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UArizona’s Dr. Sternberg studies how office environments affect workers’ health

Esther Sternberg, M.D.

Esther Sternberg, M.D., has been a pioneer in the field of wellness in the workplace. Her research on how the built environment affects worker’s health and productivity has been a great tool for architects, building managers, and other researchers expanding the field.

Sternberg was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, She received her undergraduate degree and medical school training and eventually did her medical residency and specialty training in rheumatology, all at McGill University in Montreal. She finished her post–doctoral training at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a junior faculty member.

In 1986, Sternberg took a post as a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health, and later was a senior scientist and section chief of neuroendocrine immunology and behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Sternberg testified before Congress and advised the World Health Organization on an epidemic in the early ’90s. “I led the NIH, CDC and FDA team to resolve that epidemic,” she says. “It was related to an impure food supplement, L-tryptophan, back in 1989.”

In 2000, she was approached by Kevin Kampschroer, who was at the U.S. General Services Administration, the agency that owns, builds, and operates all non-military federal buildings. The GSA is responsible for over 370 million square feet of office space.

“Different agencies of the federal government are encouraged to work together,” Sternberg says. “Kevin Kampschroer asked me at NIH, as a sister agency, whether I could help him measure the impact of the built environment on people’s health, well-being, and performance in order to optimize the health, performance, and ultimately productivity of the more than one million federal employees who are housed within the GSA’s buildings.”

The team carried out their research in a federal building in Denver, Colorado, which was being retrofitted.

“The new space was light and airy, it had views to the mountains, good airflow, and lower mechanical noise, unlike the old dark, noisy and stuffy space,” Sternberg explains. “Much to my surprise on two completely different quantitative objective measures of the stress response, we found a significant decrease in stress in the people in the new space, which carried over to when they went home at night and even when they were sleeping.”

The project and findings were published in 2010, and in 2012 Sternberg joined the University of Arizona as a professor of medicine and research director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine.

Another iteration of the Denver project came a year later. Kampschroer, who was now the director of high performance federal buildings for the GSA, reached out for collaboration again.

“The wonderful thing about being at the University of Arizona is that you can pull together these amazing multidisciplinary teams to address complex problems,” says Sternberg. Matthias Mehl brought his knowledge from the psychology department. Wearable devices came from Bijan Najafi at the department of surgery and biomedical engineering. Sudha Ram, professor at the Eller College of Management & Director INSITE: Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics, provided the data analytics.

The Denver research was updated to study four other federal building, using state-of-the-art wearable devices to measure stress and relaxation response. There were smart phone questions about mood, and participants’ stress and physically activity were measured, along with posture and sleep quality. These health measures were linked to 11 different environmental attributes that included temperature and humidity, light, sound and carbon dioxide.

“We have a whole slew of papers that came out and are continuing to come out based on that research,” Sternberg says. “What that’s done is given Kevin and the GSA very granular quantitative data to say which elements of the built environment impact which aspects of health, and then to fine-tune those elements of the built environment so that health is optimized for the people inside those spaces. It’s like a prescription for a building.”

“Esther is a wonderful collaborator; she really recognizes the expertise that everybody brings to the project,” Mehl says. “With people like her we can envision that at some point buildings will be designed not just for energy efficiency but also for optimizing health and well-being in the people who work and them.”

That project was concluded almost three years ago, but Sternberg keeps pushing the boundaries to what can be achieved in the built environment. Her team received a follow-up grant from the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity.

Sternberg also created the UArizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance, which became official in October 2014. She is director of the institute.

Risk-taking runs in the family

Sternberg credits her father, Dr. Joseph Sternberg, as a great inspiration in her pursuit to aid public health. He and Sternberg’s mother, Ghitta, fled Nazi rule in Romania and lived in Paris before moving to Canada.

As a physician, her father had been drafted into the Romanian army, but since Jewish physicians were not allowed to practice under the Nazi regime, he was deported to a concentration camp in Russia in 1943. He moved to Paris immediately after the war, where he met up with Ghitta and married her.

“There’s no question that my father’s commitment to public health influenced my entire career,” Sternberg says. “When he was in Paris after the war he worked on peaceful uses of radioactivity. He was convinced with a small group of scientists that you could use radioactivity for good as well as evil. That stuck with me — he took huge risks for his career and he did it because he was committed to the public health.”  She did the same leading the L-Tryptophan Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome epidemic team at the NIH. “Even though I was taking risks and my job was possibly at stake, I felt that it’s really important to stick to the good fight and if the truth is on your side the truth will win.”

Sofia Moraga is a student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.