Population Health

December 7, 2021

Spotlight: Daaniya Iyaz’s focus on the intersection of health and environment

Image of Daaniya IyazDaaniya Iyaz’s interest in the intersection between health and the environment motivates her many educational and professional pursuits and drives her commitment to helping communities overcome the disproportionate effects of climate change.

Iyaz is a University of Washington graduate student currently pursuing her Master of Science degree in Environmental Health. She previously earned her undergraduate degree at the UW in Bioresource science and engineering. This past summer, Iyaz also worked as a Population Health Social Entrepreneurship fellow.

Iyaz is in her second year of her master’s program, writing her thesis on the effects of wildfire smoke on health outcomes and hospital admissions primarily in pediatric populations with her faculty mentor Dr. Tania Busch Isaksen. As a longtime Seattle resident, Iyaz has seen the exacerbation of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest due to climate change, which inspires her work on this project.

In addition to her thesis, she is obtaining a graduate certificate in climate change and health, studying the effects of climate change on public health, specifically in disadvantaged and underserved communities. She is also an active volunteer in Global Water Labs, UW’s Program on Climate Change and is the chair of the UW Campus Sustainability Fund.

Iyaz was introduced to the Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship through her work with Global Water Labs, founded by Dr. Katya Cherukumilli, who was a former partner of the program.

The fellowship program is supported by the Population Health Initiative, in partnership with the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, CoMotion and the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance.

The program pairs graduate students from various disciplinary backgrounds with UW-based innovations to explore how best to deploy social enterprise models.

“The reason I’m really interested in the idea of social entrepreneurship is because I feel like there are so many amazing research ideas out there especially when it comes to the environment and the healthcare sector,” Iyaz explained, “but I feel like they sometimes tend to stay in research and need the entrepreneurship lens to get them out of the lab and into the real world.”

As part of her 2021 fellowship experience, Iyaz was paired with Caring for Caregivers Online (COCO), which is an AI-enhanced telehealth and virtual therapy platform designed to support family, or nonprofessional, caregivers through app-based on-demand support and wellness counseling.

Dr. Weichao Yuwen, assistant professor of Nursing & Healthcare Leadership at the University of Washington Tacoma, developed COCO to address the multiple needs of caregivers in marginalized communities by providing resources that help ease the burden of caring for family members with chronic diseases. The company was launched via a Population Health Initiative pilot grant in 2019 and has grown from there.

Iyaz has been a caregiver for her own mother for several years and felt that she could offer a firsthand perspective of the physical and mental challenges and social isolation caregivers face that might help COCO refine and develop the resources they offer.

Most of the work Iyaz completed this past summer involved interviews and research on user experience to determine the best ways to market their service to stakeholders. She used this research to gage user opinions on how to potentially improve the technology and resources offered. She also utilized this information to help determine which populations COCO should focus on targeting as their consumer base.

Iyaz interviewed people from the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, COCO team members, social workers, medical professionals and other members of the healthcare sector throughout her time on the project.

“I really enjoyed seeing the passion they had for caregivers and just how much empathy and how much time they put into really caring for caregivers,” Iyaz said. “It’s very inspirational to know that people out there care. Sometimes you feel overlooked or that people aren’t really paying that much attention to caregivers.”

Iyaz thoroughly enjoyed her time as a fellow working with COCO, citing her interactions through interviews and collaborations with others as her favorite part of the experience. In utilizing a business perspective, she was ultimately able to contribute toward the growth and accessibility of COCO by offering user-based research to help the company expand their reach.

Beyond her involvements at UW, Iyaz is working on a startup company called Novoloom, which is a DIY clothing brand that uses all sustainable fabrics and teaches people how to sew with the intent of being an antithetical option to fast fashion.

“Clothing trends kind of come and go really fast, and a huge part of environmental waste definitely is the fashion industry,” Iyaz explained. “It’s something fun to do with friends while also doing something beneficial for the environment.”

After graduating, Iyaz plans to work in public health, either at the government level or in consulting. While she has not decided on the specific path her career will take, she ultimately hopes to continue using her passion for interacting with people to improve health outcomes and help communities become more resilient to climate change.