How does nature affect human health? Briana Lui ’19, a Rawlings Cornell Presidential Research Scholar, ponders the question as she studies nature prescriptions among pediatricians as well as the use of virtual nature to alleviate pain in older adults. Lui is a human biology, health, and society major and a member of Nancy Wells’ lab, Design and Environmental Analysis.
Lui, a pre-med student, is interested in more than just the biological and physical aspects of human health. She chose Cornell University because it offers her major, which allows her to integrate her interest in the environment with medicine.
“I wanted to know more about the environmental and social determinants of health. I think my major is the perfect mix of all these things because it is very interdisciplinary. It really allows me to explore my interests. For instance, it allowed me to pick up two minors—health policy and gerontology,” explains Lui.
The Curative Qualities of Nature
Research in the Wells lab looks at the effects of the built and natural environment on human health and health behaviors. Lui says, “I’m particularly interested in exploring research on improving the human experience.”
Lui’s research in the Wells lab has included a variety of nature-related studies. She helped to write research briefs describing the effects of school gardens on children’s health and health-related behaviors and assisted with the development of a scale to measure undergraduates’ sustainable behaviors.
More recently, she participated a study exploring whether exposure to virtual nature could alleviate chronic pain in older adults. Nature has a lot of benefits. It has been known to alleviate stress, bolster cognitive functioning, lessen anxiety, help with forms of ADHD in children, and reduce acute pain during medical procedures. The majority of research on the effects of nature on pain has focused on acute pain. The Wells lab pursues a different direction, focusing on the effects of virtual nature on elderly patients with chronic pain.
“I wanted to know more about the environmental and social determinants of health. I think my major is the perfect mix of all these things because it is very interdisciplinary.”
Pediatricians’ Nature Prescriptions
Lui also had an independent research project as a Rawlings Cornell Presidential Research Scholar. Her study explored pediatricians’ perspectives on prescribing nature as a preventative measure for chronic diseases. Children’s disconnection from nature is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, asthma, cardiovascular disease, vitamin D deficiency, and poor mental health.
Nature prescription is the act of a healthcare provider recommending that patients spend more time in nature. “It's becoming more of a formalized thing in the U.S. through a program called Parks Rx. It's a place for healthcare providers to come together, partnering with national parks and different types of public agencies to connect their patients to the outdoors,” explains Lui.
Lui created a survey to assess pediatricians’ awareness and attitudes about nature prescriptions. She measured pediatricians’ opinions about the benefits of nature, children’s current relation to nature, difficulty prescribing nature, perceived barriers to nature prescription, and strategies to overcome such barriers.
The survey also included questions that assess whether pediatricians are aware of the term, nature prescription, and how often they prescribe nature to their patients. Lui recruited pediatricians from the United States and Canada by reaching out to chapter executive directors of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Several chapters consented to distributing the survey via their listservs and monthly e-newsletters.
Lui discovered that on average, 27 percent of pediatricians had heard the term, nature prescription, and 73 percent had not. The average rate of nature prescription was 14 nature prescriptions per 100 well-child visits. The majority of pediatricians recommended time outdoors for mental health conditions and obesity. Pediatricians also reported prescribing nature for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, myopia, and respiratory illness.
Lui found that the biggest barrier to pediatricians prescribing nature was time constraints among patients and families. Strategies such as having information pamphlets regarding the benefits of nature and partnering with community organizations such as the YMCA may help combat such barriers. Overall, the findings suggest that more can be done to increase pediatricians’ awareness of nature prescription as well as to encourage pediatricians to prescribe nature during a well-child visit.
In her search for undergraduate research, Lui found the Wells lab through a e-newsletter sent by the College of Human Ecology called Communecology. Although at the time, she was not sure about the kind of research she was looking for, Lui knew that she wanted to contribute to research that involved humans.
Outside of the lab, Lui is active in many student organizations and extracurricular activities. She is involved in community engagement organizations such as the Welcome Weekend Committee, Class Councils, Convocation Committee, the College of Human Ecology Dean's Undergraduate Advisory Council, and Kappa Omicron Nu.
What Comes after Cornell
After graduation, Lui will be conducting research on human health in a clinical context before attending medical school. She hopes to integrate her research experience from the Wells lab into her future endeavors as a doctor.
“I will be working as a research assistant at the Center of Perioperative Outcomes, which is part of the Department of Anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine. I will be helping various people within the department rather than a specific professor.”
Lui will be assisting with research on optimizing clinical care for patients before, during, and after surgical operations. This will include evaluating operational efficiencies, quality, and compliance, and conducting health outcome studies.