Idea Pioneer

Epidemiologist Erica Walker returns home to study the environmental quality of Jackson, Mississippi.

“I grew up in poverty, and always I felt, but didn’t fully understand, that there was something about where I lived that was very different from those places where wealthier people lived and that these differences were negatively impacting our community’s health,” Erica Walker Ph.D. says. The new assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and founder of the Community Noise Lab grew up in Mississippi neighborhoods close to busy freight rail lines, interstates, an open sewer lagoon, and a creek that flooded periodically.

“I now know these differences are environmental injustices, which lead to and sustain health disparities, especially among African-Americans like myself,” she said. “I always knew that I wanted to return home to confront the ghosts of my past.”

With new funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Walker will study the air pollution, noise pollution, water quality, and other environmental quality of life issues in the Jackson, Mississippi Metro area—a place she calls The Forgotten Corridor.

The $700,000, 18-month Pioneering Ideas grant will allow Walker to lay down a solid environmental exposure assessment framework in the Jackson Metropolitan Statistical Area, encompassing Copiah, Hinds, Madison, Rankin, and Simpson counties. In addition to measuring and modeling air pollutants, noise pollutants, water quality, and administering a National Environmental Quality Survey, Walker is most invested in what she leaves behind.

She proposes establishing an infrastructure that will remain accessible in her hometown after her study has ended and intends to build an open-access data repository and mapping system to house the data she collects. This repository will allow concerned residents, local leaders, and researchers free access to her data to support advocacy initiatives, academic scholarship, and grant opportunities.

Another long-lasting benefit of Walker’s project will be the knowledge gained through hands-on training by students at the Piney Woods School, Walker’s partner in the project. The historically black, private, co-educational boarding high school in central Mississippi will be a dedicated air pollution, noise pollution, and water quality site for the study.

“What is most exciting about this project, to me, is working with the Piney Woods School,” Walker said. She will partner closely with Cristina Nica Ph.D., the lead science instructor at Piney Woods, providing hands-on training to students on how to measure, model, and report the study’s findings.

“As researchers, we must leave behind tangible tools and knowledge for continued advocacy and opportunity,” Walker said. “Otherwise, it’s just noise.”