Erica Walker Awarded Pioneering Ideas Grant to Measure Environmental Quality in Metro Jackson, Mississippi


Providence, RI — Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health and founder of the Community Noise Lab, will be partnering with the Piney Woods School in Piney Woods, Mississippi to study the environmental quality of the Jackson, Mississippi Metro area.

The project, which was awarded an 18-month Pioneering Ideas grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will measure and model Jackson, Mississippi’s air pollution, noise pollution, and water quality. In neighborhoods near busy freight rail lines, interstates, and an open sewer lagoon—a place Walker calls the Forgotten Corridor and home—she will administer a National Environmental Quality Survey.

“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," Walker said. "I now know these differences are environmental injustices, which leads to and sustains health disparities, especially among African-Americans like myself."

In addition to laying down a solid environmental exposure assessment framework for the Jackson Metropolitan Statistical Area—encompassing Copiah, Hinds, Madison, Rankin, and Simpson counties—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 in hands-on training by the 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. Walker will work closely with Cristina Nica Ph.D., the lead science instructor at Piney Woods, to train 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, “Especially in areas with great inequalities.”