2023 4 Under 40 Award: Katelyn Moretti

Q&A with Dr. Moretti:

I’m not sure many people outside the health care industry are aware that there are physicians focused on the health implications of climate change. What prompted you to focus on this issue?
It came out of this recognition that climate change is really the existential crisis of our time. I saw that it was having a huge effect on health and this impact was only going to worsen. Yet during my training, I didn’t see it being discussed that way very frequently. The issue continued to bubble up during my global health fellowship when I was working in South America. There, I saw all this strife and migration as rural farmers could no longer farm with the same consistency. They were living on the brink of poverty until they were pushed over the edge by climate change, leading to the increased mass migrations.

During fellowship, I attended a medical conference and I wound up having a “eureka” moment during a short session where two physicians were giving a talk on their work in climate change and the health impacts. That’s when I realized, “This is what I want to do. This is what I need to do.” In fact, I told my mentors, “I can do nothing else but work on climate change.”

Why is this work so important to you?
Doing something about climate change and researching it is a way to feel empowered on an otherwise very scary topic. Climate change is so big and has so many impacts that it can seem unsurmountable if you allow it. Contributing to the solution is my way of taking control of that fear. It’s also a way to feel like the work that I do matters. In emergency medicine, the work we do clinically is really important, but we often see the same problems over and over again. After a decade of doing this, it can feel like a revolving door. Whereas, doing climate change research feels like you’re part of this bigger team working on this singular, multi-faceted, critical problem. You use your brain in a very different way on this issue and it provides a nice balance. We’ve moved beyond proving climate change exists. Now we have to transition that recognition into action. There needs to be adaptation and mitigation strategies employed quickly to avoid the biggest consequences of climate change.

Can you give me an example or share a story that illustrates how you’ve applied your expertise and made a difference?
I was able to testify in front of the senate about the health implications of climate change. It was terrifying but it also felt like getting to a place where your voice is heard. I now work and collaborate with really incredible climate scientists – modelers who are generating predictions for our future. I don’t have the scientific expertise that they do, but what I do have is a translational expertise where I can connect those climate models to outcomes, to actual personal stories and to health implications. My role is to make those connections. And, testifying to the senate was a great opportunity to clearly draw those connections and to bring in those personal stories to our policy makers. Whether it resonates with the senators or it doesn’t, somebody else is going to hear the testimony and the hope is that it impacts them. I just keep at it in hopes of inspiring other physicians/medical students to see climate change works as part of their role. I hope to empower them to be able to identify actions they can take.

What is your greatest aspiration or key goal?
I try to take it one day at a time. Climate change can feel enormous,  so I’m often focused on the next task or step in my research or advocacy work. That being said, it would be fantastic to continue to see collaborations across physician specialties. Specifically, through the Rhode Island Medical Society, we started the Climate Change and Health Committee which is comprised of physicians from all specialties from various health care practices and systems. One of my greatest aspirations would be to see an even stronger coalition of physicians come together in Rhode Island to utilize their voices to advocate for effective climate change policy.

To get involved with the RIMS Climate Change and Health Committee, please contact RIMS EVP Stacy Paterno at spaterno@rimed.org.

What key guidance or “words of wisdom” do you share with medical students interested in climate change?
I think it’s helpful to find a physician who is doing something akin to what you want to do. In climate change work, medical students may need to look outside of their institutions. The next thing I tell them is to reach outside of medicine for expertise. This includes oceanographers and mathematicians. It may include engineers when talking about adaptive strategies. For climate change, we are strengthened by a multi-disciplinary team.

At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a physician?
I probably decided when I was in middle school or maybe high school when I used to tag along with my mother to nursing homes where she worked. It seemed like a lovely way to interact with people – to hear their stories and get to know them. Then, I got into an 8-year medical program right out of high school, so I was kind of streamlined from undergrad into medical school which was quite nice.

 Do you have a favorite quote or mantra?
It’s not a mantra but I do try to be more systems oriented as opposed to goals oriented. So it’s more like, “How can I create an effective system to move things forward in an effective way?”

Outside of your demanding job, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I very much like to bike – I’m not a racer but a bike commuter. I also garden and I run. And I have a two-year old so that’s about all the time I have!