Blog Post

Interview with Michael Brubaker: Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network

The recent White House Citizen Science Forum, “Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People showcased the work of many amazing people whose work we consider part of the citizen science spectrum. We wanted to get to know some of these individuals better so we asked a few of them to tell us a little more about themselves and how they engage others in public participation in scientific research. We hope you may learn from their experiences and find new connections to the work you do.
We also consider this the launching point for a new, ongoing series of blog posts about people who are working to design, manage, and/or research efforts along a spectrum of citizen science. Watch for more posts throughout the year!
Here we spoke with Micheal Brubaker, Director of Community Environment and Safety and of the Center for Climate and Health for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
CSA: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?
Michael: I was raised in Anchorage, which was a more of a town than a city when I was young. We lived on a lake in the outskirts, really just a filled in gravel pit and a magnet for kids year round. The lake was polluted and with terrific algae blooms every summer, resulting in some terrific algae fights; almost as much fun to throw as snow balls. One day I swallowed an exceptionally large amount of slimy water. The result was an undiagnosed illness and the rest of the summer I was bedridden and recovering. I think that was where my interest in environmental health started. Since then I have always been interested in the connections between environmental change and health effects.
CSA: Describe your citizen science/public participation in scientific research project for us.
Michael: I work for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) as the Director for Community Environment and Health. In the 1990s we began to hear more and more stories about unusual weather, and environmental change in rural communities across the state. The tribal health leadership wanted to know if this was climate change, and if so, what types of health effects could be anticipated and how could we adapt to continue to encourage healthy communities. We started a Center for Climate and Health in 2008 and began looking at the climate-environment-health connections. We found that many communities were already experiencing impacts that affected disease, injury, mental health and food and water security. We realized that this was only going to continue and that we needed a way to both track the impacts and also to provide technical assistance. The outcome was the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network.
The network members apply local and traditional knowledge to document and share observations about unusual or unprecedented environmental events. Events that are also drivers for health impacts. We review and then transfer the observations to public maps. Sometimes we provide technical consults. Often the observations are forwarded to other organizations with topic expertise or appropriate resources. Through the network we have been able to increase awareness about vulnerabilities and impacts from climate change and to connect community members with technical experts.
CSA: What was one of your biggest challenges to get your project to where it is today? How did you overcome that challenge?
Michael: There have been many challenges but perhaps the most important was developing trust so that people feel comfortable sharing their observations in a public system. Building trust began long before LEO, as a tribally owned health organization and also through developing a regular conversation between the tribal environmental programs across Alaska.
CSA: Why are you excited about citizen science?
Michael: Mostly, because all of us, whether we recognize it or not, are being impacted by climate change, many in very dramatic ways – loss of livelihood, homes, communities, and even loved ones. Participating in citizen science is one way we can do something, one way that we can help to address challenges of such immense scale and importance. I know that in rural Alaska, people participate in LEO Network because they are very concerned about what they are witnessing and they want to do something about it. As demonstrated by the many successful citizen science programs around the country, we can do a lot. It is amazing what can be accomplished when we all pull together.

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