current research and her faculty position in the Rubenstein School.  Her varied experience allows her to be a truly interdisciplinary environmental health social scientist, equally at home in the Rubenstein School and in the UVM College of Medicine.

Growing up on a small organic dairy near Cooperstown, New York, Christine not only got to spend ample time outdoors, but was also surrounded by discussions about the environment from a young age. Bitten early by the environmental bug, Christine sought out opportunities to take college-level environmental science courses while she was still in high school. Summer research at SUNY Oneonta’s field station on Otsego Lake solidified her interest in the aquatic world, and she went on to study fish population dynamics as an undergraduate at Cornell University.

During her senior year, a cancer diagnosis in her family brought up conversations about environmental health. The seeds of questions planted by those conversations stayed with Christine for many years even though they were not directly related to the work that she was doing at the time.

After college, she lived the conservation biology dream. She worked on projects studying wetlands at Cornell, prairie dogs in Utah, flying squirrels in the Cascades, and white-tailed deer, wolves, and breeding songbirds (separately, of course) in Minnesota. She stayed in Minnesota long enough to earn an MS in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota with a minor in sustainable agriculture, then moved on to Washington, DC, to work as an environmental planner.

When she returned to academia, this time for a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, those environmental health questions that had been planted years before finally came to the forefront. For her dissertation research, Christine studied the environmental and public health impacts of medical care among terminal cancer patients and has since expanded on this area of inquiry.

Here at UVM, she is involved in a wide array of projects with the common thread of promoting human flourishing by acknowledging that human health and well-being are dependent on ecological flourishing. Within this context, Christine has two primary areas of interest. The first is understanding the socio-ecological consequences of medical care and decision-making. The second is investigating the human health benefits of contact with nature. Christine’s research therefore ranges from comparing the environmental and public health impacts of various medical pathways to studying whether nature contact helps reduce stress and speed recovery among cancer survivors. She has also built the course, Human Health and the Environment, within this context of balancing human and ecological flourishing and has watched enrollment increase from 42 students in fall 2013 to an expected 60 this coming fall.

Another common thread in Christine’s research is collaboration. She fell in love with collaborative work at the University of Wisconsin, and the opportunity to continue exploring collaborative, interdisciplinary research is what drew her to Vermont. She learned from the example of one of her mentors, Phil Brown at Northeastern University, that the goal of research is to improve human well-being and that competing about knowledge is counterproductive. Whether she is teaming up with a dedicated undergraduate or a large committee of fellow faculty, she is passionate about building relationships.

Christine is currently working with Senior Lecturer Kit Anderson and Colleen Whitcomb, a senior Environmental Studies major, to study the health impacts of healing gardens at Fletcher Allen Health Care. This summer she will be expanding this line of research by collaborating with physicians Kim Dittus and Susan Lakoski to examine the role of nature contact in the “Steps to Wellness” oncology rehabilitation program at Fletcher Allen.

Christine has also formed a partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey to study the impact of pharmaceutical waste on Lake Champlain and will be mentoring a student in Associate Professor Jason Stockwell’s summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program to investigate interventions to minimize the impact of pharmaceuticals on the lake. In addition, Christine is part of a team of researchers at the Vermont Cancer Center developing a Translational Cancer Research COBRE (Center on Biomedical Research Excellence) where she will investigate the socio-ecological impacts of breast cancer treatment pathways.

Perhaps because she has studied how beneficial contact with nature can be, Christine spends as much of her free time as possible outside. Depending on the season, you can find her cross-country skiing with her family, planting veggies in her garden, or training for a triathlon. Though it has manifested in a variety of ways, the same love of nature that inspired her to take her first environmental science classes in high school is still alive and well in Christine’s research as well as her recreation.