$5 million gift to boost UofL’s Envirome Institute

Philanthropist Christina Lee Brown speaks during a news conference on the University of Louisville’s Belknap campus. | Photo by Darla Carter

A $5 million gift from a local foundation will help to build up a University of Louisville institute that focuses on the connection between the environment and health.

University President Neeli Bendapudi announced the donation from the Owsley Brown II Family Foundation Tuesday for the continued work of the Envirome Institute.

The gift was the largest that UofL had received since last year when the David Novak family donated $5 million for the new Novak Center for Children’s Health downtown.

Praising the latest benefactors, Bendapudi said, “Your family’s commitment to the University of Louisville will enable us to create a new vision of health, a vision that explores every factor that impacts a person’s life and that impacts their health.”

The institute, which brings together multiple disciplines, is a rebranded version of the Kentucky Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development, which has been around since the 1990s.

Envirome Institute Director Aruni Bhatnagar | Photo by Darla Carter

As the Envirome Institute, it will use a holistic, interdisciplinary model to study the effects of the environment on health, Director Aruni Bhatnagar said.

The environment is “the major source of both our health and our disease” — from heart disease to diabetes to cancer, Bhatnagar said at a news conference on campus.

Humans “live in very complex environments that are fashioned by their unique combination of history and the culture and the ecology,” he said, “so we have to bring all these diverse influences of the environment together.”

Among other things, the $5 million gift will allow UofL to create a visiting scholars program to bring in national and international leaders to share their expertise and collaborate with faculty, staff and students.

It also will support the work of up to five students conducting research within the institute or one of its member centers, and help to provide the public with information about how important it is to look at the entire environment when making health decisions, Bendapudi said.

Bendapudi said the institute’s work is in keeping with her desire for UofL to be “at the forefront of tackling big challenges, big problems, that we face as humanity.”

She praised Christina Lee Brown — wife of the late Owsley Brown II — for bestowing the university with the $5 million grant at a time when “times are tough” for public universities. “I am beyond thrilled,” she said.

The institute will serve as an umbrella organization for several centers, including the new Center for Healthy Air, Water & Soil, which was founded by benefactor Christina Lee Brown in 2014, as the Institute for Healthy Air, Water & Soil.

Some of the other centers within the institute include the Diabetes and Obesity Center, the Center for Integrated Environmental Health Sciences, the American Heart Association Tobacco Regulation and Addiction Center, and the Superfund Research Center. Several others have been invited.

The institute is currently recruiting South Louisville residents for the Green Heart study, which involves planting trees and other greenery in neighborhoods to see how that will affect pollution and health.

Mayor Greg Fischer praised the institute and its potential impact on the city.

“Think about this concept of the city being an urban laboratory for health, for education, for compassion and how you can dive in and do work with your citizens — citizen scientists — so we can learn through and with each other.”