From Florida's lakes to the Southwest Center, Assistant Professor Kevin Lanza
Kevin Lanza, PhD, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Sciences at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in Austin, Texas, joined the SWCOEH in 2023. His research explores the relations between the environment, health behaviors, and health through an equity lens, with a focus on extreme heat and physical activity of children and other heat-sensitive populations. The ultimate goal of his research is to inform policies that eliminate race-, ethnicity-, and class-based health inequities in the face of warming from urbanization and climate change.
To learn more about Dr. Lanza, SWCOEH.org asks him more about his background.
SWCOEH.org: What attracted you to this role as an assistant professor with the SWCOEH?
Dr. Lanza: “The SWCOEH has a mission that’s easy to get behind, “To promote and improve health, safety, and well-being for workers and their communities through inspiring education, innovative research, and engaging outreach”. Working towards this mission is made possible through the umbrella of resources provided by the Center, from the exceptional faculty and staff to the trainings, pilot grants, and collaborative environment. The support of the Center to the region was a major attractant, knowing that our community-based research would be well aligned with the goals of the Center and ultimately advance health and well-being in the region we live.
SWCOEH.org: You completed your PhD at Georgia Tech in City & Regional Planning. Which parts of your research during and after your time at Georgia Tech have tied into City and Regional Planning?
Dr. Lanza: My training in city and regional planning has taught me that the evidence needed for policy change is best collected through a “slow is fast” approach, where time must be invested to develop a relationship centered on trust between researchers, practitioners, and those facing the issue of concern. Equitably involving all partners in the research process—from problem definition through solution design and evaluation—increases the likelihood of creating public health interventions that are truly effective.
SWCOEH.org: You joined the Dell Center in Austin as a Postdoc fellow in 2019. You became assistant professor at UTHealth Houston SPH in 2021. Can you describe your research during the last 4 years in Austin in both roles?
Dr. Lanza: During my postdoctoral fellowship at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, Melody Alcazar of Austin Parks & Recreation and I led the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded Green Schoolyards Project. Studying three elementary schools with low access to nature and serving over 85% economically disadvantaged Latino households, we determined how trees and other green features at school parks impacted ambient temperatures and physical activity levels of children during school recess. We also studied how children’s psychological connection to nature was associated with their social emotional learning skills (one-page summary in English and Spanish). The major project I’ve been working on during my faculty tenure has been the NIH-funded Routes to Environmental Justice study. I am modeling ambient temperatures across a diverse mix of school communities in Central Texas; determining the relations between temperatures, the built environment, and active school commuting of elementary school children; and measuring the association between temperature, air quality, and physical activity of children during the summer. More to come!
SWCOEH.org: What are you excited to teach/research/learn at the SWCOEH?
Dr. Lanza: I’m excited to learn more about the individuals who make up the Center and the communities they work alongside. The research and training conducted throughout the SWCOEH cover a diversity of settings and populations—including agricultural workers in rural Texas and commercial fishermen in Galveston/Gulf Coast—that I could learn from for my own research with school communities. The possibilities for collaboration are endless and the SWCOEH provides a space that facilitates those partnerships.
SWCOEH.org: What initially piqued your interest in public health? Any key hinge points that helped grow your interest since your childhood?
Dr. Lanza: I grew up in Central Florida, where I spent much of my time outdoors, fishing in the many lakes of the Orlando area or running dirt trails that go through deep woods and swamps. From these experiences, I learned how much the natural world can provide and how much we damage it through our development patterns, fertilizer and pesticide use, and burning of fossil fuels. I became hooked on wanting to protect the health of the environment and that of humans, a goal that can only be achieved when humans and the environment are in harmony.
SWCOEH.org: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your new role or background?
Dr. Lanza: I’m learning that there are many individuals who are proud to call Texas home and are proponents of protecting the safety, health, and well-being of workers and their households. While the strong Texas culture can also bring challenges, I firmly believe this passion is a strength that can result in significant positive change when we make the effort to band together.
The SWCOEH provides graduate-level training opportunities for occupational and environmental health professionals through our industrial hygiene, occupational and environmental medicine, occupational epidemiology, and Total Worker Health® programs.