Jason Thomas Speaks: A Call to Serve Around the Globe

June 2013Diana Austin

“Florence Nightingale’s call to nurses was to serve people in their homes in environmentally friendly ways to improve their health,” says Jason Thomas Speaks, a family nurse practitioner and first-year PhD student in UCSF’s Department of Family Health Care Nursing.

Speaks echoed that call in “Household Air Pollution from Cooking Fires: A Challenge for Nurses Globally and a Call to Action,” a paper he co-authored with his mentor and advisor, UC San Francisco’s Lisa Thompson, and Eileen Thomas, a colleague from the University of Colorado College of Nursing. Published in November 2012 in the Journal of Community Health Nursing, the paper calls for greater attention to the problem of household air pollution (HAP) related to cooking and heating fires.

Speaks believes HAP should be at the forefront of nursing and public health service. According to a 2012 study published in The Lancet, in 2010 3.5 million deaths were attributed to HAP from cooking fires. Despite that startling number, there are few articles in nursing journals that address HAP’s health implications, Speaks says.

Working with Local Nursing Students in Ethiopia

The marriage of public service, nursing and environmental health has been a passion for Speaks since his undergraduate days and a postgraduate turn in the Peace Corps in 1995, which took him to Eastern Europe, where he worked on environmental wellness projects. When he returned, he received his BSN and, in 2006, his master’s degree with an emphasis in family nurse practitioner from the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus.

His nursing background helped him secure a volunteer role with Project Gaia, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to providing clean ethanol cookstoves in the developing world. There he worked on a research project that dealt with exposures to HAP from biomass cooking fuels, such as wood and charcoal, in a large Somali refugee camp near Kebribeyah, Ethiopia. He created a partnership with the local nursing school to train students in research methods and as community health workers, and they piloted a survey within their own families.

“Four of our eight local nursing students were actually born in and still lived in the refugee camp, and they were the first in this camp to ever attend and graduate from college,” he says. “We were able to go into their homes and see how well the survey worked in the target population.” The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which had requested this pilot research as part of a grant, eventually supplied everyone in the camp – nearly 20,000 people – with cleaner cookstoves to reduce HAP exposure.

Go Where the Experts Are

That experience cemented Speaks’ desire to work in global environmental health nursing, particularly with an eye toward reducing the impact of HAP. When he returned from Ethiopia, he taught nursing at Colorado’s Front Range Community College–Westminster while he considered getting a PhD, but there were no local programs that combined his passion for global environmental health with nursing.

Luck intervened in the person of Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley and the primary investigator on multiple landmark studies on the health effects of HAP worldwide. Smith came to give a talk at the local law school. At the talk, Speaks asked what he thought were some unanswered questions about HAP.

When he approached Smith afterward, Smith told him, “You need to work with Lisa Thompson.” Thompson, who is at the forefront of research on reducing the effects of HAP on women and children, agreed to meet with Speaks. As a result, he enrolled in UCSF’s PhD program with Thompson as his mentor and advisor.

“I was told to go where the experts are,” says Speaks, “and that’s what I did.”

Speaks’ first year in the program began auspiciously with the November 2012 publication of the Journal of Community Health Nursing article. He’s currently working on attaining funding for a pilot study that will build on his experience in Ethiopia by partnering with local nursing programs, community members and respected experts and researchers to look at ways to reduce HAP exposure from cookstoves that use biomass fuels.

Paying It Forward: Connecting Students with Service Trips

Speaks has also launched a nonprofit organization, Help2Serve, to connect students and other young professionals with the kinds of service and learning projects that fueled his passion for public service.

“A lot of students have asked me how to find these trips that I have led over the years,” he says. “Usually it’s something like a flyer in the cafeteria saying there’s a group of physicians going to Guatemala this summer.” Speaks hopes that the website he and his co-founders are creating will provide a centralized place for trip organizers and health-profession students, young health professionals and experienced nurses and doctors to connect and build networks of service.

For Speaks, one moment crystallized for him just how much the idea of service connects the nursing community. When he arrived at the Somali refugee camp after a disquieting six-hour ride across the Ethiopian landscape and went to give his first lecture in a small, run-down building to the local nursing students and their instructor, he introduced himself, saying, “I am here because I am a nurse and I want to make a difference.”

The next day, he says, “They arrived, the women in gleaming white burkas, the men in pure white scrubs, and they all stood up at the beginning of my lecture and said, ‘Jason, we are here because we are nurses and we want to make a difference.’”