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Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane

Q&A with Claire Richards

Published August 22, 2022, by Judith Van Dongen

Portrait photo of Claire RichardsHow does an ICU nurse with an interest in end-of-life care pivot to a career as a nurse scientist studying power outages, extreme heat, and wildfire smoke? For assistant professor of nursing Claire Richards, it took a passion to better understand the health impacts of climate change, along with plenty of perseverance.

Can you describe to us the journey that led you to your current research focus on climate change?
My first degree was in chemistry, which I loved. But I was also concerned about social issues beyond the lab, which eventually led me to take a job as a community health worker working with pregnant women at a safety net clinic. That piqued my interest in becoming a nurse. After earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, I worked in a surgical/trauma intensive care unit for a few years. While there, I felt a lot of moral distress about the quality of dying and wanted to know more about how we can communicate with critically ill patients and their families. So, I went back for a PhD in nursing focused on palliative care and completed a postdoc studying end-of-life care in patients with kidney disease. During my postdoc, the Florida community where my family lived was pretty much demolished by a rapidly intensifying hurricane, called Hurricane Michael. At the same time, we were seeing more power shutoffs happening in California due to a combination of wildfires, heat, and aging electric utility lines. That got me increasingly concerned about climate change and how we could provide care for people with serious illnesses in the context of more frequent disasters. So, I took some coursework on the topic and spent time figuring out how to take my expertise and my background and apply it to the problems that we face now. There are enormous voids in our knowledge of and preparedness for the climate crisis as it is impending upon us, and we need more people working to solve some of these complex problems.

When did you start working for WSU and what drew you here?
I joined WSU in the fall of 2020, after meeting with WSU College of Nursing professor Julie Postma, who also conducts environmental health research. I was at the Puget Sound VA Medical Center doing my postdoc at the time. I was one of only two nurse scientists there and was not allowed to practice clinically, so I was feeling very disconnected from nursing as a field. I hadn’t actually considered an academic position, but when I told Julie about my interest in doing research related to climate change, she encouraged me to consider WSU. The fact that several others at WSU are doing environmental health-related work factored into my decision as well.

Can you describe in more detail what your research is about?
My research focuses on how we can continue to provide health services to people in the context of increased energy insecurity and extreme weather. Last year, I was awarded a new faculty seed grant for my first project on this topic, which is to determine exposure to heat, power outages, and wildfire smoke across counties in Washington state between 2018 and 2021 and to describe our preparedness for these events. Ultimately, our goal is to develop methods to identify those communities most at risk of power outages, extreme heat, and hazardous air quality. That’s important, because most of the tools we have to mitigate the effects of heat and smoke rely on electricity. So how do we identify those areas that may need more resilient power supplies—such as solar or backup power—so that we can mitigate the impact of extreme heat and hazardous air quality during a power outage? And how can we avoid communication delays between energy utilities and public health agencies about people who are medically vulnerable and rely on electricity for their medical equipment? There are these increasing, compounding effects of climate change that are very dangerous for people, especially those who have fewer resources to mitigate them.

What else are you working on right now?
In collaboration with the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks, George Washington University, and others at WSU, I’m starting to work on a National Science Foundation-funded project to develop a decision-making app for utility companies in Alaska that they can use when they are thinking about turning off power during a wildfire event. One of the goals for the app is to include a vulnerability layer that would consider the health and social vulnerability of communities in the area. We’ll also be developing a collaborative framework with different stakeholders—such as emergency managers, public health authorities, and electric utilities—to mitigate risks of power shutoffs and identify all possible uses for the app. For example, we could potentially use the app to identify where cooling shelters should be if power is shut off during extreme heat.

I’m also working with two groups that attended a WSU-sponsored climate hackathon this spring that brought together people from different disciplines to develop projects and ideas related to climate change. One group is working on a project that relates to human migration due to climate change. The other is looking at air quality and agricultural workers and animals in Washington state. I feel like it’s really important that people who are disproportionally impacted by climate change receive resources and that research is focused on their needs.

What has it been like working for WSU these past two years?
It’s been great. I have at times felt insecure about where I’m at because I’m treading into areas that are extremely complex and outside of my background training, but people here have been very supportive and have encouraged me to continue to try to answer the questions I think are important. My special thanks go out to WSU colleagues Julie Postma, Von Walden, and Solmaz Amiri, all of whom have been really wonderful, and to Kim Zentz at Urbanova, who has provided me with invaluable background on the energy industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.