Photo: COEH Faculty Profile - Michael Bates

Nepali kitchen with clay stove

When Michael Bates, PhD ’91, first began investigating the health effects of household air pollution (HAP) in developing countries back in the early 2000s, it was a struggle to get any funding. “But, thanks in large part to Hillary Clinton, it’s now recognized as a major health issue in the world,” credits Bates. After Clinton launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in 2010, efforts to reduce HAP – a leading environmental risk factor (pdf) in the global burden of disease – gained momentum. Fast forward to 2016 and funding is flowing for Bates, Principal Investigator of new grants from the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, among others.

For an environmental health scientist who, as a PhD student, published some of the first findings on the carcinogenic effects of arsenic in drinking water, Bates’ outlook on his current success is a surprise. “I think luck plays a big role on people’s lives. It certainly has played a big role in my life.” Bates, for example, considers it lucky that his research shifted from arsenic to HAP when the field was still in its infancy, working with COEH faculty Kirk Smith, possibly the best known researcher in the field. “I’ve been extremely fortunate to have opportunities that have come up at the right time.”

Photo: Michael hiking in New Zealand
Michael hiking in New Zealand

As a young man growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, Bates came from a non-academic background. ”My father was a milliner, which is a profession many people these days have never heard of.” He was the first in his family to attend college. “Instead of going into science, I could have studied history as an undergraduate, but at the time I was terrified of becoming a high school history teacher.” History became a hobby rather than a vocation for Bates, who chose chemistry for his first degree.

After earning an MSc in Toxicology from the University of Surrey, England, opportunity knocked when fellow New Zealander and COEH faculty Allan Smith encouraged Bates to apply to graduate school at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, where he received his MPH in 1989 and PhD in Epidemiology in 1991. “My PhD research was some of the first work looking at arsenic ingestion and internal cancers. As it turned out, this became an enormous environmental health topic,” says Bates.

Photo: Google helped fund research to replace kerosene lamps with solar lights.
Google helped fund research to replace kerosene lamps with solar lights.

Adding to his HAP research, Bates studies exposures from kerosene and solar lamps among families in Busia County, Kenya, with funding from Google. “Kerosene has been used since the 19th century, particularly for lighting. In developed countries electricity replaced it almost universally. But, in the developing world - in Africa and large parts of South Asia - kerosene is widely used,” says Bates. “Over the last five years, we’ve been finding that it’s maybe not a safer, cleaner fuel as many people had assumed. Several of our studies suggested it may be as much of a problem in some contexts as burning firewood for cooking. The topic deserves more research because we really don’t understand the full impact of kerosene.”

Building on his NIEHS-funded study of the effects of low-level exposures to geothermal emissions of hydrogen sulfide in Rotorua, New Zealand, Bates, along with COEH Director John Balmes, will soon launch a similar study in the Puna Region of Hawaii, funded by the County of Hawaii.

In addition to his research and teaching, Bates directs the Targeted Research Training (TRT) Program for doctoral students, which is part of the NIOSH-funded Northern California Education and Research Center. With Kirk Smith, he co-directs the Global Heath & Environment Program for master’s degree students. Bates is transitioning his directorship of the STEER undergraduate summer internship program to COEH affiliate Sadie Costello, but he will continue to remain involved as co-director.

Working closely with public health students across the spectrum of post-secondary education, Bates advises them not to narrow their options too early. “The way I see it, the progress in my career from chemistry to toxicology to epidemiology has been quite fortunate, really,” says Bates. “I sometimes see students with very fixed ideas of what they want to work on, but once they get a little bit more training a lot of other possibilities open up. So I say keep your options open.”

Photo: Nepalese women carrying heavy loads of firewood.
Nepalese women carrying heavy loads of firewood.

A keen hiker, Bates treks trails in Nepal, New Zealand, and across the Bay Area. About two years ago Bates went into the hill villages in Nepal with field staff. “We were walking down the mountain pass to reach our vehicle when I saw these moving shapes ahead of me, and as I got closer I realized that these were women carrying enormous loads of firewood. They carry them in Nepal typically with a band around the forehead, called a namlo. I started talking to people about what sort of health damage this could do.”

Bates’ experience led him to begin developing a research agenda with Carisa Harris-Adamson from COEH and other colleagues in the School of Public Health. “We just had a student funded by the UC Center for Global Public Health who will go to Tanzania to gather baseline data about carrying heavy loads.” The issue is not really on the public health agenda, says Bates, but, like his work in arsenic and HAP, he has a talent for discovering ground floor opportunities to impact health on a global scale.

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