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Your Environment. Your Health.


Melissa Gonzales, Ph.D. – Integrating Native Culture in Research and Translation

April 30, 2018

Gonzales, a native of New Mexico, is passionate about community engagement and research translation to reduce the exposures and health disparities that impact tribal communities.
Gonzales, a native of New Mexico, is passionate about community engagement and research translation to reduce the exposures and health disparities that impact tribal communities.

Melissa Gonzales, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico (UNM), where she leads many community engagement and research efforts to address exposures and health disparities experienced by Native American communities in the western United States.

Gonzales co-directs the Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity Research, a Center jointly funded by NIEHS and the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities. She also conducts research as part of the UNM Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, where she is working to understand how different metals from mining waste in soil can become airborne and pose health risks to nearby tribal communities.

As part of the UNM SRP Center, Gonzales leads the Community Engagement Core and mentors Center trainees in the Environmental Monitoring and Interpretation Core. She also leads the Research Translation Core where her team is developing and applying a unique multi-directional research translation framework to make the Center's research understandable to community partners and other stakeholders.

Land-based and Cultural Perspectives for Research

Promoting Transdisciplinary Training

Because her research is holistic and transdisciplinary, Gonzales asks her students and trainees to think about how their work is part of the entire exposure paradigm, rather than being limited to a particular research area. "It's important for students to learn to work across disciplines and understand how their work fits into the bigger picture of environmental health," she said.

"Personally, one of the most rewarding parts of my work is watching trainees develop into independent researchers. Several of our trainees have moved on to faculty positions, and that has been exciting to be a part of," she noted. By combining human health, environmental science, and research translation, Gonzales is helping to prepare the next generation of investigators to tackle complex environmental health research questions in the future.

Born into a rural, agricultural family from northern New Mexico, Gonzales brings a unique perspective to her research. "My family has lived on the land for generations. Those of us from land-based cultures have a particular reverence for the interrelatedness between people, their environment, their health, and overall wellbeing," she said.

Gonzales understands the need to protect the land to protect people's health, and this perspective is shared with many of the tribal and rural communities she works with. "Having the same perspective has been really valuable in engaging with communities," she said. "They appreciate having researchers come in understanding how reliant they are on the integrity of the land for their way of life."

Gonzales and her team work with multiple tribal communities, including the Navajo Nation, Laguna Pueblo, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and the Crow community in Montana. While each community has unique perspectives and traditions, Gonzales says that their research has identified important similarities that can be generalized across these groups. For example, many of the communities have a traditional ceremony that involves burning wood, which is often contaminated by metals from nearby mining sites. Rather than looking at how each community specifically conducts their ceremony, Gonzales and her team looked at the similarities between cultures in how long, frequently, and intensely individuals were exposed to smoke.

"This approach is not only more inclusive of diverse practices, it is also more generalizable to other communities we were not able to study directly," Gonzales said. "We also found that by generalizing similar practices and exposure conditions, the research was more respectful of the community's cultural practices."

Research Translation through Art

The artwork above portrays DNA repair. The intricacy of DNA repair can be compared to the creation of beaded items in Native American culture. When a beaded necklace comes undone, the stones/beads are restrung by using what is already there. The design used is from the Crow Nation. The use of the flower design symbolizes the idea of regrowth.

The artwork above portrays DNA repair. The intricacy of DNA repair can be compared to the creation of beaded items in Native American culture. When a beaded necklace comes undone, the stones/beads are restrung by using what is already there. The design used is from the Crow Nation. The use of the flower design symbolizes the idea of regrowth.
(Photo courtesy of Mallery Quetawki-Zuni Pueblo)

Gonzales says that an important part of her research is making sure that it is communicated in a way that is meaningful to impacted communities. One of the unique approaches her team has used included bringing in a Native American artist-in-residence, Mallery Quetawki, to translate complex scientific concepts using cultural symbols that had meaning for the tribal communities.

For example, Quetawki created paintings to communicate the concept of DNA damage. "This is an abstract concept, and we heard from communities that it was difficult to understand because it is an internal biological process that can't be seen," noted Gonzales. The paintings show how the process of DNA repair is like restringing a traditional beaded necklace.

The research-artist team has also been successful in developing intricate paintings to translate messages about the immune system, and how it protects the body from outside influences. "The immune system is essentially there to protect you," Gonzales said. "To communicate this, we used tribal cultural symbols that represent protection and immunity."

Engaging with the Community

Gonzales and her team have built meaningful relationships with tribal communities over time, and this has enabled fruitful collaboration for research. "We're focused on building capacity within the tribes to understand their exposures to mining waste, to speak for themselves, and to conduct their own risk assessments," she noted. "We're from here, so they know we're invested in making sure they get the information they need," Gonzales said.

Maintaining active participation with the communities and being receptive to their concerns is integral to Gonzales" research efforts. One community activity Gonzales has particularly enjoyed is being involved with a research symposium on the Cheyenne Sioux reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. During this annual event, local high school students present posters as part of their science curriculum, and UNM researchers present their work as well.

"This is a very unique opportunity to be able to engage with the community, from young students to tribal elders, to hear about what each other is doing," Gonzales said. "We explain our research and how it contributes to their health and wellbeing, and we also get to hear back from them about their questions and their concerns."

Jennifer Horney, Ph.D. – Understanding the Health Impacts of Disasters through Community Engagement

February 20, 2018

portrait of Jennifer Horney, Ph.D.
Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., uses community engaged research to help communities deal with natural disasters. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M School of Public Health)

Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., an associate professor and department head of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M University (TAMU), studies the health impacts of disasters such as hurricanes.

Horney’s research looks at linkages between disaster planning and household actions related to preparedness, response, and recovery. As the project leader of the TAMU Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center Community Engagement Core (CEC), she is currently working with impacted communities in Texas to study the health impacts of Hurricane Harvey. Horney’s background and previous involvement as a member of a team of public health practitioners who responded to Hurricanes Isabel, Charley, Katrina, Wilma, and Irene give her the experience necessary to address community health concerns following disasters.

Hitting the ground running after Harvey

Just days after Hurricane Harvey struck, TAMU received funding as an NIEHS SRP Center. As a result, they were able to hit the ground running and collect household survey data and environmental samples in the Manchester neighborhood, a Houston community that is burdened by exposures due to adjacent refineries, freeways, water treatment facilities, and a rail yard.

One year prior to the hurricane, Horney and her team had the opportunity to work with a local community group called the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) to begin collecting data and samples in and around Manchester households along the Houston Ship Channel in December 2016. The team also collaborated with researchers from the Oregon State University SRP Center who were using silicone wristbands to collect personal exposure information from residents in the Manchester neighborhood.

These efforts uniquely positioned the team with baseline data for characterization of environmental contaminant exposure both before and after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area. Although residents were suspicious of outsiders coming into their neighborhood after the hurricane, Horney noted that partnership with TEJAS was vital to earn the community’s trust and conduct research. “The fact that our team had already built a relationship of trust with the community before the disaster was crucial for being able to follow up after the Hurricane,” she said.

Moving forward, household survey data, along with the environmental and personal sampling data, will help Horney and her team determine if there are any differences in exposures before and after the hurricane. “By comparing data after the storm with baseline levels, were able to demonstrate that Hurricane Harvey redistributed PAHs in Manchester and to determine that the sources of the PAHs were similar before and after the hurricane. We’re also collaborating with Texas A&M’s Institute for Sustainable Communities to develop tools to help community members understand what these exposures could mean for their health.” The results of her team’s research are published in PLOS|ONE and are also discussed on the Texas A&M website.

“Residents who live in communities that have been affected by disasters should have a say in the type of research that can make their communities more resilient in the future.”
—Jennifer Horney, Ph.D.

Engaging communities and working across disciplines

Horney is dedicated to working with community members to understand how social factors influence evacuation decision-making during disasters and the public health impact of disasters.

“Local knowledge from an engaged community has the power to improve models and predictions, and to help neighborhoods anticipate future threats and prepare for and recover from adverse events.”

In addition to engaging the community, Horney stresses that collaborating across disciplines is critical to building adaptive capacity in communities and achieving research goals. “To fully respond to community needs, sometimes it means we must learn from collaborators on how to look at research through a different lens, whether it is civil engineering or landscape architecture, to improve community resilience to disasters.”

By combining diverse perspectives, researchers like Horney can create better tools, develop better strategies, and make research better suited to address community needs.

For example, at a recent NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) meeting, Horney found that individuals from different programs could build on one another’s work and learn from each other. “Together we were able to develop a more comprehensive GIS tool than any of us could develop on our own.,” said Horney.

Student volunteers posing infront of a home
Students volunteering with EpiAssist to gain field experience in the community. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Horney)

Fueling the pipeline for tomorrow’s scientists

Horney also created EpiAssist, a service-learning program that offers field experiences to undergraduate and graduate students at the TAMU School of Public Health. EpiAssist addresses the critical shortage of trained public health professionals by providing support to local, regional, and state health departments and agencies.

“Programs like EpiAssist emphasize reciprocity, ensuring a balance between meeting the needs of the community and our students,” said Horney. “Students are eager for real-life experiences outside of the classroom, and health departments and agencies often need extra assistance, especially when emergencies or disease outbreaks occur.”

In a different project, Horney and her team trained high school students in the Houston area to collect citizen science data to assess the quality of their neighborhood storm water infrastructure. They were then able to validate the students’ data with data collected by doctoral students.

“This is really important because citizen science data has frequently been questioned or ignored as not scientifically valid. Being able to validate the data collected by the high school students and show that it is equivalent to data collected by researchers will empower folks to assess their own vulnerabilities and risks,” Horney said.

Paloma Beamer, Ph.D. – Understanding How Culture and Behavior Affect Environmental Exposures

January 4, 2018

Paloma Beamer and Karletta Chief

Paloma Beamer and Karletta Chief lead a study examining the long-term effects of the Gold King Mine spill on Navajo communities. Findings from the study will ultimately be used to develop risk assessment methods that incorporate how tribes actually use water and the land.
(Photo courtesy of University of Arizona)

NIEHS grantee Paloma Beamer, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Arizona (UA) Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, is passionate about building partnerships and trust with the communities in which she works. Her research is helping reveal the importance of culture and behavior in determining exposure risks for specific communities. This knowledge could help inform interventions that reduce, or even eliminate, adverse health effects from environmental exposures experienced in these communities.

Responding to the Gold King Mine Spill

Ruby Sierra, Paloma Beamer and Arnold Clifford

Ruby Sierra of the Environmental Health Sciences Transformative Research Undergraduate Experience program, Paloma Beamer and Arnold Clifford take a core sample in an agricultural field.
(Photo courtesy of University of Arizona)

On August 5, 2015, the Gold King Mine leaked three million gallons of polluted water into a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado. The water traveled into the San Juan and Colorado rivers, flowing along the borders of 12 Native American Tribes. Immediately after the spill, Beamer worked with Karletta Chief, Ph.D., and other UA Superfund Research Program (SRP) researchers to quickly create a fact sheet to help affected communities understand the spill and its immediate effects.

In addition to concerns about short-term effects of the spill, Navajo communities wanted to know how water contaminated from the spill might affect their long-term health. With NIEHS funding, Beamer and Chief began the research necessary to address these concerns.

The researchers worked with the Navajo Department of Health and colleagues at Northern Arizona University to design a study that included testing for lead and arsenic exposure in people living in the three Navajo communities downstream of the Gold King Mine spill. The researchers also measured these contaminants in the sediment, agricultural soil, river, and well water around these communities and will examine how the communities’ perception of health risks from the spill compared with the actual health risks.

Rachelle Begay, Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne and graduate student Corinna Sabaque

Rachelle Begay, project coordinator for Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research, doctoral student Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne, and graduate student Corinna Sabaque prep field kits for Navajo Nation community health workers to use for household sampling. 
(Photo courtesy of University of Arizona)

So far, the project has involved community members from 20 different organizations and academic partners from seven institutions. It Is also supported by several NIEHS-funded Centers at UA, including the SRP Center, Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, and Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research, part of the Centers of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research program. Study support also comes from the Northern Arizona University Center for American Indian Resilience, which is funded by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Understanding Routes of Exposure

Tommy Rock and Janene Yazzie

Northern Arizona University doctoral student Tommy Rock and Janene Yazzie, an intern with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, sample sediment along the San Juan River. More than 70 students from ten academic intuitions were trained to work on various parts of the project.
(Photo courtesy of University of Arizona)

The researchers began by using focus groups to determine how Navajo communities use the San Juan river. "We have now identified almost 50 different activities that could lead to potential exposures if there was a concern about contaminants in the river water or in the sediment," said Beamer. "Because the communities use the river for much more than recreational activities, risk assessments need to take this into account when determining that the river was safe for use after a spill."

Throughout the study, the researchers focused on using approaches that build trust with the community. For example, they enlisted Navajo Department of Health community health workers who were already known by the community, to collect urine samples and reported back data to each household that provided samples.

The researchers have also received funding from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice to leverage the partnerships and findings of the NIEHS project to create broader and longer-term capabilities. They will be working with the Navajo community and leaders to identify tools and skills that might help them better respond to future spills or other environmental disasters.

Making Workplaces Healthier

Beamer, who began a term as president-elect of the International Society of Exposure Science in January 2018, is now planning a new study that will train community health workers to identify hazardous exposures in workplaces around Tucson, Arizona, and to work with the businesses to reduce those exposures. "Although preventable by definition, occupational disease and injuries are leading causes of death in the U.S.," said Beamer. "Unfortunately, low-income or low-wage minority workers bear most of the burden of occupational disease."

Beamer and her team will focus the study on auto repair shops and beauty salons. These types of workplaces, which have not been well-studied in terms of exposures, will allow the researchers to test their approach in two very different work cultures with different predominant genders. After gathering information about the businesses and exposures, the researchers will work with the businesses owners, trade groups, workers, and the community health workers to design an intervention focused on reducing the sources of dangerous workplace exposures. They will then implement the intervention in a formal clinical trial, evaluate its effectiveness, and identify factors that led the businesses to use exposure control strategies.

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