Peter Pham, a winner of the 2022 Healthline Stronger Scholarship, explains how family and community can help us stay committed to fighting climate change.
Peter Pham sees the pandemic and the climate crisis as the most urgent issues humanity is facing — and the 23-year-old has wasted no time trying to address them.
He has worked on two COVID-19 studies and helped with trials on vaccines for kids. He sits on the boards of a climate action nonprofit for youth and a pro-environmental political action committee.
He also worked as one of Santa Clara County’s 2021 redistricting commissioners, a role that allowed him to shine a light on community health needs and environmental concerns.
“In each of these roles, I’ve been able to serve the public good, and I’m committed to continuing that in my career,” says Pham, who is beginning his senior year at the University of California, Berkeley, this fall.
He eventually plans to become a doctor — and a public servant. These dual ambitions would allow him to continue tackling climate change and health concerns from a variety of angles in hopes of making long lasting change.
“I hope to directly care for people and serve in whatever roles I am called toward to benefit the community and help build a better society,” adds Pham.
We asked him about his studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what he had to say.
This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.
One experience that deepened my interest in public health and molecular environmental biology occurred during the California Camp Fire in 2018. Smoke from 200 miles away swept into the region where my college was located, covering my home city.
That led the college administration to cancel classes as I was heading to my cell biology class. My mother, who lives with asthma, had to leave work that day because she was coughing so much.
It was a reminder of how environmental changes can have a strong impact on our health and everyday lives.
This memory reinforces the importance of understanding the intersection of human health and the environment, starting from the molecular level and focusing on the system at large.
My work falls into three different categories: health, environment, and public policy. Of course, there’s some overlap, too.
In the health space, the most memorable projects I’ve worked on include the San Francisco Bay Area regional COVID-19 surveillance study, Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine trials, and a national long-haul COVID study.
These projects allowed me to help our country understand who’s most at risk of COVID-19, how it spreads, and what it takes to recover from this disease. I was also able to play a role in getting game-changing vaccinations ready for children.
In the environmental category, I serve as a board member of two organizations: Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action (SVYCA) and the Santa Clara County League of Conservation Voters (SCC LCV).
SVYCA is a youth-led nonprofit that trains and empowers young people to educate their communities about climate change and advocate for action. SCC LCV, meanwhile, is a political action committee, so we’re trying to get pro-environment candidates elected, mostly at the local level.
In the realm of public policy, I had the honor of serving as one of Santa Clara County’s 2021 redistricting commissioners.
This role allowed me to provide input on community health needs and environmental concerns as the electoral district maps were redrawn. Redistricting was among the hardest and most enriching work I’ve ever done.
The main obstacle is staying patient. There are a lot of problems in the world — and a lot of great work being done — but it takes commitment to see solutions come to fruition.
My relationships with great family members, friends, and mentors help me stay grounded and committed, though. They remind me to stay true to myself and to keep in mind the reasons why I pursue this work and take these journeys.
It involves a lot of delayed gratification, maintaining boundaries, and expressing love and empathy, even when it feels challenging.
The connection between climate change and health is important to me because it hits close to home.
Not only are they fascinating topics, these two issues are part of humanity’s most pressing existential challenges: the pandemic and the climate crisis. I’ve seen my home state of California experience increasingly violent fires every year.
I’ve seen my family, neighbors, and community members unable to get care for their diseases, some of which have been worsened by the environment, due to financial and cultural barriers.
I understand the importance of having clean water and clean air, which we often take for granted, to keep our bodies healthy.
Find your village.
Build meaningful relationships and turn to people who can help you live your truth through love, support you even if they don’t fully understand your struggle, challenge you to grow into a better person, and work with you toward a higher good through the vocation that you’re called to.