Susan Prescott, MD, PhD

headshot of susan prescott

Home Institution: The University of Western Australia

Field: Planetary Health

Current Positions:

My Driving Question

How do we imagine a brighter future? What kind of world do we want to live in?

Scholar Project 

There could not be a more important time to imagine a better world. 

Project Earthrise takes inspiration from one of the most transcendent moments in modern history—when we first saw the Earth across the void of space. One planet. One people. Igniting profound wonder and awe, it inspired a renewed desire for peace, unity, justice and appreciation and care for nature. It revealed that we are more aligned in our vision and desire for a better world than our current polarized social climate suggests—especially when we are inspired.

Now, in an era of so many “broken systems” we must fundamentally question the way we choose to live on our planet. How we see ourselves. How we treat others. How we care for our place, our communities, and our ecosystems. We must equally address the crisis of “broken spirit” and address the value systems that created our greatest challenges in the first place. It is time to call on “the best” of the human spirit as our greatest asset —the very things that unite, empower and refocus priorities of individuals and societies. Project Earthrise seeks to normalize mutualistic approaches, and to place a higher value on creativity, imagination and self-development in solving challenges at all scales—for all citizens of the world. It will provide a forum of diverse platforms for rich conversations and diverse perspectives:

  • to inspire hope, purpose and optimism, by imagining a better future;
  • to revalue the power of kindness, empathy, love, and mutual respect (which have been neglected and devalued)—and their importance in health and resilience on all scales;
  • to question what we value as progress and how we define growth;
  • to rediscover our love of nature—and the awe, wonder, joy, compassion this inspires;
  • to restore our communities and build grass roots efforts towards meaningful change; and
  • to understand our connectivity and the interdependence of our problems and the solutions.

Imagining the Future is the first step to getting there.

We might all begin by asking ourselves: “What kind of world do we want to live in?”

Biography 

Professor Susan Prescott, MD, PhD, is a pediatrician, immunologist, and an internationally acclaimed physician-scientist, well known for her cutting-edge research into the early environmental determinants of health and disease. Globally, she is recognized for her work on the interconnections between human health and planetary health and promoting mutualistic value systems for both ecological and social justice. She has a particular focus on immune health, and how this can be enhanced—for all aspects of wellbeing across the life course—through microbial biodiversity, healthy nutrition, stronger relationships with natural environments, and positive emotional assets. She works at the highest level of her profession internationally, with over 25 years of research experience. She is a former Director of the World Allergy Organisation (WAO), and former Head of Children’s Allergy Immunology Research at University of Western Australia. She is also the Founding President of the multidisciplinary DOHaD Society (Developmental Origins of Health and Disease) in Australia and New Zealand. Her early work as an immunologist, published in The Lancet, lead to a paradigm shift in understanding the importance of the early environment in immune programming for the risk of subsequent disease.

In addition to over 300 scientific publications, Susan is also an artist and award-winning author of several books—The Allergy EpidemicThe Calling, Origins, and gold medal winning book The Secret Life of Your Microbiome. Her inspiration to study medicine came from her grandmother, one of the few women to study medicine in the 1930s.

She is a passionate advocate for social change and adopting a holistic approach to life. As an artist and award-winning author, she communicates these ideas, not only through the knowledge base of science but also through the inspiration of art. In finding common ground, she maintains we can work together to address many global problems, recognizing the direct connections between personal and planetary health.

With this goal, she leads both local and global efforts towards improving personal and planetary health.

www.drsusanprescott.com; @susanprescott88

Education and Training
  • PhD, University of Western Australia
  • MD (MBBS), University of Western Australia
Selected Honors
  • Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians
  • Practitioner Fellowship by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – 2009-2018
  • Recognized as one of “10 of the best” in Australian NHMRC Research, 2010
  • Winston Churchill Fellowship
Key Publications

Developing safety, persistence, trust

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Acquiring Resources

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
    • “I think I kept trying to convince him I was crazy. And he kept saying, ‘No, you’re not crazy.’ […] You wouldn’t necessarily say a Vietnam Vet was crazy. You’d say they are responding like you’d expect to extraordinary circumstances.”
    • “I’m not the only one who have [sic] this problem. A lots, millions of people, you know. […] They don’t have nothing to do with that. I guess I have to live.”
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
    “You need a lot of energy and a lot of work … it takes a lot of work. It doesn’t just happen. It’s not like a magic wand.” This patient understood that they had to actively participate in the healing process.
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

Helping Relationships

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) “When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. Healing, in this sense, does not mean cured—none of the study participants were cured of their ailments—”but all developed a sense of integrity and wholeness despite ongoing pain or other symptoms.” In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” When we begin to heal, we find increased capacity for hope, renewed motivation to help others, and are more able to accept ourselves as we are.

Suffering

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. There is debate about whether or not one actually needs to experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. “The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”