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Your Environment. Your Health.

2021 Grantee Highlights

Natalie Sampson Ph.D. – Building Capacity in Community Science to Address Environmental Inequalities

April 7, 2021

Natalie Sampson

Sampson is also the Chair-Elect of the American Public Health Association’s Environmental Section which strives to inspire systemic change through science-based advocacy and programs.
(Photo courtesy of EHRA)

Natalie Sampson, Ph.D., is an environmental and public health researcher at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Her research covers a variety of social and environmental determinants of health. Sampson partners with communities and the local government, primarily in Southeast Michigan, to plan and evaluate program, policy, and land-use interventions to improve health equity.

While working on her bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan, Sampson joined a grassroots-led organizing effort to understand how truck traffic on the Ambassador Bridge and lack of environmental protections at one of the largest border crossings in the U.S. affected the surrounding community.

“The Ambassador Bridge really helped me understand how land use and infrastructure, whether it’s transportation, waste management, or stormwater infrastructure, affect public health,” said Sampson. “Many of those decisions are rooted in current and historic racist policies. They get made outside of the public health sector without community input and have huge implications for environmental health and environmental justice.”

Sampson now works at the intersection of community-based research, environmental health, and land use and health.

“My work really aims to rethink environmental decision-making, from problems with the underlying risk assessment frameworks, to the lack of plain language used to communicate risks, and the inequitable power structures that drive decisions,” said Sampson.

Making Research Meaningful to All Stakeholders

Today, Sampson co-leads the Community Engagement Core (CEC) at the Michigan Center on Lifestage Environmental Exposures and Disease (M-LEEaD), an NIEHS-funded Environmental Health Sciences Core Center. A key role of the CEC is to facilitate multi-directional interaction between center researchers, policy makers, and communities.

In 2016, she partnered with the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition to design and launch an extensive survey to understand community concerns and priorities related to a new international bridge under construction. Residents near the construction site have been working for decades to address the effects of multiple pollutant sources in the area including transportation and industrial activity.

“Residents, researchers, and students collaborated to design the survey questionnaire and methods, conduct the household surveys, and interpret the findings,” said Sampson. “The survey’s results provided a springboard for one of the coalition’s subsequent requests to local and state leaders to conduct a health impact assessment.”

The health impact assessment was conducted by the Community Benefits Coalition with the M-LEEaD CEC and NIEHS grantee Angela Reyes. Reyes is the executive director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation and a member of the M-LEEaD CEC Stakeholder Advisory Board. In 2020, the team published findings and recommendations from the first phase of the assessment. The case study also provided lessons for community, academic, and government partners conducting health impact assessments, especially during building and operation of major infrastructure. For example, strengthening existing relationships to form solid partnership between academic, government, and community members and developing principles and processes for translating research findings into actionable community-identified solutions.

Building Knowledge Across Generations

Sampson is also a co-founder of the Environmental Health Research-to-Action Youth Academy, which brings together community and academic partners to build capacity across generations in community science and policy advocacy to address environmental racism.

Youth ages 16 to 18 apply to participate in the two weeks of intensive active learning.

Youth ages 16 to 18 apply to participate in the two weeks of intensive active learning.
(Photo courtesy of EHRA)

According to Sampson, the youth academy’s vision was naturally identified by members from several community, academic, health care, government, and faith-based organizations who were concerned about air quality issues.

“Many of us had already been working with youth or college students and there was a lot of excitement about building something intergenerational,” said Sampson.

Zeina Reda, an alum of the 2018 Academy and now undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, recently joined the organization as youth coordinator. She helps ensure youth voices are centered, and she steers the curriculum of the academy, which involves bus tours of local air pollution sources, environmental risk and asset mapping, and engagement in policy education trainings.

“A community that understands the environmental dangers it faces will lead with a more powerful voice and stronger position on promoting environmental justice,” said Reda. “With this curriculum, we are able to empower the next generation to advocate for their basic rights to clean air and equitable living conditions.”

Advancing the Field

The work the youth academy and the CEC are doing has come a long way, but Sampson says the job is far from done. She looks forward to expanding youth-oriented programming, building academic and government capacity to support community-led science, and breaking down the boundaries and silos between research and policy to inspire systemic change.

“I think the field of environmental health, our agencies, and our institutions have a long way to go, and I'm committed to doing that work,” stated Sampson.

Mindy Richlen, Ph.D. – Developing Innovative Community Engagement on Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)

March 22, 2021

Mindy Richlen, Ph.D.

Richlen is assistant director of the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “A lot of the work I'm doing now is leveraging tremendous opportunities that I’ve had through a lot of these research programs. It’s gratifying to see these programs coming together in a way that is much more impactful,” said Richlen.
(Photo courtesy of WHOI)

Mindy Richlen, Ph.D., grew up in southern Idaho, far from any ocean. An inspiring elementary school teacher sparked a lifelong interest in biology, which led her to pursue a Ph.D. in biology at Boston University. While there, Richlen’s advisor introduced her to harmful algal blooms (HABs), which occur when certain algae species grow rapidly and produce potent toxins.

Richlen’s graduate research focused on the HAB phenomenon known as Ciguatera Poisoning. It is one of several HAB-related illnesses and is caused by eating coral reef fish or invertebrates that are contaminated with ciguatoxin when they consume harmful algae. When people consume seafood carrying these toxins, they can experience gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, or neurologic symptoms.

“A lot of people have never heard of ciguatera, but it has the greatest public health and economic impacts of all the HAB-related illnesses,” said Richlen.

raised line graphics with braille captions
Raised line graphic depicting the life cycle of the PSP-causing algae Alexandrium catenella with braille captions. (Photo courtesy of Curran and Richlen, 2019, Sci Act.)

Today, Richlen remains engaged in research on ciguatera as a co-investigator at the Greater Caribbean Center for Ciguatera Research (GCCCR), funded jointly by NIEHS and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Her research, which now includes other types of HABs, has taken her from the tropics to the Arctic to study the complex factors involved in HAB formation and their effects on human health.

She is also involved in improving coordination and collaboration within the HAB research and management community. Richlen leads the NIEHS and NSF-funded Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health (WHCOHH) Community Engagement Core (CEC). Both WHCOHH and GCCCR employ interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the causes and effects of HABs.

“All HABs are different. They involve different species, have different biogeography, and different physiologies. Our research programs are certainly strengthened by an interdisciplinary approach.”

Using Real World Data on HABs in the Classroom

When the concentration of harmful algae increases and forms a bloom that is dangerous to human health, beaches may be closed, or an advisory warning of the risks may be posted. Fisheries might close and issue recalls, minimizing harm to health. These closures, though temporary, can have significant economic and social implications. Since many communities are affected by the health, social, and economic impacts of HABs, community engagement is a key part of Richlen’s work.

Student working on graphing exercise with a 3D mnodel of algae and plush toy
Visually impaired student works on graphing exercise. A 3D model of a type of algae and plush toy of two HAB-causing algae are on the left. (Photo courtesy of Curran and Richlen, 2019, Sci Act.)

“I became involved in community engagement through my work with the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms,” Richlen said. “Our main goals are to improve information sharing, coordination, and communication within the HAB research and management community as well as with the public.”

Richlen seeks to expand community engagement through the WHCOHH CEC. This group participates in the HAB network of researchers and managers to discuss challenges and solutions and has a strong emphasis on classroom education and building environmental health literacy for the public.

In collaboration with WHCOHH co-investigators, the CEC is developing an open source, online data portal for tracking HABs of different species over time called the WHOI HAB Hub, which will integrate different data sources and provide real time data. The tool will be useful for HAB researchers, managers, the shellfish industry, and the public.

Richlen’s engagement with the community extends to the classroom, where she first became inspired to pursue biology. In collaboration with Carla Curran, Ph.D. at Savannah State University, Richlen developed interdisciplinary educational activities about HABs and paralytic shellfish poisoning for middle school students that can be adapted for high school.

“We use HABs to illustrate a number of different concepts, including biology and ecology, marine science, math, and data analysis,” said Richlen. “We also include opportunities for students to work with data produced by center research.”

The lesson plans use tactile teaching aids, including raised line drawings with Braille captions and three-dimensional printed models of HAB species, to engage with visually impaired students. The activity focused on paralytic shellfish poisoning was introduced to several classrooms in Florida and Massachusetts and presented at the National Marine Educators Association Conference in 2019 to solicit additional feedback from teachers.

student feels a raised line drawing
Visually impaired student feels a raised line drawing of the dinoflagellate life cycle, which was created using a Picture in a Flash machine, which produces tactile graphics. (Photo courtesy of Curran and Richlen, 2019, Sci Act.)

“We’ve found this approach has helped students be very engaged and interested in learning about HABs,” Richlen noted. “Teachers also appreciate that their students had the opportunity to work with real data, so this has been a really successful collaboration.”

Next Steps and Future Directions

Building on the success in Florida classrooms, Richlen and Curran will introduce another set of activities for students in the New England region focused on algae that cause amnesic shellfish poisoning.

“Amnesic shellfish poisoning is a fairly recent problem in the Gulf of Maine,” she said. “The new classroom activities will focus on analyzing temporal changes and algae community structure. All of these data were collected by Dr. Kate Hubbard a co-investigator on one of our projects.”

Moving forward, Richlen hopes to collaborate with the other three centers involved in the CEC and to bridge connections between the WHCOHH and the public health and medical communities.

“Expanding education on HABs for clinicians is critical to improving the recognition and reporting of HAB-related illnesses,” she said. “This information will allow for better tracking of public health impacts at the national level.”

3D printed models of algae and plush toys of HAB species
3D printed models of algae and plush toys of HAB species used in educational materials. (Photo courtesy of Curran and Richlen, 2019, Sci Act.)

Related Links

Angela Reyes – Addressing Air Pollution Effects With Multidisciplinary Matchups

February 23, 2021

Angela Reyes

Angela Reyes received her master’s in public health degree from the University of Michigan. “I started working with NIEHS -funded grantees at the University of Michigan prior to pursuing my M.P.H., and it is because of my relationship with them that I was able to go to graduate school,” she said.
(Photo courtesy of Angela Reyes)

Angela Reyes strives to create healthier communities and address issues of racial inequity and health disparities in Southwest Detroit. She has devoted her career to addressing environmental justice issues by fostering long-term relationships with local community groups, academic researchers, and decision makers.

“Growing up, I witnessed first-hand how people in my community are disproportionately at risk for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which are linked to air pollution exposure,” she said. “When you are around so much pollution all the time, it is hard to ignore the impact of the environment on our health.”

Today, Reyes is the executive director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC), a community-based organization she founded over 20 years ago. DHDC is committed to providing opportunities for self-empowerment and education for disadvantaged youth and families. By doing so, they hope to build a healthy and safe community, particularly for Hispanic populations in southwest Detroit.

Improving Lives by Collaborating With Academic Institutions

For over 25 years, Reyes has worked closely with NIEHS grantees at the Michigan Center on Lifestage Environmental Exposures and Disease (M-LEEaD) at the University of Michigan, where she is a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Board. The board’s purpose is to strengthen dialogue between center researchers and community leaders to ensure effective dissemination and implementation of research findings. Reyes is also an active member of the Community Engagement Core at M-LEEaD.

According to Reyes, strong partnerships between community organizations and researchers are necessary to facilitate the translation of scientific findings into policies that address the systemic public health issues that Detroit residents face.

“Working alongside the University of Michigan gave the DHDC the credibility and tools to prove exactly how serious the air quality problem is in our community and negotiate several community benefits with the city,” she noted. “We would not have been able to do that without science to back our case.”

Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments

Today, DHDC, alongside M-LEEaD, is helping address the air quality problem through their participation in the Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments, a partnership among community-based organizations and academic institutions.

The groups have collaborated on a variety of community-based participatory research projects aimed at improving health and the quality of life in communities disproportionately affected by air pollution.

During its first stage, this program documented air pollutant levels, sources, and distribution. Additionally, they quantified health impacts and inequities to develop a Public Health Action Plan to reduce exposure and improve human health. The plan detailed 25 actionable strategies based on science and community priorities, such as incorporating vegetative buffers, installing air filters, and improving infrastructure to allow for alternative transit forms like biking.

As the program embarks on a new funding cycle, the team is working toward developing a network of air monitors across Detroit. They plan on creating a web-based platform for community members to monitor and take actions to improve air quality. Additionally, Reyes is looking forward to working with schools near air pollution sources, such as chemical plants, to improve infrastructure and install air filters.

Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition

Reyes also serves in an advisory capacity for the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. There is a new six-lane bridge being built in the immediate vicinity of a steel mill, an energy plant, a wastewater treatment plant, an oil refinery, and other industrial sites that increase air pollution.

The cumulative impact from industrial and transportation-related air pollution sources will further negatively impact nearby communities. Reyes, along with researchers at the University of Michigan and the coalition, are working to ensure these communities receive appropriate protections and benefits to protect their quality of life. They have been able to negotiate with the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan to allocate funding for air monitoring equipment over 10 years, home repairs to improve indoor air quality, and housing swaps for people near the bridge.

Additionally, funds will be allocated for a health impact assessment to take place in three phases: before construction, during construction, and during operation of the bridge.

“Getting support for the assessment was a major milestone. This will allow us to document existing air quality and health conditions and track changes over time, as well as identify strategies to reduce health impacts,” she noted.

The team recently documented select findings and recommendations from the first phase of the health impact assessment. According to Reyes, the most interesting outcome is that the assessment allowed them to quantify the number of lives and how much money would be saved by addressing the air pollution issues.

Training Future Environmental Justice Advocates

Reyes works closely with a youth group that is involved in policy advocacy and creating innovative solutions to address air pollution. The DHDC is dedicated to creating a safe space for youth to voice their opinions and become involved in addressing environmental justice issues within their community.

“By exposing young people to science and advocacy early on, we are helping them develop leadership and critical thinking skills,” she said. “For example, our kids are developing an app to spread the word about air quality issues by posting real-time information.”

Reyes is also involved in offering education and leadership development opportunities for parents in the community to increase their capacity to engage in community organizing, mobilization, and advocacy. The DHDC frequently leads tours in both Spanish and English through Southwest Detroit, where some of the largest refineries and chemical plants surround neighborhoods and spew toxic substances into the air.

“One of the biggest determinants of health is education,” Reyes noted. “When parents see how bad the air pollution problem is, they immediately want to get involved to make changes because it impacts their children.” By educating individuals on health concerns and implications surrounding environmental pollution, Reyes strives to build capacity for effective community action and greater public participation.

Montgomery Proffit – Making an Impact Through Employment Opportunities

January 26, 2021

Montgomery Proffit

“I appreciate the resources that NIEHS has provided for OAI to make an impact in people’s lives,” said Proffit. “We are able to help people provide for their families and to become stewards of their communities.”
(Photo courtesy of Montgomery Proffit)

Montgomery Proffit is passionate about helping people obtain safe and sustainable employment.

A native of Chicago, Proffit has witnessed the economic barriers and health disparities that many communities face in the area. After working a few years in law enforcement, he joined Opportunity Advancement Innovation in Workforce Development (OAI, Inc.) in 2001 as a case manager for its Welfare to Work program. He provided employment assistance and support services for low-income and underserved populations.

Today, Proffit is director of the NIEHS-funded OAI Environmental Career Worker Training Program (ECWTP) Consortium in Chicago. He helps individuals from disadvantaged communities obtain the necessary skills for work in environmental careers, such as construction and hazardous waste cleanup.

Continuing the Legacy, Serving Others

OAI is one of many nonprofit organizations funded by the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP). Established in 1995 by founder and former principal investigator Tipawan Reed, OAI has a mission to provide skills training that leads to safe, meaningful employment while helping companies and communities to thrive.

Proffit said OAI’s legacy is built upon the diligent efforts of leaders like Reed and Sheila Davidson Pressley, Dr.P.H., former manager and senior advisory board member at OAI, who instilled a culture of compassion and serving others. The legacy now continues with Executive Director Mollie Dowling; Salvatore Cali, who is principal investigator for WTP activities; Proffit; and others.

Montgomery Proffit poses for a group photo with colleagues

Proffit (far right) poses with colleagues for a group photo following an ECWTP graduation ceremony.
(Photo courtesy of OAI, Inc.)

“The people we serve come in with many social and economic barriers,” Proffit said. “Some have never worked, are recovering from addiction, or have spent most of their adult life incarcerated. We provide them with support and resources to guide them through these barriers.”

The OAI ECWTP uses an innovative try-out program for to recruit and select individuals for enrollment. The try-out program has been a hallmark of OAI’s ECWTP and has helped increase student retention over the years.

The OAI ECWTP falls under the umbrella of WTP activities but is focused on providing life skills and pre-employment training for underrepresented and unemployed individuals. The life skills component includes courses focused on professional development, financial empowerment, and other topics. The health and safety component includes courses mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with a focus on hazardous waste, operations, and emergency response and others tailored to participants’ career of interest.

After graduation, participants obtain employment in industries like electrical services, construction, and solar and renewable energy. In 2019 alone, the OAI ECWTP trained 85 people, and 80% of these individuals were placed in jobs.

Forming Intentional Partnerships

Successes of the OAI ECWTP Consortium are largely due to great partnerships formed over the years. The consortium’s anchor program is based in Chicago, but partners in other locations including Dallas; Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri; and Indianapolis, help extend the consortium’s reach and impact.

“I am very deliberate about networking and learning more about different agencies and organizations,” he said. “The key to finding a good match is measuring their mission and principles against the principles of the OAI ECWTP.”

As they embark on a new funding cycle through WTP, Proffit and his team look forward to continuing efforts with partners like CitySquare in Dallas and NuStart Career Builders in Kansas City. The team is also excited to begin work with new partners, such as Amplify Chicago and RecycleForce in Indianapolis.

Amplify Chicago helps young people in the justice system obtain a professional career path. RecycleForce offers training in e-waste and recycling for individuals who are re-entering the workforce. Proffit noted that both organizations hold great potential due to high success rates within their target populations.

Adaptability During Disasters, COVID-19

In 2015, the OAI ECWTP in Chicago began using a blended learning approach, where training courses are delivered through a combination of classroom and online methods. Proffit noted that this foresight was critical, as the team was able to quickly adapt in-person courses to a virtual learning environment in a few short weeks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To account for health and safety concerns, the team is also making other adjustments for training space and recruitment. Proffit said while COVID-19 brought many challenges, it has taught the team valuable lessons for the future.

“The method of delivery is important for the populations that we serve,” he noted. “We must have interesting and interactive online content to engage our participants. We are not just training to train, but we want to be effective and train with purpose. That is how we will continue to make an impact.”

Sharing Lessons, Preparing New Leaders

Proffit said mentorship and lessons from leaders like Rosie Carter, Jack Huenefeld, and Patrick Brown, cultivated his career path in worker health and safety. When asked what advice he would offer to new leaders and organizations funded by WTP, Proffit offered a few tips.

“Learn to be at the right place at the right time and be willing to try new things,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to fail because you will learn from your mistakes.”

He also offered tips for recruitment of training participants.

“Word of mouth sells a program, so be methodical and offer individuals an experience,” he continued. “Under promise and over-deliver – promise them the sky but give them the moon and the stars.”

Proffit also recalled that, as a child, his mother reminded him to be grateful and help those who are less fortunate. This message has been a part of his life motto ever since – to reach out and make an impact.

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