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Kathleen Gray, Ph.D. – Improving Environmental Risk Communication Through Interdisciplinary Collaborations

May 6, 2022 woman smiling

Kathleen Gray, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) has long held a passion for increasing understanding of environmental exposures in communities affected by contamination.

After completing her undergraduate degree, she worked with community-based organizations in southern Louisiana that were responding to contamination from nearby chemical and petroleum industries. Gray was part of a team that collected and analyzed water and soil to understand the extent of exposure. While working alongside community leaders to share results in public meetings, Gray discovered a passion for communicating about environmental health risk and facilitating dialogue on how to respond.

“My work in Louisiana was a springboard into risk communication and stakeholder engagement,” says Gray. “Now, after decades of working in North Carolina communities, and with academic training in science education, I find myself being called on to advise environmental science colleagues about how to communicate the implications of their research findings to community members.”

Team Player

Reflecting on her career, Gray is most proud of the team she works within the Center for Public Engagement with Science.

The team began with three people, including Frances Lynn, Dr.PH., who founded the Environmental Resource Program (the CPES precursor) in 1985. Lynn was a leader in community-engaged research and a mentor to Gray. The team has since grown to eight permanent staff and many temporary and student positions.

“It’s not about the numbers, it’s about supporting people who have a real impact in communities. I feel lucky to work with this amazing team of educators and researchers in North Carolina, and throughout the national SRP network as well” says Gray.

Today, Gray leads the Community Engagement Cores at the NIEHS-funded Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center and Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility (CEHS) at UNC, where she continues innovating environmental health risk communication for diverse communities.

“The UNC SRP brings biomedical, environmental, and social scientists together to conduct research that addresses complex environmental challenges related to toxic metals in drinking water and fish, while the CEHS focuses on asthma, lead and healthy homes, and environmental cancers,” she explains. “These are important issues for our communities in North Carolina.”

Together these teams develop outreach and educational materials to help communities better understand how the environment can affect their health. Community resources include mapping tools, infographics, and educational activities.

“Scientists may not have experienced living in a community where their health is threatened by the environment, so empathy is very important,” Gray says. “Engaging communities and key stakeholders throughout the research process ensures our research is relevant while improving scientific understanding and communications about these difficult issues.”

Broadening Understanding of Environmental Concerns for Maternal and Child Health

One of the groups Gray works with is the fishing community in North Carolina. Lakes in the area may contain contaminants that end up in the fish people eat, which can be especially concerning for women of childbearing age and children because they can cross the placenta and contaminate breast milk which can affect brain and other development.

fishing rod on side of boat with a coastline of trees and a sunrise

Some lakes in North Carolina are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, a group of chemicals associated with skin conditions, diabetes, cancer, neurological toxicity, and other health effects, and methylmercury.

In one study, Gray and colleagues assessed how well fish consumption advisory signs alerted anglers to these contaminants in the Badin Lake area using focus groups with English- and Spanish-speaking anglers.

“We found that while men were not the most at risk, they were sharing fish with the most at-risk groups,” Gray explains. “If we had not asked them about both their perceptions and their habits, we would have missed that they were giving fish to women and children in the community. Asking the anglers about their children, grandchildren, and other family members they shared fish with helped them realize the personal relevance of the advisories.”

Expanding the Definition of Environmental Health Literacy

Gray’s work with anglers exemplifies a core tenet of the expanded understanding of environmental health literacy (EHL) she and others are establishing: a version that includes collective action and community change.

Three dimensions of environmental health literacy.

Three dimensions of environmental health literacy.
(Figure from Kathleen Gray, Ph.D., 2018)

As an emerging framework, EHL is often described as an individual’s ability to connect environmental exposures to their health. Gray sees value in taking a broader view by expanding this idea to include community change as a dimension of EHL and exploring ways to measure it in her work.

“Focusing on one person’s knowledge and decisions could help that one person, but if that’s the only lens we have, we miss opportunities to make widespread change,” reflects Gray. “Looking across a community opens us up to making changes that have far-reaching benefits. That’s why I’m committed to broadening our understanding of EHL and thinking creatively about how to measure it.”

Gray and collaborators developed and tested an EHL tool to evaluate people’s understanding of toxic metals in well water. They explored how EHL depends on context and examined participants’ beliefs about with EHL.

“Early EHL measurement tools tended to focus on a person’s knowledge. For example, whether they could connect an exposure to a health outcome after being given some information,” Gray explains. “But if we know more about their health beliefs and the local community dynamics, we can better understand what might influence them to take action toward safer, healthier environments.”

Teaching and Learning from the Next Generation

Gray and her SRP colleagues enjoy working alongside North Carolinians of all ages, especially young people. With UNC SRP team member Sarah Yelton, M.S., Gray is leading two National Science Foundation-funded projects to engage youth who are underrepresented in STEM to develop local solutions for environmental impacts in their communities. Insights from other SRP teams have led to new approaches to this work.

“The value of SRP is being able to learn from a network that has experience with projects like ours,” she explains. “In our program, Sarah, our colleague Andrew George, Ph.D., and I have been in active conversation with colleagues in the Dartmouth SRP Center to learn how they used citizen science approaches with high school classes to monitor local well water quality. Harnessing the SRP network to create programs that are meaningful and personalized for our youth motivates them to take action in their communities.”

Gray and colleagues Ilona Jaspers, Ph.D., who leads the UNC SRP Research Experience and Training Coordination Core, and Antonio Baines, Ph.D., an associate professor at North Carolina Central University, collaborated to create research experiences in environmental health sciences for students underrepresented in STEM through the NIEHS-funded 21st Century Environmental Health Scholars.

“It’s a year-long program that gives students a chance to conduct research in a supportive lab setting and creates pathways for diverse people to enter this field,” says Gray. “We cannot solve the environmental health problems we are facing if our teams are not diverse and interdisciplinary.”