When Wilton High School science teacher Brett Amero received an email from a former AP environmental science student, Sarah Guth, inviting him to attend the Planetary Health Alliance’s inaugural conference, he was surprised. Although he has taught at WHS for over 17 years, and AP environmental science for the past 12, he says it’s uncommon to hear from former students.

“As teachers, we invest a great deal of time and energy in our students, but more often than not, they go off and we lose track of them,” he explains. “So when I saw her name on the email, I thought, ‘Sarah Guth, didn’t she graduate 8-10 years ago?’”

Actually, Guth graduated from Wilton High School six years ago and went on to Middlebury College in Vermont, majoring in conservation biology and graduating magna cum laude (and All-American) in 2015. Her original plan was to attend graduate school and earn her PhD in animal behavior, after a summer internship at a Harvard research lab.

“I studied the migration patterns of painted lady butterflies. While I loved the people in the lab, I began to realize I needed to conduct research with human applications in order to feel connected to my work,” Guth explains.

As a result, she ended up revising her career path to focus on the relationship between the environment and human health, moving to Boston to become the program coordinator for the Planetary Health Alliance (PHA), an organization leading the growing field of addressing the impact of rapid environmental change on human health.

Guth quickly became immersed in the goals and programs of this nascent organization, which, according to its website, is “…a consortium of over 60 universities, NGOs and other partners with a shared mission to support the growth of a rigorous, policy-focused, trans-disciplinary field of applied research aimed at understanding and addressing the human health implications of accelerating anthropogenic change in the Earth’s natural systems.”

The PHA hosted its first conference, the Planetary Health/GeoHealth Annual Meeting, this past April at Harvard. Attendees and speakers included scientists, policy makers, politicians, social scientists, and medical professionals from around the globe and featured talks by a wide range of experts on the environment. The goal of the meeting, Guth explains, “…was to bring a diverse group of people together to foster a sense of excitement about the quality and importance of work being done in planetary health, a new cohesiveness as a community dedicated to furthering these issues in collaboration with each other, and a commitment to continuing to grow this rapidly emerging field together.”

‘His Class was a Pivotal Moment in My Life’

Several weeks before the conference, Guth emailed Amero to let him know she’d been accepted as a grad student in UCBerkeley’s Integrative Biology Department and had received a National Science Foundation grant. “I reached out to thank him for inspiring me to pursue a career in environmental science, and more specifically, planetary health.”

As a student in Amero’s AP environmental science course, she recalls always looking forward to his class.

“His teaching style was incredibly engaging. He taught concepts through case studies, telling us stories about communities and people that had been directly affected by environmental issues and policy. Through his class, he was actually teaching us planetary health, defined as ‘the health of human civilization and the state of natural systems on which it depends.’ In addition to learning about the ecological and biological processes behind environmental change, we were learning about how communities are affected and how they respond to these changes. This approach, examining the nexus between environmental change and human health, inspired my passion for research. His class was truly a pivotal moment in my life.”

She mentioned the PHA conference to him in her email. “I thought it might be a cool opportunity for his class.”

What she might not have realized at the time, the invitation from a student would wind up inspiring the teacher.

Amero attended the conference with a current WHS AP environmental science student, Isabella Jones. “As teachers, especially in environmental field, we need keep up to speed about what’s going on. PHA is cutting edge and the meeting was very important. I was really honored to be a part of it.”

Amero notes that the PHA is developing an educational platform that will be available to educators.

“While the current WHS environmental science curriculum is very strong and offers many opportunities for students to get field experience–thanks to access to the Norwalk River, lentic environments that include ponds, blue stem meadows and forested land, I also plan to incorporate the content that PHA will make available into the curriculum.”

At the PHA conference, Amero and Guth had the chance to reconnect in person. Amero says he remembers Sarah as a highly motivated and intelligent student, but admits that when she was in his class, he didn’t know she was going to pursue a career in environmental science.

“It’s been very rewarding to hear that I may have had something to do with developing her passion. I’m probably biased, but I believe Environmental Science is a very important field of study, and will provide many opportunities for students who pursue it as a career.”

In turn, Guth remembers Amero as, “…an incredible teacher who is clearly passionate about the material he teaches. He engaged us as students unlike any other teacher I had in high school. He is the kind of teacher that we need to inspire that ‘next generation of scholars’ in every discipline. The fact that Mr. Amero went to the trouble to attend a weekend conference and bring a student with him is a testament to his strength as a teacher.”

From her perspective of several years out of high school, Guth says her experience highlights just how critical teachers at this level can be.

“High school teachers often don’t get to see the impact they have on their students. They write letters of recommendation for us, but then we go off to college with our interests still very much undefined. By the time we’ve narrowed in on a major, we’ve found college advisors. We keep these college mentors in the loop as they help us down whatever career path we are pursuing, but we tend to forget about the teachers we had in secondary school–the teachers that first sparked our interest in our field.”

In this case, teacher and student have not only reconnected, but by inviting Amero to the PHA conference, Guth introduced him to an exciting new resource for teaching materials. For them, the teacher-student relationship comes full circle:  the teacher who inspired the student is now inspired by the student’s work.

Contributed by Dorothy Spivey.