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Short Sleeves in January: A Medical Student’s Journey to Understanding Climate and Health

By Matthew Mueller
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This week, ecoAmerica intern Matthew Mueller (at left) shares his personal and professional experiences with climate change and its intersection with health care. In his one-month stint as an intern, he worked primarily with Climate for Health, reviewing data from partner organizations and assisting in the development of future projects.

Originally from Tracy, CA and currently a resident of Minneapolis, Matt did his undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota and attends medical school at Des Moines University in Iowa, where he is pursuing a dual Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and Master of Public Health degree (DO/MPH). He will soon begin a residency in emergency medicine at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital in metropolitan Detroit, MI. Matt is looking forward to providing care for the Downriver community and the city of Detroit. In his spare time he enjoys distance running, camping, and rock climbing, among other activities.

When I first moved from Northern California to the much cooler Twin Cities, I never imagined myself wearing multiple layers from head to toe without an inch of skin exposed, riding my bike in frigid temperatures I had only read about. Initially had no clue why anyone would want to subject themselves to that sort of punishment. Fast forward a few years, by which time I found my winter bike commute almost refreshing! Then, in January of 2012, I checked the weather before heading out the door (as any true Minnesotan does) only to learn that it was going to be a balmy 45˚F instead of the average 16˚F.

Growing up and living in two very distinctive regions – both of which emphasize the value of their natural environments – learning about climate change was disheartening, to say the least. However, climate change seemed like a distant threat to me, and polling shows I am not alone. I did not comprehend the severity of what was already occurring until I was wearing short sleeves in January. (Yes, Minnesotans wear short sleeves and they roll down their windows when the temperature is above freezing.) This warming trend has continued in recent years, and is being experienced globally. While warmer winter weather may feel nice when you’re accustomed to below-freezing temperatures, this shift, in addition to other climactic changes, is beginning to yield devastating consequences.

Medical School and Beyond

In the spring of my first year in medical school, I was helping plan the university’s medical service trip to the Dominican Republic when I was advised that our trip might be canceled if the Chikungunya epidemic in the region continued to worsen (see box, below). Our group was preparing to support a local nonprofit that provides healthcare and services to Dominicans and Haitians living near the border of the two countries. Fortunately, the disease incidence began to decline, and the following spring we arrived in Monte Cristi. After hearing the many stories of people still experiencing the lasting effects of the unprecedented Chikungunya outbreak, I truly began to understand the connection between climate and health.

Matthew Mueller, center, with fellow medical students following their first day of volunteer work in the Dominican Republic.

While on rotation at the World Health Organization the following summer, I was challenged to explore the intimate connection between the built and natural environments. While viewing municipal policies through a public-health lens, I learned how emphasizing active transportation and clean energy in city design would not only improve community well-being, but also would save money. Improving my knowledge of how our actions can improve health, I have been encouraged to help others also understand this link.


Just last month, I hosted a climate communication workshop for medical students and health professionals at Des Moines University, where we discussed ways to talk with our patients about the health impacts of climate change. As I write this, I am in Washington, D.C. on a public-health rotation helping to develop climate-focused curricula for medical students while also working with local nonprofits to better understand how focused initiatives enhance the capacity of public health networks.

As I prepare to start my residency in just over two months, I hope to continue learning from my family, my friends, and my patients how the medical community can best support public health in the face of a rapidly changing climate. As a future physician, not only am I concerned about melting glaciers and polar bears, but I also worry about the health of my community. The health impacts of climate change are real. They are happening now, and with the benefit of my experiences I plan to continue establishing new connections in order to build a network of resilience in my new home.