Planetary health as a holistic concept

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Ina Danquah - holds the new Hertz ship ’Innovation for Planetary Health&rs
Ina Danquah - holds the new Hertz ship ’Innovation for Planetary Health’ at the University of Bonn. © Photo: Gregor Hübl/University of Bonn

Ina Danquah is a new Hertz Chair funded by the excellence strategy at the University of Bonn

The University of Bonn has once again recruited an exceptional talent: Ina Danquah has been appointed as the new Hertz-Chair "Innovation for Planetary Health" at the "University of Excellence Bonn". The Hertz-Chair combines various disciplines in a unique manner. Danquah is a nutritional scientist and expert in public health and epidemiology. Her Hertz-Chair contributes to the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Sustainable Futures". In addition, Danquah is one of the three directors of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn. 

The Hertz Chair for "Innovation for Planetary Health" integrates various concepts for the advancement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. "Transdisciplinary approaches constitute an indispensable part of climate and health research," says Ina Danquah, who started her work in the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Sustainable Futures" at the University of Bonn at the beginning of October. Planetary health describes a holistic concept that focuses on the interdependencies between a healthy environment, human health and the health of all living creatures on our planet. The researcher is also convinced that "effective and acceptable strategies to combat the impacts of climate change need to include participative elements for all actors involved."

"Appointing candidates of international repute is an integral part of our Excellence Strategy. Our Hertz chairs promote cross-disciplinary research on major challenges of our time, including the megatrend of planetary health," says Professor Michael Hoch, Rector of the University of Bonn. "I’m therefore delighted that we were able to attract an outstanding scientist like Ina Danquah who enjoys broad recognition in this vast field. Fortunately for us, she will not only be making essential contributions to research as a member of the Sustainable Futures TRA, but will also act as a director on the board of our Center for Development Research, one of the world’s leading think tanks based in the ’UN city’ of Bonn."

The new Hertz Chair has been carrying out research into dietary behavior and its links to diseases in sub-Saharan Africa. "In my work as a nutritional epidemiologist, I have observed that rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa are still plagued by undernutrition and infectious diseases," says Ina Danquah. Women of child-bearing age and children under the age of five are particularly vulnerable. At the same time, the researcher has observed that there has been a sharp increase in the number of overweight people and chronic illnesses in cities and these numbers will continue to grow.

Ina Danquah: "These problems are very closely linked to the climate crisis." Harvest failures lead to the loss of essential nutrients in the main food crops and this only exacerbates the issue of malnutrition. At the same time, modern diets with higher proportions of animal-based and highly processed foods are adding to the burden on planetary systems. These diets are not only unhealthy but are also associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions, greater consumption of water and land use, increased inputs of nitrogen and phosphate and biodiversity loss. "I would like to make a contribution to balancing the goals of prosperity, health and restoring planetary systems so that our subsequent generations can live fulfilling lives on a healthy planet," says the researcher.

As the Hertz-Chair for "Innovation for Planetary Health," Danquah will set-up a multi-center, prospective cohort study in sub-Saharan Africa into the interactions between climate change, nutrition and health. In addition, she - who worked for the last few years at the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health (HGIH) - will establish a global network of intervention studies at the University of Bonn for climate change adaptation and mitigation. The projects will mainly be carried out in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Kenya, as well as in Europe. "The University of Bonn provides an outstanding environment for overcoming the major challenges we face in the areas of climate change and health with an interdisciplinary approach," says Ina Danquah. The mother of three children is also very fond of the city and local region: "Bonn is a multicultural, cosmopolitan city that is steeped in history and offers a diverse range of culinary delights, while the banks of the Rhine are ideal for enjoying long runs."

Profile:

Ina Danquah, born in 1982 in Potsdam, studied nutrition science at the University of Potsdam and University of Ghana in Accra. After receiving her doctorate at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi (Ghana), she completed a Master of Science in Epidemiology at the University of London and then qualified as a professor of epidemiology and public health at Charité. In 2019, she was appointed the head of the research group "Climate Change, Nutrition and Health" at the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health (HGIH) at the University of Heidelberg, where she later accepted a position as a W1 professor in "Research into the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources" in 2020. Ina Danquah has held the position of Hertz Chair for "Innovation for Planetary Health" since October and is one of the three directors of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn. The researcher has received multiple awards, including the Robert Bosch Junior Professorship in 2019, the African Achievement Award from the African German Network Association, and the Ernst Reuter Dissertation Prize from the Free University of Berlin. 

"The big picture"

Ina Danquah is the new Hertz Chair for "Innovation for Planetary Health." The researcher has expertise in the fields of nutrition science, global health and epidemiology. In the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Sustainable Futures" and as director at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn, Danquah is carrying out research into a holistic concept focusing on a healthy environment, human health and the health of all living creatures on our planet. Danquah previously worked at Heidelberg University Hospital. She currently lives with her family in Stuttgart and commutes to Bonn. However, she is looking forward to moving near to the Rhine River in the near future. Ina Danquah was interviewed by Johannes Seiler.

What do you like about Bonn?

It is fascinating to me that there are so many bike paths, and I am looking forward to try them out. I also like the historical flair of the former capital city. My team in Heidelberg gave me a book of 111 places that you should not miss in Bonn. I will give some of them a try. My children are also pleased: They asked me to bring them something from the famous candy store in the city.

What are your first impressions of the University of Bonn?
The entire appointment process was very professional, and always had a contact person at the university, who responded in a prompt and friendly manner. I like the warm-hearted and welcoming atmosphere. Now, I am really looking forward to getting my work started in Bonn.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?
Running is wonderful; it helps my thoughts flow freely. In addition, I suddenly find solutions to a problem, that has been puzzling me for some time, when I am watching my sons playing football at the weekend. New ideas also spring to life, of course, when talking to my colleagues, often in front of the coffee machine.

If you were asked to promote the subject of nutritional epidemiology to students, how would you do it?
Nutritional epidemiology covers many different areas of health sciences, including human medicine, the natural sciences, mathematics and physiology. It is exciting to me that you do not study individual people but rather whole population groups. Epidemiology attempts to look at the bigger picture. Its findings act as the basis for the successful prevention and healthcare, and thus, are important for the whole society.

You studied nutrition science at the University of Potsdam and University of Ghana in Accra. How did you come to complete part of your degree in Ghana?
I decided at an early stage to spend a semester abroad in the Global South, not only because the distinct nutritional challenges in these countries but also due to family ties. I had already participated in an exchange program for young people in Ghana, which is why I applied to the university in Accra. After receiving a scholarship, I was able to study nutrition science at Legon for one semester.

Were there differences in the course content between Potsdam and Accra?
There were some differences between the subjects and content of the courses. Courses such as food marketing were available in Accra, for example, but not at the University of Potsdam. It was in Accra that I experienced my first lecture in epidemiology. This sparked my interest right away, and it grew later on in Potsdam. I also completed part of my doctoral studies in Ghana at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital. The country is very close to my heart; it is somehow my home away from home.

You then completed a Masters in Epidemiology at the University of London. All of these experiences will help you with your research in the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Sustainable Futures." What will this transdisciplinary work look like?

A few years ago, I started to expand the study of nutritional epidemiology to include environmental issues, which ultimately set the framework for my research. Climate change constitutes one of the most pressing issues of our times. Therefore, climate change is another important pillar of my research and my focal topic at the University of Bonn. This will only be possible in a transdisciplinary team that brings together expertise from the fields of geography, meteorology, geology, hydrology, mathematics and many other areas. Only through collaborations, we will be able to develop strategies to tackle climate change and its consequences for nutrition and health. In addition, the aim is to establish strategies of behavior change to actively protect the climate and achieving health co-benefits.

Your research has led to what at first glance is a surprising finding: The rural population in sub-Saharan Africa are often starving, while urban populations are now increasingly suffering from typical "lifestyle" diseases due to being overweight. How has this contradiction arisen?
There only seems to be a surplus in the cities. Adult populations in urban areas consume energy-dense diets that are lacking micronutrients, such as vitamins and trace elements. This is not only due to a lack of knowledge about healthy diets but also stems from the affordability of such foods as compared to fresh fruits and vegetables. In contrast, undernutrition is still a problem in rural areas. The population there relies on subsistence farming. If harvests fail as a result of climate change, their access to food worsens. Rising food prices due to the war in Ukraine, for example, and other crises aggravate this situation.

You want to contribute to balancing the goals of prosperity, health and restoring planetary boundaries for a good life of the next generation. What will this contribution look like?
The Global South is currently undergoing a period of rapid economic development. Of course, these societies also want to participate in economic prosperity. In contrast, the Global North is promoting restraint with respect to the consumption of resources and climate change. This conflict needs to be dissolved. While this is not trivial, this conflict constitutes the greatest area of potential. The aim is to work together so that all countries can prosper and protect the climate at the same time.

Can you give us an example of what this cooperation might look like?
Let us look at the increasing number of heat waves as an example. If half of the world used air conditioning, this would only exacerbate the greenhouse effect, because we will need even more energy and generate more emissions. Therefore, we need different technological solutions and changes in behavior. The Mediterranean lifestyle could be a role model for us in Central Europe: We could take a siesta in the two hottest hours of the day and move our activities to the morning and evening. However, this will require changes to care, education and working structures, which will also have to be supported at a political level.

You have three sons aged 18, 15 and 9. How have you managed to balance a career and raising children?
A strong family helps: primarily my partner, but also my parents who have helped me a lot, especially when the children were still very young. More flexible working hours and places of work are also important. Our experiences from the coronavirus pandemic have demonstrated that we can also work well from home or while on the move. The important question for me is: What things do I really have to do myself, in order to make my family life and career work well? When the children need to be taken to football training, we organize with neighbors and friends. Sometimes, we arrange to have groceries delivered, and the apartment does not always have to sparkle. This gives me more time to spend with the family or on my next scientific paper.

What is the best way for you to switch off?
I still live in Stuttgart at the moment and like to go running in the forests there. I was born in Potsdam and grew up in Havelland, where every small village has a lake or small river. It is something I have missed, and I am really looking forward to do jogging along the banks of the Rhine in Bonn. 



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