Dr. Matilda van den Bosch, Senior Researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Forestry, is a physician with a PhD in landscape planning and public health.
She grew up in the Swedish countryside, beside a cemetery with beautiful trees. One of her latest studies is about urban greenness associated with lower incidence of childhood ADHD. “I have a special connection to trees”, she says and this shows in her remarkable career that has taken this connection far and wide.
She will give a lecture at the IV International Congress Forests and its Potential for Health in Portugal, “Nature’s positive impact on human health – the latest evidence”.
Matilda often goes to nature in Barcelona, where she currently lives, and from where she works. She has also worked as a consultant for WHO, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), and The Climate Change Bureau, Health Canada on topics like urban green space indicators for public health and policy priorities for protecting health for both humans and the environment.
Stress, trees and an old horse-chestnut
“I grew up in an agricultural landscape, beside a cemetery with beautiful trees in it, and the summers were spent in the forest environment in Sweden. In our garden, there was this horse-chestnut tree that I really loved and where I used to play. I have always had a special connection to trees and when I got older and started Medical School, I always found it very soothing to be around, if the studies were stressful. Trees really mean something to me.
“I am interested in human health but have always been eager to work with nature as well. When I became a physician and started meeting patients, I came to realise that many of them were suffering from lifestyle related disorders, such as stress related diseases and mental illnesses, and unfortunately there’s not enough we can do from the medical perspective. There are not so many direct interventions that we can use to cure these conditions and when I realised this, I got more and more interested in looking at how we can promote health by creating healthy environments.
“Given my affinity for nature and trees it became a natural thing for me to think that these environments would be a way to create opportunities for people to live healthier lives. And that’s when I decided to change my career and got a PhD in Landscape planning ».
An unstoppable path with research
“I decided to start this career change when I read about research at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences where they studied how garden activities could rehabilitate people with severe stress and depression. For me, this was a completely new thing: we never talked about environments in Med School or whether nature could have a positive health impact. In the very beginning of my research career there were not so many studies, but the research field has really picked up over the last decade.
“The discipline has primarily developed from environmental psychology, and theories around the evolutionary origins of humans. What has fascinated me lately is the impact of biodiversity. There is, for example, research from Finland about exposure to diverse microorganisms in soil and that have an impact on our gut microbiome. This may translate to impact on our immune system, meaning that if you are exposed to biodiverse soil your gut microbiome may become healthier, which then results in different health benefits. This pioneering research is very exciting and it can help us better understand what the mechanisms may be for why we are healthier in nature.
“These impacts are important because a lot of immune system disorders are increasing today: we see that children get more allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disorders. This has developed almost in parallel with urbanization and the disconnection from nature, leading to less exposure to biodiversity”.
Green prescription, challenges and passion
“Before coming to Barcelona, I lived in Vancouver, teaching courses in Urban Forestry and Well-being and in Environmental impacts on Human Health at the University of British Columbia I was also supervising students, something that is very rewarding; a special thing is that both students and researchers often very passionate about their job, including myself! People are genuinely interested, really passionate and really want to have an impact in creating a healthier society and a healthier environment.
« From a Green Prescription point of view, to get a real breakthrough in healthcare and in the medical establishment, we need to have a solid evidence base. This has been challenging because it is difficult to do controlled studies, dealing with an intervention that is as complex as nature. However, this is what we really need and opportunities are emerging for designing these kinds of studies. It is important to be able to control the intervention and measure objective biomarkers as indicators of health. This is one aspect of the approach ».
“But then I also believe that from a more holistic point of view we need to change the mindset of the general public and the healthcare establishment, that there is an inherent bond between healthy environments and healthy people. We really need to get that understanding, we need to keep this planet alive and thriving if we want to have any hope for future generations. And I think we are getting there.
“This is the message, this is what I’m personally passionate about. To showcase how the health of the environment is interconnected completely with the health of people. There is a change coming with the new generations and I see it increasingly, this shift in thinking is starting to occur”.
Ph: Courtesy Dr. Matilda van der Bosch.