Get to Know New Center Faculty: Dr. Lanza

Published: December 6, 2021

Interviewing faculty can be a great way to get to know more about them! Learning more about faculty research and interests can be helpful to students forming their own interests and career goals. 

Dr. Kevin Lanza joined the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living after becoming an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental science at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin. Kevin Lanza received his PhD in City & Regional Planning from Georgia Institute of Technology and completed his postdoctoral training at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin. 

In his research, Dr. Lanza explores the relations between the environment, health behaviors, and health through the lens of climate equity. His primary aims are to determine the impact of extreme heat on physical activity, exertional heat illness, and chronic diseases of individuals living in low-income communities and communities of color, and to develop interventions (behavioral, programmatic, and environmental) to improve community resilience. Ultimately, his research goal is to inform policies that eliminate race-, ethnicity-, and class-based health inequities in the face of warming from urbanization and climate change. Dr. Lanza acknowledges that authentic partnership with community members is essential for health and climate solutions to be truly effective. 

Dr. Lanza took the time to answer a few questions we had for him about his experiences in public health and his interests: 

  1. How did your interest in public health begin?

Growing up in Central Florida, I spent most of my time outdoors, often fishing in retention ponds or running under the canopy of large oak trees. These experiences strengthened my connection to nature and benefited my physical and mental health. The natural environment had provided me with so much, and I thought to make a career of protecting it while improving access for those without. 

  1. What path has your research taken?

During my doctoral training at Georgia Tech, I investigated the impact of extreme heat on heat-related morbidity and mortality of individuals whose health are most impacted by high temperatures, and how different heat management strategies—such as planting trees—can moderate temperatures and improve individuals’ health and well-being. For my dissertation, I examined the relations between high ambient temperatures, built environment, and physical activity. I learned that heat was a health inequity wherein communities of color disproportionately lived in areas characterized by higher temperatures due to historical discriminatory policies and ongoing disinvestment. These same communities oftentimes lived in environments that were not supportive of physical activity. Ultimately, this evidence led to my research goal of eliminating health inequities by creating environments that promote safe physical activity in hot weather while providing other benefits to society and the planet. 

  1. In your opinion, what are the biggest public health problems in your field of research?

The negative effects of climate change on public health are here and now and projected to increase unless we make global and substantive advances in reducing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and adapting to climate change impacts such as rising ambient temperatures and sea level. 

  1. With regards to public health, what do you want to see being done now?

I’d like to see partnerships between community members, non-profit organizations, government, researchers, and industry to wholly disrupt and transform our dependence on fossil fuels and its associated lifestyle to a society designed for health, well-being, and community connection. Improving our relationship with the natural world is essential to reach that vision. 

  1. Do you have a favorite research project that you’ve worked on, or one that stands out to you?

I’ll forever cherish my experience directing the Green Schoolyards Project alongside Melody Alcazar of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. We aimed to determine the impact of trees and other green features in three elementary school parks on temperatures and children’s physical activity levels. This was my first opportunity to design and implement a cohort study of school-age children, a population I plan to continue supporting through my research. Working with City of Austin and Austin Independent School District has led to new collaborations across the Central Texas region to improve community resilience to extreme heat. 

  1. What are you working on now that is exciting?

I’m preparing a manuscript that determines the association between ambient temperatures (historical and projected) and trail use by pedestrians and cyclists in Austin. I’m enthusiastic about this project because of the new research partners I’ve made across three universities and our use of electronic counters positioned along the trail that provide counts of pedestrians and cyclists and weather data from the nearest weather stations. We found that ambient temperature extremes resulted in less trail use with differences by travel mode, and that future projections of temperature under different scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions suggest climate change may reduce trail use. Stay tuned for detailed results. 

  1. What is unique about your research in the city of Austin?

My research ideas are locally grown. Teamwork with residents and other experts from Austin Office of Sustainability, Austin Transportation Department, University of Texas at Austin, and Go Austin/Vamos Austin has led to an understanding of the environmental health issues facing Austin and the potential health and climate solutions. Each project involves multiple sectors and is both standalone and connected. 

  1. What do you like most about working with students/future public health workforce?

Students are the smarts, energy, and enthusiasm that make this environmental health work possible and worthwhile. From developing study protocol to conducting high-quality fieldwork, students have enriched all aspects of my research studies. I enjoy learning from their public health perspective and sharing my city planning perspective, creating together for societal and planetary good.