Sumi Mehta, Vice President of Climate and Environmental Health, owes much of her career direction to a chance encounter in graduate school.
Sumi was earning her Master’s in Public Health in epidemiology and biostatistics at University of California, Berkeley. She had previously worked on HIV and tuberculosis. And she was scheduled to continue focusing on TB at a hospital in Delhi, India that summer.
As she prepared for her trip, she met one of the heads of Centre for Science and Environment, one of the biggest environmental NGOs in India. They were starting a health unit and offered her a paid internship. Sumi had never worked in environmental health before.
“The job was to write a chapter on air pollution for the state of India’s environment report. The other position, at the hospital, was just to show up and see what happens,” Sumi said.
Sumi took the more concrete role, and what she learned that summer propelled the next 20 years of her career.
“When it came to air pollution from cooking and heating with traditional stoves and unprocessed fuels, both rural populations and the urban poor were the most susceptible and affected. This was something affecting around 80% of households in India at the time, and yet as an issue it was not at all well acknowledged or on the public health radar,” she said.
She learned that there was also a tension about raising awareness of an issue without yet having the widespread availability of the clear solution—affordable, accessible clean household energy.
Sumi could see that this challenge was both tremendous and specific enough that she could devote her career to it. She knew that great progress could be made in her lifetime.
Sumi returned from India and immediately applied for a Ph.D. program in Environmental Health Science at Berkeley. She has been working on environmental health, specifically on air quality and health, advancing global policy and practice, ever since.
Sumi grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, with her parents and brother. Her parents were both immigrants to the U.S.—her mother from Japan and her father from India.
“Unlike a lot of children of immigrants in the U.S., we were never pushed to go into traditional careers or expectations that you should be this or be that,” she said. “We had a bit more flexibility on what careers we wanted to pursue. My family was unusual. My mother is an artist and my father an engineer.”
Sumi spent her summer breaks in India with her father’s family, who had a strong commitment to building up India after independence. Sumi’s grandmother was a social worker, and her grandfather was an engineer.
“It was always about what you can do in terms of service. What is the value you provide?” she said. “That influenced me.”
Sumi’s life and education in the U.S. equipped her intellectually, and her connection to India provided the motivation for her work.
Her doctoral dissertation included the first burden-of-diseases estimates at the global level for household air pollution, as well criteria for how to identify households that have the highest levels of exposure so that there is the potential to intervene. Household air pollution is caused by people cooking on open fires or inefficient stoves, fueled by kerosene, biomass or coal, and it affects 2.4 billion people worldwide.
“With household energy, the issue is that people who are poor don’t have access to fuel that they can afford on a daily basis,” she said. “You have to think about the other things they are worrying about to make it really easy to access and afford better, healthier things, including cleaner fuel.”
After graduating, Sumi went to work at the World Health Organization in Geneva for two years, then she worked for the Health Effects Institute in Boston, a technical organization focused on the health impacts of air pollution. The organization was created with 50% funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and 50% from the automobile industry.
“All the research that the Health Effects Institute commissions is overseen by an independent board and funded jointly so results will be accepted by industry and government, and not labeled green research or brown research,” she said.
Sumi is proud that her work countered a false belief within the organization that there were not many people in South and Southeast Asia at the time capable of doing high-quality epidemiological studies on the health effects of air pollution. Sumi put together a call for proposals and conducted active outreach to identify and encourage qualified investigators from the region to apply.
“There is so much capacity. Just because people don’t know, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” she said. “Sometimes people need technical assistance or to make a connection, but there is so much expertise and commitment where we work and getting that on the radar is very important.”
After that, the United Nations Foundation invited Sumi to lead the public health component of the Clean Cooking Alliance. The initiative was initially focused in six countries, with $250 million committed by different U.S. government agencies and other bilateral donors.
Sumi then joined Vital in January 2018, as the Environmental Health Division was just beginning. She was drawn to the organization largely because of the impressive work she knew Dan Kass and Tom Matte, then at Vital, had done on environmental health in New York City.
“With Vital, I was coming back home to public health where everyone has the same approach and core values,” she said. “We really try to focus on making an impact and not necessarily on promoting our own brand because we have to work closely with government to get real impact at scale. This is super appealing to me and it’s not something that a lot of other organizations are willing to do. We also have people who have the ability to do really creative work in the places that we are working in, and we have strong, solid communication support, which is unusual.”
Over the course of Sumi’s career, India’s improved policies have helped 95 million households get access to clean household energy. Now the focus is on making sure this access and use is sustained.
This year, Sumi has taken on a new role as the Vice President of Climate and Environmental Health for Vital, and she is looking forward to expanding focus on environmental risk factors beyond air quality and to be able to communicate the health effects of climate change more strongly.
“Our colleagues in the countries where we work are smart, motivated and have a lot of creative vision,” she said. “If we can have people working collaboratively and there’s increasing awareness in these areas, we can establish ourselves and take the approach that Vital Strategies has taken for other risk factors.”
Sumi works from home and lives in Rockville, Maryland, what she calls “a really special community,” where friends, stores and her sons’ schools are all within walking distance and she feels like everyone knows each other. She spends her time outside of work serving as the vice president of the elementary school PTA, reading international detective novels and attending her sons’ swim meets and soccer games. She has returned to traveling as a part of her work at Vital and has been pleased to connect again with colleagues.
“People working in this air quality and health space are a part of a really committed network of colleagues in the world,” she said. “We have established those good working relationships and connect other colleagues together so things can keep moving. I have been so happy to be a part of something really unique and am grateful to be able to keep building on that here.”