Students from Brown University and Tougaloo College investigate public health challenges in rural areas

An innovative course is bringing together students in Rhode Island and Mississippi to conduct an impactful public health research project focused on a rural community in Gloster, Mississippi.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In a spring semester course called Rural Public Health, students have been investigating the health impacts of a wood pellet manufacturing plant on a community in Gloster, Mississippi. Nine of the students are based at Tougaloo College, and the other 12 are based at Brown University.

While analyzing their findings, the students are learning about the process of conducting a participatory research project in a rural geographical area — in a location that’s two hours away from the Tougaloo College campus in Jackson.

“This research was inspired by the local community that’s been affected by the wood pellet plant,” said Erica Walker, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health. “I think it’s valuable for all of the students to have members of the research team located in an area that’s not far from the area they’re studying and the community with whom we’re collaborating.” 

Brown’s partnership with Tougaloo College, a historically black college, was formalized in 1964 during the Civil Rights era with the goal of enriching both campuses through student, faculty and administrative exchanges. Walker’s course, new this semester, provides a way for students from both institutions to not only meet each other (albeit virtually), but to also learn from each other. 

“The Brown and Tougaloo students are able to have conversations they might not otherwise have, while working towards a common goal,” Walker said.

The class is structured around an ongoing air pollution monitoring network and public health research project. The study, led by Walker and Krystal Martin of Greater Greener Gloster Project, is looking at emissions from the wood pellet manufacturing industry in Mississippi with a focus on noise, particulate matter, black carbon, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. The study focuses on the town of Gloster, home to one of the wood pellet plants — as well as to 897 people, of whom 71% are black and 39% live in poverty.

Walker’s research team has been collecting water samples from the Gloster site and conducting visits with local participants to gather health information. She presents the data to all of the students in the class, who work together to analyze it and look for patterns.

Collaborating across campuses

For the first part of each two-hour class session, Walker leads a discussion about rural public health. She’s usually on campus at Brown, and the Tougaloo students participate via Zoom. The rest of the session is set up as a data studio in which students work on their research project. At the end, Walker presents an assignment to be completed throughout the week in small groups of students from both institutions. 

The student researchers bring different perspectives, experiences and training to the collaboration. 

Devon Newman, a junior in Brown’s five-year undergraduate/master of public health program, is an intern at the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health and has worked as a teaching assistant for multiple public health classes. Newman’s group is looking at volatile organic compounds, which are air pollutants that can affect human health. For a recent assignment, the group started with longitudinal data provided by Walker and made statistical associations with meteorological conditions — for example, they looked at whether the day of the week has an impact on the amount of VOCs in the atmosphere. 

Newman is overseeing the statistical analyses for his group, and he’s been able to advance his knowledge of the statistical programming language R. He said he typically does more than the assignment requires, such as organizing data and performing additional analyses, because he knows that the information is important to the success of the project. 

“I like to think we're giving Dr. Walker ideas about exploring different associations — maybe she’ll look at our work and think, ‘Oh, that’s something I hadn’t considered.’” Newman said. “It’s live data, as opposed to a data set that a professor made for us to practice with.”

One of the group goals is to unearth insights from the data, he said, to share practices with the community on what they can do to protect themselves from the effects of wood pellet plants, and to inform policy and advocacy efforts focused on regulating the industry.

“Knowing that our work will be put to use makes it a little more stressful than a typical class, because we are aware this has an impact on individuals, on livelihoods,” he said. “But it’s also really interesting and fulfilling.”

Ta’Lynda Boyd, a Tougaloo senior majoring in biology, is another member of the VOC-measuring group. Boyd said she has enjoyed going on field visits to collect data and has liked seeing how the roles of individuals contribute to the success of the group. Rural Public Health is the first public health course she has taken, and she said she appreciated the willingness of her fellow group members to share strategies for working with data and presenting their analyses. Boyd felt it was valuable for her to see how students at another university, in a different geographical area with a different academic culture, approached the same assignment. 

“We got to do the research and bring the data back to [our Brown classmates] and then they asked us questions, like, ‘How did you address that situation?’ ‘What did you all do to go get the data’?” Boyd said. “Then they’d do some analysis and we’d ask them, ‘Well, how did you work that out with the data?’ And then we’d all use that information to come to conclusions together. It just made a whole 360-degree circle that functioned correctly.” 

Tougaloo senior La'Kedric Fultz is part of a group that collected noise measurements in downtown Jackson, as part of a separate project from the Gloster study. Fultz is majoring in biology, and while he has public health research experience from participation in the Jackson Heart Study Scholars Program, he’d never before worked with research-grade sound level meters.

“It was great to get hands-on experience in that way,” Fultz said.

Fultz said that he appreciated that Walker made an effort to bring the Tougaloo students into the class at Brown even though they were Zooming in from Jackson, a time zone behind Providence.

“I think that Dr. Walker did a very good job of making sure that our voices were heard, and that we felt like a part of the class,” Fultz said. “She would often ask us directly to share our opinions with the class… We weren't in the same room with the Brown students, but honestly there wasn’t much of a disconnect.”

Defining rural public health

Walker, who grew up in a rural community outside of Jackson, wants to impart upon the students that rural communities have more in common than their small population sizes: They’re often under-resourced, lacking in infrastructure and vulnerable to climate change, she said, as well as overlooked by health researchers and data scientists.

Walker cited several examples of the challenges of practicing and studying public health in rural areas: What are the public health implications of a town with no zoning, which has allowed the proliferation of industrial activity? What’s the best approach to designing policies that carefully weigh economic development and environmental harm? How can researchers measure and evaluate the respiratory health of community members who live and work near poultry farms? 

“And how do you do this research in the face of limited interest, skepticism and distrust, in cooperation with communities that may have competing priorities?” Walker said “How do you deal with limited internet connectivity? Lack of interest from funders? Lack of physical and data infrastructure?”

Those considerations caught the interest of Pascale Carvalho, a junior at Brown concentrating in music and public health who was eager to put what she’s learned about public health theory into practice in Walker’s course.

“We tend to talk about things like redlining and urban-suburban geographical differences,” Carvalho said. “But there's a completely different health issue and data collection issue that comes with living in a rural area. I didn't really have much background on how health and health services differ by geographic location. In the first two or three sessions of this class, I was able to gain perspective of the intersection that occurs between where you live, and what are your negative health outcomes.”

One way to explain rural public health research to students, Walker said, was to frame it through the lens of an environmental health project — and that’s how she decided to organize the class around the study of the Gloster wood pellet plant and its effects on the health of the local community. 

“I want to inspire students to undertake this type of science and study public health in rural areas like Gloster, which have often been affected by environmental injustices, and also be equipped to handle the challenges they may face,” Walker said. “For students who come from rural communities, I wanted them to see how they can directly and tangibly apply what they have learned in this class to address issues in their own community.”

At the end of the semester, the students will present their findings to the rest of the class as well as to Gloster community members. This summer, two of the students, including Fultz, will present their data analysis at the Mississippi Health Disparities Conference.

“The students in this class are at the forefront of efforts to examine and address this headline-making public health issue,” Walker said. “I think it’s really cool that the Tougaloo and Brown students are getting that experience, and getting involved.”