The co-founder of a pioneering research centre which explores the complex links between human health and the environment has been awarded Honorary Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

Professor Lora E. Fleming, of the University of Exeter, was honoured with the highest-ranking Order of the British Empire Award, on behalf of the King.

Lora was recognised for services to the environment and human health, after she co-founded the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH) in Penryn, Cornwall, in 2011. The Centre is now internationally recognised, with more than 100 staff and students making a significant impact on global policy.

Lora said: “I’m thrilled about this clear recognition of the importance of the interconnections between environment and human health. I’m grateful to all my colleagues at Exeter, and to our many local and international funders, collaborators and community partners, for creating and supporting this essential work, which is now very much on the international agenda.”

Lora, originally from the US, qualified as a physician form Harvard, with a PhD in epidemiology from Yale. She began her career as a doctor working in New York’s Bronx district during the 1980s, where her passion for supporting deprived communities first developed. Her interest in the links between environment and human health first began through the lens of the harms that the environment can cause to humans, for example through pesticides, chemicals in food and mercury. As her career developed, she expanded her interest into ocean environments – and realised that the benefits and opportunities from interacting with the natural environment provided opportunities to boost physical health and mental wellbeing.

After two decades of working at the University of Miami, she was one of the first global experts to bring the now internationally recognised discipline of Oceans and Human Health to Europe.  She moved to Cornwall to establish Exeter’s ECEHH, alongside Professor Mike Depledge, who was awarded the CBE for his work in the field in 2016.

Lora, who holds the post of Chair of Oceans, Epidemiology and Human Health, said“Through our work at the Centre, we’ve learned so much more about the complexity of the relationship between the environment and human health – the positives and negatives. Ultimately, if people believe the natural environment is good for them, we can perhaps convince them to take better care of it. Our health depends on the health of those natural environments – if we can reduce the harms we’re creating, it’s a better future for future generations.”

Impactful research from the Centre includes: informing national and international policy on the value of green and blue spaces to human health; how antimicrobial resistance (AMR) spreads through environments, potentially threatening health; and work to understand the environmental impact on and of global food systems.

Lora believes the key to making an impact is uniting sometimes disparate scientific disciplines, along with the multiple diverse groups and communities who are impacted by the environment, and can affect change. The Centre is now a World Health Organisation collaborating centre on natural environments and health, in recognition of its contribution to making policy.

Lora has won previous international prizes for her work in oceans and Human Health – the Edouard Delcroix Prize (2013) and the Bruun Medal of the International Oceanographic Commission (2015). She is co-leading the Ocean Panel Blue Paper on Oceans and Human to be launched in April at the UN Ocean Decade Conference.

Professor Lisa Roberts, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Exeter, said: “Lora was one of the first to recognise that the interplay between our health and the environment would define all our futures, and she has played an incredibly significant role in elevating the urgency of this work internationally, and generating research to make a difference. Throughout her career she has been an inspiration to all who have the fortune to work with her. She has nurtured colleagues and built a community of environment and health researchers at Exeter in the European Centre for Environment and Health who are now influencing international policy. I’m delighted to see her recognised with this highly prestigious honour, which is so well deserved.”