Global health student researches intersection of food, health, climate change

Susan Kiskis

Susan Kiskis planting a seedling in a protected forest during her time working as a Planetary Health Research Intern at Alam Sehat Lestari in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

After beginning her college journey 25 years ago, Susan Kiskis found her passion at Arizona State University.  

As a returning student, Kiskis knew what she wanted and needed from degree programs that would work for her. From her central Pennsylvania home, she obtained her undergraduate degree from ASU Online, and this fall she will graduate with a Master of Science in global health from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. 

“The global health program was very appealing,” said Kiskis. “I wanted to focus on the intersection of food, health and climate change. With the global health perspective, I get a very interesting understanding through this program.”

Kiskis will continue working on her Master of Science in sustainable food systems and in the future, she wants to obtain her PhD. 

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

Question: Why did you choose ASU for your online undergraduate and masters degrees?

Answer: After my daughter graduated with her undergraduate degree and was living out of state, I knew the timing was right for me to go back to school. I began my ASU Online undergraduate program in 2020 while working full time as a general manager at a health food store and while I was on-call 24/7. I ensured that my free time was going to be devoted to earning my degree. I knew after two-plus decades what doors would open if I had a degree. Towards the end of my undergrad, and amid the pandemic, my employer closed the store and I began working part time in a local library. In 2022, I graduated with a bachelor's degree in art history and a minor in anthropology. 

During my senior year, I began to look for graduate programs that would work with where I wanted my academic and professional career to go and decided that once again, ASU was the best fit for me. Knowing how its online interface works, I also knew that I would be able to succeed in an online platform.

Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: For me, global health really incorporated what I was looking for in terms of focusing on health in different nations around the world and exploring how climate change can impact health from many different angles. From nutrition to vector-borne viruses to water-borne illnesses, the professors of each of my classes were very supportive with me exploring how climate change intersects with different health conditions. 

In the first semester of my global health program, I was trying to figure out how I wanted to frame papers I was researching and writing in classes. Assistant Research Scientist Roseanne Schuster and Associate Professor Katie Hinde were very encouraging and supportive in letting me lean into climate change, which expanded into natural food systems. It helped me really focus so that I knew my track was going to be in this intersection of food, health and climate change.

Susan Kiskis 2

Kiskis at the CGIU Conference in Nashville in March 2023.

Q: Can you tell us more about your climate action project?

A: I was fortunate to be accepted and attended the Clinton Global Initiative University annual conference in Nashville this year. Over the course of several months, my project went through several phases of metamorphosis. The first round of the project was “Growing Together,” a broader international climate action program that was heavily inspired by my time working and volunteering in Indonesia this past summer. Then the project developed into “The Ahimsa Project,” a climate action and social change initiative seeking community-based solutions to addressing climate change. 

“The Ahimsa Project” will continue to adhere to its original mission of reforestation and creating green spaces but will also incorporate ways to support communities, knowing that meeting resources needs is the first step to getting communities available and interested in supporting climate action initiatives. Knowing that resource depletion is going to be driven by climate change, and the social conflict and health hazards will place nations and individuals open to uncertainty and risk, I felt like it was really time to step into this project. I am currently fundraising to turn this project into a nonprofit and hit the ground running in 2024.

Q: How would you explain your research, and why is it important?

A: The example I would give would be witnessing and working with a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Kalimantan Barat this summer for my internship. The NGO realized they could not come into a community and tell them to save the rainforests in order to save the orangutans. So, they held 1,000 listening sessions with rainforest communities. These communities identified what their needs were and why they logged. It all boiled down to meeting basic financial and healthcare needs. The NGO established a free to sliding-scale medical clinic and people could even pay for medical care, if they were in a logging community, via a seedling to plant in the rainforest.

From here, conservation and reforestation efforts increased dramatically. They created an organic farming program, teen conservation education program, and more. NGO’s, governmental organizations, and other non-profits need to also recognize that climate action needs to be a multi-pronged approach that involves meeting basic human needs and listening to what communities say those needs are.

Meanwhile, we also need to recognize that everything we do affects our environment and community. Every piece of clothing or food item either supports the planet or adds more chemicals, carbon and plastic. We are all accountable for how we live on this planet and it’s up to us to make change on an individual level and share this knowledge by modeling. 

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