‘Rising star’ wins prestigious International Development Research Centre award for research into intersections between climate change and human health

International Doctoral Research Award will support Marina Banuet Martinez’s return to Mexico for key research in partnership with coastal fishing communities, tracing how the health of marine food systems affects the people who depend on them.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 02 December 2022

As a student in Mexico pursuing her master’s degree, Marina Banuet Martinez studied the impacts of environmental changes on the health status of wildlife, specifically marine mammals. The more time she spent working in that arena — which she already began researching during her bachelor’s — the more she began to wonder how the massive health effects she was seeing in the sea might also be happening among the human communities most exposed to climate change. 

It wasn’t long before her search for a home base from which to pursue these questions led to Sherilee Harper and the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health. With the work Harper is doing researching climate-related health outcomes in remote places, it was an immediate match. “Sheri is amazing,” says Banuet Martinez. “Since the beginning, she has supported my ideas and guided me to put them in the correct context and framework. She is a fantastic researcher, supervisor and colleague and without a doubt, I would choose Sheri's group for my PhD if I had to do it again.” 

Harper mirrors those feelings right back: “Marina is a critical thinker, and the way in which she thinks, analyzes, and views the world through a natural research lens is one that cannot be taught. She is a rising research star in Mexico and we are privileged that she chose the University of Alberta to pursue her PhD.”

Banuet Martinez began her PhD program in the fall of 2020. Because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, she had to remain in Mexico for her entire first year, participating in all of her research and coursework from a distance — and while holding down a job as a firefighter! But since arriving about a year and a half ago in Edmonton — a city she has quickly grown to love — she hasn’t looked back. 

In fact, this fall her focus is on a very bright future — one made brighter since she received the prestigious 2022 International Doctoral Research Award from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in mid-November. 

This award will support Banuet Martinez to implement her current research plans over the coming months. And, as Harper says, it couldn’t be more well deserved. “Marina is an exceptional researcher and very deserving of this award,” she says. “She will undoubtedly advance IDRC’s mandate to initiate, encourage, support and conduct research that advances the economic and social well-being of developing regions.”

We caught up with Banuet Martinez to ask her about her work, the urgency of climate-related research and what it means to receive the IDRC award. 

Can you describe your area of research?

We know that climate change is modifying the dynamics of all ecosystems on Earth. Species distribution and abundance have changed, and those populations that depend directly on primary resources, or nature, are challenged by these changes. The ocean is facing massive changes and ocean-dependent communities are on the front line.

My research aims to understand how climate-change-related impacts on the ocean affect fishing communities' health and well-being. Particularly, we want to understand how food security and nutrition are influenced by climate change and what are the cascading health outcomes on the immune system. 

A domino effect is happening on the planet. All organisms are connected and depend on each other, so the negative effect on one part of the ecosystem affects the others. Understanding what these impacts of climate change are on health is the first step to responding to them and establishing an adaptation and mitigation plan.

What project will your IDRC award support? 

We will explore the interconnected impacts of climate change on human nutrition, immunity and infection risk in fishing communities in Mexico. We hope to generate critical insight into their vulnerability and resilience to climate change and support them in examining the big picture of how climate change can present syndemic health impacts by directly affecting food systems.

This will be done through characterizing the diversity of fishers’ lived experiences of climate-change impacts on marine food systems and health, quantifying the impacts on the health status and developing projections of potential changes in fishing communities' health status under different levels of global warming. 

To do this work, we must do it in partnership with the community. By funding the data-collection step of the project, this award will allow me to engage with the community before, during and after data collection and analysis. 

I have started the partnering process with a local organization and I will meet the community leaders in Mexico this winter. Also, I have started planning the data-collection logistics for next summer. We are going to visit at least two remote fishing communities in the Mexican Northern Pacific for three to four months. I am currently developing my instruments and methods for data collection.

What impact would you like this research to have now and in the future?

I genuinely believe that we are in the right time and place to understand how the complex processes that define health are being influenced by climate change. We are just starting to comprehend the health outcomes of climate change and my research project is an excellent opportunity to explore this topic directly in the communities with actual and first-hand data. 

The results can have a significant impact by supporting local and national fishers co-operatives and local organizations to plan adaptation and mitigation strategies to reduce climate change risk. Also, I expect the future projections generated can be generalized to other regions and countries, particularly disadvantaged populations.

How did it feel to receive the IDRC?

Happy, excited, and proud. PhD students are building a research path, and receiving a research grant is a huge motivation; it is a message that says, "You have a great idea; go for it!" This means an opportunity for research transcendence.

My greatest aspiration is to do research with the mission of exploring novel grounds in remote areas and using science to increase the life quality of the populations there. With the help of the IDRC, this project is setting the path for my research in the future.