Through her work with Community Noise Lab, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Erica Walker studies the ways in which water, noise and air pollution impact urban living. She investigates urban pollution in areas affected by environmental injustice and conducts fieldwork in New England and Mississippi.
On Feb. 16, Walker presented her research in a talk, “Measuring Water Quality in the Forgotten Corridor: Case Study of Jackson, Mississippi.” The event was co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the University’s Love Data Week, The Herald previously reported.
During the presentation, Walker described her journey from being an artist in Mississippi suffering from noise pollution to a researcher studying the impacts of noise pollution on public health in New England. She has now expanded her research to study water, air and other forms of pollution in Mississippi as well.
Throughout the talk, she emphasized the need for researchers to listen to the individuals that they’re studying in order to address questions relevant to the needs of that community.
“Working in the Community Noise Lab has shown me that academic research can have real impact if you are willing to listen to what a community really needs,” said Nina Lee, a research assistant in Walker’s Lab.
Ride Sharing Science
“Way before I even became interested in public health, I was an artist working in my studio in a basement apartment,” Walker said in an interview with The Herald. “This family with two small kids moved in above me, and they used to run across their floor — my ceiling — like 24 hours a day.”
In the process of trying to get her neighbors to be more quiet, Walker started researching noise and noise pollution in cities. She discovered that she enjoyed the data collection process and developed a specific interest in how noise impacts health.
“My interest in noise pollution stem(s) from that experience, but it's grown over the years,” Walker said. At the time, “there was really nobody to talk to, no one to take (her research) seriously.” She decided to sell her art supplies and move from Mississippi to Boston to pursue a masters and then a PhD in public health.
After earning her PhD, Walker came to Brown for her postdoctorate and founded the Community Noise Lab to continue her research on urban noise. She began conducting what she referred to as “ride sharing science,” partnering with community interest groups on their specific noise-related issues, ranging from the conversion of a baseball park into a live concert venue to the development of a new power plant, she said.
Walker and the communities she worked with would analyze noise data collected using sound meters, providing “the input necessary to come up with a good neighbor agreement” between the communities and the source of the noise.
“Most of the people who reached out to me to work on these community-based projects were very wealthy, privileged people,” Walker said. Although she enjoyed conducting this research because it allowed her to directly study noise, “I knew that I could move my research in a way where it had more impact by working with people who needed it most.”
“I wanted to go back home and work in Mississippi,” she said. “But I knew I couldn’t come to Mississippi and say ‘hey, we’re going to study noise,’ because there are a lot of other issues … it would seem tone deaf.”
Walker had to pivot to what she calls “storm-chasing science.” Rather than seeking out communities interested in her field of research, she started asking people what issues in their community her research could help address.
“People told me, ‘yeah, we know noise is a problem.’ A lot of the communities here are next to highways or industrial plants or railroads or in agricultural areas that are really loud, but that's not (their) priority. Their first priority is clean water. (Their) second priority is addressing failing infrastructure. And then yeah, we could consider sound as well,’” Walker said.
Walker started researching water quality issues in Jackson, Mississippi by looking at the number of boil water notices per year. Boil water notices are issued when there is high turbidity in the water supply, which “may indicate the presence of disease-causing organisms,” according to the City of Jackson’s website. People have to boil their water before using it to drink, bathe, or even brush their teeth.
“I remember, growing up, there would be boil water notices every now and then, maybe twice a year,” Walker said. When she wrote to the city asking for the total number of boil water notices since 2015, she expected them to give a number in the 15-20 range. Instead, she found out there had been 5,000.
This finding solidified Walker’s decision to conduct water quality research in Jackson.
“I'm not a water expert. I'm not an air pollution expert. I am a noise expert. But I know that having those additional tools will help me better serve the priorities of the community,” Walker said.
Community Noise Lab is currently working with students from two Jackson high schools — Piney Woods High School and Mendenhall High School — to collect 1,000 tap water samples across Jackson and test them for contaminants. Additionally, these students are analyzing boil water notice data to calculate who in the city is most at risk. The students are also beginning to collect noise and air quality measurements for future projects, Walker said.
By comparing boil water notices and water quality data to public health areas of interest such as school attendance, hospitalizations and economic impact, Walker plans to quantitatively assess how low water quality is affecting the citizens of Jackson.
“We want to create a metric, like ‘every time you have a boil water notice students miss this amount of school,’ to kind of put a value to how disruptive boil water notices are,” Walker said.
She is also working with The Senseable City Lab at MIT to create an interactive data visualization people can use to understand their water situation. The Senseable City Lab studies how “data changes the way we live, understand and propose cities,” and uses “data visualization as both science storytelling and civic engagement,” Fabio Duarte, principal research scientist at the Senseable City Lab, wrote in an email to The Herald.
“Dr. Walker’s work combining environmental sciences and social justice is within an area we can contribute (to) by bringing our data- and design-driven approach to tackle urban challenges,” Duarte wrote.
Walker hopes her research will get policy makers to “pay more attention” to water quality issues. Poor water quality will be “harder to ignore when high school students are testing tap water in your community,” Walker said. “And when we have information on how (water quality issues) are impacting school enrollment, it’s even harder to ignore.”
“We can hope that our research will put data into the hands of the people who need it so they have evidence to advocate for their communities,” Lee wrote in an email to the Herald. “Exposure assessments and epidemiology (are) important because it is hard to make (changes) when the facts are still unknown.”
Too often, researchers enter communities “blindly, not really thinking about the needs of the community and weighing them against their own research interests,” Walker said. This contributes to a phenomenon that she calls “academic noise,” where researchers with the best intentions chase the wrong question because they fail to see the bigger picture.
To avoid academic noise, researchers need to listen to the communities they work with by conducting interviews, surveys and going to community meetings to listen to what people have to say. Hearing a wide range of opinions can help researchers determine not only which issues are most pressing, but also which issues are interconnected.
Walker used the issue of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy as an example. “In Mississippi, where there is substantial vaccine hesitancy, it could be that people are just prioritizing other issues … it's more important for them to have their water quality addressed.”
When possible, Walker tries to involve community members directly in her work.
“It's always been important to provide opportunities for people to work on research — people that are traditionally overlooked, but very motivated to participate,” Walker said. As a student growing up in rural Mississippi, she felt like she needed to “escape” to pursue a career in research. By opening her lab to local high school and community college students, Walker provides access to the research opportunities she never had, empowering students to change their communities through science instead of leaving their hometowns. “It's a way to get people to invest in their home,” she added.
“Dr. Walker is incredible to work with,” Lee said. “She thinks big and is devoted to justice in a way that’s very refreshing in academia. Being a very early career researcher, I also really appreciate that she values my ideas and opinions.”