Working as a disaster relief volunteer made this 2022 Healthline Stronger Scholarship winner determined to improve health inequity for refugees around the world.
The outdoors have inspired Immanuel Bissell for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Los Angeles, California, where the San Gabriel Mountains set a glorious background for the cityscape.
His enthusiasm for nature nudged him to pursue earth science in university — but it wasn’t the only reason he chose that field.
He was also working with the American Red Cross as a disaster relief volunteer, and the experience showed him firsthand how climate change affects some communities far worse than others.
“The work was a stark introduction to the complexity of disaster response efforts and a visceral reminder that environmental change disproportionately affects under-resourced communities,” says the 21-year-old, who is entering his junior year at Yale University this fall.
Addressing these disparities requires, among other things, a solid understanding of earth science — hence why Bissell chose that major. He plans to enter medical school after college. The eventual goal? To address the health inequities refugees experience with climate change.
We asked Bissell about his studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what he had to say.
Studying earth science is the academic extension of the passion I’ve felt toward the outdoors for as long as I can remember.
Exploring nature has long dictated my path. Back home in Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Mountains inspired me to help with trail restoration projects on the weekends when I was in high school. I also went to Tennessee over my gap year to climb sandstone rock walls.
All of that has fed into my interest in earth science, but I also chose to study it for the human impact. Every drought, heat wave, or tsunami that takes a toll on human lives feels significant to me.
Caring for others as an emergency medical technician (EMT), tutor, and family member have been extremely fulfilling experiences for me. This field would allow me to continue helping others while feeding my passion for the outdoors.
I took a leave of absence over the 2020–2021 school year to work on three projects.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Laura and the Oregon wildfires, I worked as a disaster responder with the American Red Cross, connecting clients with resources like financial aid, housing, and meal stipends.
I also worked in two research labs through Yale. In the earth and planetary sciences department, I helped develop computer models of orographic precipitation. This type of rain forms when moist air is lifted over mountains. It’s an important source of water for many people around the world.
The other research lab I worked on was through the Yale Institute for Global Health. Our team reviewed how climate change may impact migration within and out of Afghanistan over the next 50 years. We also explored how this could affect public health in the region.
After college, I plan to attend medical school, possibly in an MD or PhD program, and continue working on these problems in both clinical and research settings. I hope to focus my work on how climate change will affect the health of refugee populations around the world.
Academia and medical research can be very narrow in their scopes. We largely talk about the causes and treatment of diseases as if they only occur in one population, which usually means white males from well-resourced backgrounds.
But the playing field is not level for everyone. For example, research on children in Southern California showed that kids who live near busy roads face a higher risk of asthma. It also found that living in neighborhoods with high levels of pollution leads to measurable lung damage.
These facts show that we cannot address health inequities without talking about environmental justice.
Treating symptoms of a given disease doesn’t address the root cause. Breaking this mold in both clinical and research settings will be one of the most critical challenges for my field in the future.
Reenvisioning healthcare means breaking down barriers between disciplines, such as medicine, earth science, or politics. We need to take an interdisciplinary approach and expand our view of what it means to care for a person.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I saw firsthand the difficulties of sustaining a big city in the face of environmental change.
I saw the effects of relentless heat and smoke-filled skies on my community each summer. We regularly worried about what another decades-long drought might mean for everyone in the city, but especially people who are homeless.
While volunteering with the American Red Cross, I saw how the effects of environmental change disproportionately burden those who live with the challenges of poverty. Though environmental change worsened their struggles, many of their challenges are rooted in structural inequities.
These experiences have taught me that trying to address the connection between climate change and health is not only important, but an obligation. I hope to rectify these inequalities through a career in medicine, in a way only healthcare can.
I am sorry for what you’ve had to endure. Your experience is something no one should have to go through. Feeling overwhelmed by the challenges you’ve already faced or by the looming impact of climate change is completely understandable, but it’s not your fault.
Remember how resilient you are. You, your family, and your friends have withstood innumerable difficulties in the past. You’ve grown from these difficulties, and you can weather this, too.
Also, remember that you’re not alone. Talk about your experience with others. Don’t look away. To confront the climate crisis, we must find ways to forge ahead collectively.