The problems Ellison Carter seeks to solve are large and complicated, involving energy, environmental health, housing policy and overall well-being. The JPB Environmental Health Fellowship has connected the CSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering assistant professor with others who have the same goal but bring different skill sets to the challenge. The fellowship, hosted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was designed to promote a new generation of multidisciplinary academic and agency leaders to find solutions and support policy changes that address environmental, social, economic and health disparities across the U.S.
“The philanthropic organization (JPB Foundation) is problem-oriented and seems to take the view that many of society’s problems are not domain-aligned with university departments,” Carter said. “They want to build capacity among researchers that remain rooted in their expertise but also work well on problems in an interdisciplinary way.”
It’s helpful to get together with other researchers who face similar challenges in their work, Carter said. One of the most impactful aspects of the program to her so far has been three weeklong workshops, one at Harvard and the other two at past fellows’ institutions in Memphis and Missoula, where the fellows focused on local issues related to social and environmental health. In particular they examined marginalized communities or systemically disparate experiences in the same city and surrounding area.
“These are just snapshots in three different places in the U.S., but we know this is a story that plays out at rural to urban scales and really all over the United States,” she said. “Despite progress on environmental exposure reductions at a national scale – if we look at ambient air quality as an example, we see that, nationally, levels of primary pollutants have generally decreased – there are still very different experiences locally depending on whether you’re black or white, if you’re low-income or higher income, and a host of other dimensions that people can be marginalized along.”
Investing in Colorado
One partnership Carter has fostered through the fellowship is a collaboration with JPB Fellow and environmental economist Katherine Dickinson of the Colorado School of Public Health and Sheryl Magzamen, an epidemiologist with CSU Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. Together, they are building relationships in the Sun Valley public housing community of Denver. Over the past year, they have established what they hope will become a platform for long-term research on the HUD-funded redevelopment project underway there. The neighborhood is ripe for renovation because its housing is the oldest Denver Housing Authority stock, built in the 1950s.
The three scientists, who share a similar mindset of long-term investment in their study, have initiated baseline monitoring of indoor air quality in the current housing, with the intention of checking again after redevelopment. They also have conducted interviews and invested time in getting to know the people and long-standing partnerships already in place in Sun Valley.
“We’re trying to learn whether and how we can contribute to addressing the over-arching question: Are people better off following the redevelopment?” Carter said. “That’s a $300 million question. The HUD program has now spent over a billion dollars on the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative across the U.S., so in some ways it is a billion-dollar question.”
In Carter’s view, the JPB Fellowship funding is intended to offer a buffer of time to invest in building trust with the study participants. In the first year, their relationship-building efforts already have paid dividends in positive reinforcement from Sun Valley residents.
“To take the time to get to know people so they actually trust you when you show up at their house – that doesn’t happen in the same way you can set up a lab to run experiments,” Carter said. “When it has been done that way, it leads to distrust. I hope by doing the work in this manner we also contribute to restoring trust between researchers and the public.”
This community-based research addressing social and environmental health challenges in the U.S. aligns perfectly with the JPB Foundation’s goals for the fellowship program. Carter said working with the other fellows has been humbling and inspiring, and it has motivated her to do similar work. The fellowship has given her a sense of belonging and direction.
“It’s hopefully building a platform from which to do the kind of work I want to do over the next couple decades,” she said.