Why people do what they do is a question Colleen Moran has been working towards understanding since her undergraduate degree in psychology and environmental studies.

"I always wanted to know why some people act for the good of the environment and others don’t," she told me over iced tea earlier this summer.

Colleen Moran
Colleen Moran

In 2010 Colleen was the first UW-Madison MPH and Urban Planning MS dual degree student, focusing on the intersection between public health and urban planning. Prior to starting her MPH Colleen had been working at Community Car, a local carsharing organization that was an offshoot of Madison Environmental Group, a local environmental consulting firm. But after five years, and on the cusp of a promotion, she realized there was more she needed from her career; what that would be, she didn’t know. Friends and family suggested she look into public health. She hadn’t heard of public health, but when she saw the dual degree with urban planning, she knew it was what she was looking for. She made the connection between the environment and the questions she had been asking about individuals’ behaviors. She saw the social justice aspect of how we build cities and how that impacts health.

During her MPH she was asked by the Urban Planning program to share her knowledge about public health and how the built environment impacts health.

"It was an amazing opportunity to share my public health knowledge with other students," Colleen said. "I left [the MPH program] feeling like I was a community planner at large; someone who understands more of the pieces of the puzzle."

After her dual degree, Colleen became a Fellow with the UW Population Health Institute. The breadth of the projects she worked on as a Fellow has informed her career: from resolution writing for the Wisconsin Public Health Association, focusing on increasing Health in All Policies, providing trainings on and technical assistance for Health Impact Assessment (HIA), and increasing access to healthy foods and physical activity in the built environment. She wrapped up her Fellowship at the Wisconsin Division of Public Health in the Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health where she works today.

Colleen is the Climate and Health Program Manager in the Hazard Evaluation Section. The work she does focuses on helping Wisconsin become better prepared to adapt to the human health impacts of climate change. Over the past few years, she and her team have been working on adaptation projects related to the two biggest human health threats of climate change in Wisconsin: increases in both precipitation and heat. For example, an extreme heat survey was conducted in Milwaukee last September to better understand how prepared community members are for extreme heat events. Partnership between the Department of Health Services, local governments and community organizations has been key to this initiative’s success and these partnership continue as the team works to understand and disseminate their findings to decision makers to inform extreme heat plans and communications.

The other two projects related to increased precipitation include the Flood Resilience Scorecard and the Wisconsin Flood Risk Mapping Application (WFRMA). The WFRMA is an interactive web mapping application with 30 data layers that end users, usually local emergency preparedness and local emergency managers, can customize to better assess risk to flooding events. The other precipitation related project, the Flood Resilience Scorecard (FRS), is admittedly Colleen’s favorite project of the moment. The FRS assesses the built environment and natural environment, community policies and plans, and socio-economic variables to help a community to understand their risk factors. The scorecard will then provide recommendations and possible sources of funding so the community can work to mitigate these risks. Currently still in draft form and being piloted on paper, the goal is to launch the tool on a web platform to make it easier for respondents.

"The long term goal, version 2.0, is to incorporate climate change projections," said Colleen. "The current form addresses historical, aka ‘normal’ flooding events. We need to plan for a new normal. We need to prepare for the 500+ year flood, not the 100 year flood."

In addition to her work at DHS, Colleen is a Co-Chair for the Wisconsin Public Health Association’s (WPHA) Climate and Health. At the WPHA Conference earlier this year, the Climate and Health Breakout Session had more interest than ever, with a key interest in taking on new projects and building capacity for the section. Last year, WPHA signed a National Call to Action regarding climate change, and it is the Section’s goal by 2021 to add climate change health to the WPHA legislative agenda.