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Blog from the North Atlantic: Allegrante in Iceland

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John Allegrante

Allegrante on a Ferry to Videy, site of the Imagine Peace Light Tower.

John Allegrante, professor of health education and chairman of TC's Department of Health and Behavior Studies and adjunct professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, is on sabbatical this term, lecturing and conducting research at Reykjavik University in Iceland. Allegrante, who was awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant for this work, is collaborating with Icelandic social scientists at the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis on a program of research in health and academic achievement among adolescents. He also is serving as acting dean of the university's School of Health and Education, where he is a member of the Reykjavik University president's advisory committee and the Fulbright visiting professor.
The following is a blog report from Allegrante about Iceland - its culture and geography - the work he is doing, and other highlights of his experiences there since his arrival in August.

Iceland is located in the upper reaches of the middle North Atlantic. Most of this island's 103,000 square kilometers of land mass sit just below the Arctic Circle. Many Americans confuse Iceland with Greenland, a larger and mostly uninhabitable terrain that is covered entirely by a large glacier, which is directly north and east of North America.

And when most Americans think of Iceland, they think of Bjork, the 12-time Grammy-Award-winning female punk-rock singer, the famous 1972 chess match between Boris Spasky and Bobby Fisher (who, since 2005, has lived here with political asylum), or the Reagan-Gorbachov Summit in 1989.

But it's much more.

Iceland is a geophysically diverse island with an abundance of natural wonder. It is green with a vibrant ecosystem. And with its geysers, glaciers, and volcanic hot springs, Iceland presents the visitor with a remarkably variegated landscape. U.S. astronauts trained in a part of volcanic Iceland where the terrain is, eerily, geologically similar to that found on the moon.

Most of the island is sustained by geothermal energy that has been harnessed for heat, hot water, and hydroelectric power. This means that Iceland has skipped what we would call an industrial age to evolve in remarkably different ways from other advanced economies. Modern Iceland has emerged virtually overnight - in a span of only decades - from a largely agricultural economy centered on raising sheep and fishing to that of a high-technology society. As a consequence, Iceland enjoys cleaner air, cleaner water, and a cleaner food chain than most countries have.

And because it stands at a cultural and geopolitical crossroad between North America and Europe and the other Nordic countries, Iceland is both influenced by and influential in western European and North-American social trends.

Reykjavik, its largest city, is a charming but thoroughly modern European urban center located in the southwestern part of the island. Benefited by the Atlantic jet stream, about 150,000 of the estimated 300,000 inhabitants of Iceland live in Reykjavik and in its surrounding area. Over 90 percent of Icelanders are of Norwegian and Irish-Celtic decent and over 80 percent belong to the Lutheran State Church. English is spoken impeccably well by almost every Icelander who is likely to speak Danish and German equally well.

Iceland is also home to a secular Viking culture in which Pagan belief coexists comfortably with Christian theological thought. Entire roadways and other civic projects have been carefully considered in light of the mythic "Huldufolk," or hidden people - part of a quaint but elaborate Icelandic legend that purports the existence of assorted elves, gnomes, trolls, and light-fairies, all of whom are thought to reside throughout the countryside.

In addition to Icelandic lamb and Skyr, a yogurt-type product that can now be found on the West Side in Whole Foods, Iceland's fishing industry and its fisherman are legendary. Thorolfur Thorlindsson, a prominent Icelandic social scientist and friend of mine who is now director of the Icelandic Institute for Public Health, wrote a fascinating scholarly paper some years ago, titled "Skipper Science," in which he described the complex knowledge of the sea currents, temperature, and location that the skipper of an Icelandic fishing boat must master.

Even though the fishing industry once dominated Icelandic economic life, Viking pragmatism and ingenuity can be found in other areas of enterprise. Today, modern Iceland has emerged as a global banking force and is a leader in design innovation, geothermal energy technology, and human genomics. Every Icelander, for example, can go to something called "The Book of Icelanders" to identify their ancestral roots and genealogy dating back generations. And in the future, Icelanders are likely to be able to order up their own personal human genome. It is little wonder that Iceland has become as popular a destination for politicians and business leaders as it has become for genetic scientists and environmentalists.

Although the Icelandic population can be characterized as being homogeneous, it is becoming more diverse. Iceland is beginning to experience some of the effects of global migration and a growing immigrant population that comes from many regions of the world, including Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine. And Iceland's youth are influenced greatly by American television and pop culture.

During the 1990s, adolescent substance use - smoking, alcohol use, and marijuana use - was rising and paralleled that of the experience in much of Europe. Today, thanks to prodigious efforts by the Icelandic social scientists (some with whom I have been working) to reduce key risk factors for adolescent substance use and strengthen community-level protective factors, the rate of adolescent substance use has declined dramatically and is now among the lowest in Europe. And at the heart of that success is an approach to substance use prevention among youth that is centered on strengthening schools, families, and sports organizations.

Reykjavik University is Iceland's first private university, and one of the first of its kind in Europe. I became involved with Iceland, and Reykjavik University, three years ago, when I first met Dr. Inga Dora Sigfusdottir, dean of the School of Health and Education, who had traveled to New York to meet me. I immediately liked her and began collaborating with her and her colleagues on research focusing on the importance of health status to academic achievement shortly after my initial visit to Iceland in January 2005. Inga Dora is now on leave from the university, working as a special assistant to Iceland's Ministry of Health and Social Security, which has put her in a position to implement research-based policy that is drawing on some of the work we've done.

And because Iceland is both a small country and one with potential to develop a strong public health infrastructure, it constitutes an interesting laboratory in which to try out new health promotion programs, such as "Prevention Day," a nation-wide initiative to bring attention to the importance of promoting health and preventing disease. So the scale is small enough that it is relatively easy to observe the impact of experimental approaches.

My sabbatical in Iceland has brought me into contact with a rich and fascinating array of people, from other Fulbright award winners to the President of Iceland.

I count among the highlights of my sabbatical speaking at a meeting of European youth researchers that was convened at the European Youth Center, one of the European Institutions in Strasbourg, France; hosting separate dinner parties for Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, the current Minister of Health and Social Security, and Dagur B. Eggertsson, the new Mayor of the City of Reykjavik, and a former colleague for a brief period at Reykjavik University, whose mayoral installation I attended with other American colleagues; and helping to plan and participating in the Youth in Europe conference that Reykjavik University hosted and in which representatives from 15 European cities participated.

In addition, I was witness to Yoko Ono lighting the Imagine Peace Light Tower on Videy, a small Island in Reykjavik bay, which will now commemorate John Lennon's dream from October to December each year. And in November, I traveled to Akureyri and the northeastern reaches of the country, just miles from the Arctic Circle, to hunt Ptarmigans, a wild game bird similar to Grouse that is a traditional delicacy at the Icelandic Christmas table.

Bagging five of the birds will not put me into the Icelandic Sagas, but it did prove that even a professor from New York could shoot straight!

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