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Your Environment. Your Health.

Marti Lindsey, Ph.D. — Making Environmental Health Information Meaningful to All

April 8, 2015

Marti Lindsey, Ph.D., is committed to helping people understand how the environment can affect their health. As Director of the Community Outreach and Education Program (COEC) of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (SWEHSC) at the University of Arizona (UA), she collaborates with basic and clinical scientists to integrate public health outreach and translational opportunities with environmental health sciences research. She draws upon her past experiences as a psychiatric social worker and librarian to share environmental health information with students, teachers, Native American communities, and the general public.

Headshot of Marti Lindsey
A leader in the field of environmental health literacy, Marti Lindsey, Ph.D., helps people better understand local environmental health issues so they can take action to improve their environments and live healthier lives.

Lindsey’s interest in environmental health outreach is based on health literacy principles. Her passion for effective health communication started at a health fair in 2002 when she found that many of the outreach materials she helped to create had been discarded. This spurred Lindsey and longtime partner, Tucson Water, to evaluate the materials in an effort to understand why people were not reading them, and how they could be improved. Ever since, Lindsey has been committed to identifying best practices for effective material development, such as using plain language, so that environmental health messages are meaningful and actionable to all.

Under Lindsey’s guidance, the COEC develops materials and conducts outreach and education activities related to SWEHSC research topics, such as arsenic exposure, asthma, and chemical exposures, as well as other health issues related to air toxics, water contamination, pesticides, and hazardous waste. In recognition of her outreach efforts, Lindsey received the 2013 Society of Toxicology (SOT) Public Communications Award. This award recognizes an individual who has made major contributions to broadening the awareness of the general public on toxicological issues through any aspect of public communications.

One successful outreach approach Lindsey helped develop is the information walk, a multi-station approach for teaching the public about environmental contaminants. Each station in an information walk covers a different topic area, from general principles of environmental health and toxicology to specific information about how contaminants can enter and cause damage to the body. “Information walks use a tiered approach to information which allows people to choose how much and what they want to learn about a topic,” explained Lindsey. The COEC has successfully used information walks to teach community members about asthma and allergies in schools and at public events for tribal audiences.

Marti Lindsey speaking to a class
Lindsey (center, red shirt) speaks to a class of Native American students about environmental health issues. (Photo courtesy of Marti Lindsey)

Lindsey also leads the COEC’s efforts to develop strong partnerships with tribal communities. Lindsey’s personal experiences with Native Americans — she is married to a Cherokee and lived on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona for many years — gives her a special insight into the Native perspective about science and the environment. She uses this knowledge to help tribal communities address their environmental issues, especially those tied into the research themes of the SWEHSC. Lindsey has also developed a set of guiding principles for establishing and maintaining research partnerships with Native American communities. “Tribal partnerships grow by patiently listening to the community’s needs and questions,” Lindsey explained, “The most important thing a tribe can take away from my presence at a meeting or gathering is to know that the Center is a resource for them.” 

She also values the importance of collaborating with other COECs who work with tribal communities. By partnering with the COEC at the University of Washington (UW) on the Native Environmental Health Stories project, Lindsey was able to learn even more about tribal knowledge of environmental health issues. The outcome of the collaboration with the UW COEC is the new magazine, Indigenous Stewards, which was created to give tribal communities a platform to begin to discuss environmental issues in their own communities. A limited number of hard copies of Indigenous Stewards were printed in April 2015, and the magazine will be available online early Summer 2015.

Getting students interested and engaged in environmental health research is another of Lindsey’s interests. To this end, she serves as Co-Director of the UA Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) program. KEYS is a summer internship program that provides talented high school students hands-on research experiences in UA laboratories. Since KEYS began in 2007, more than 85 UA faculty members have mentored 232 student interns, with 51% of the students coming from backgrounds underrepresented in science careers.

What’s next for Lindsey? In 2015, Lindsey began working on a project funded by Tucson Water to develop and test various risk communication strategies. The goal of the project is to provide Tucson Water with a toolkit of validated risk communication approaches they can use to help residents understand water contamination issues stemming from a nearby Superfund site as well as a number of emerging contaminants. Over the course of the five year project, Lindsey and her team will use communication strategies they’ve found to be successful in the past as a template for developing new materials specific to the community’s water contamination issues. They will then use focus groups and surveys to determine whether the materials successfully communicate exposure and risk messages. 

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