UAB’s first cohort of Gulf Scholars explores ways to help region thrive

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Olivia BlantonOlivia Blanton, a junior working toward a master's degree in public health, also has a minor in engineering. Blanton is part of the first UAB cohort of the Gulf Scholars Program, which is allowing her to explore her interest in architectural epidemiology or "how buildings affect our health," she said.

STEVE WOOD | University Relations
After a hurricane, people may be thankful to just have a roof over their heads, but what if the walls were as dangerous as the winds?

“There have been several cases of toxic black mold growing in FEMA trailers,” said Olivia Blanton, a junior in the UAB School of Public Health’s Accelerated Bachelor’s to Master’s of Public Health Program who is minoring in Engineering World Health in the School of Engineering. “Additionally, several disaster housing units are plagued by the woes of modern construction,” such as “formaldehyde off gas.”

Blanton is fascinated with an emerging field known as architectural epidemiology, which studies “how buildings affect our health,” she said. She first came across the concept in the books “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery and “The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health and Happiness” by Emily Anthes. The term architectural epidemiology was coined by Adele Houghton, an architect and doctoral candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who is now writing a book on the topic.

Architectural epidemiology is “especially implicated with health in the Gulf region, particularly as it pertains to disaster-resilient structures,” Blanton said. “Is it possible that post-disaster housing — such as those in relief camps like ones constructed by FEMA — could be more harmful than the event that drove people to them?”

Gulf Scholars involves students in research

Blanton, an Alabama native from Madison, just outside Huntsville, is also a member of the Global and Community Leadership Honors Program, a specialized program in the UAB Honors College. She wants to earn her doctorate in environmental science and eventually work at a nonprofit such as the Southern Environmental Law Center or a policy center such as UAB’s own Lister Hill Center for Public Health Policy. But she already has an opportunity to make an impact in her home state, thanks to an innovative program funded by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. UAB was one of the first seven institutions selected to participate in the Gulf Scholars Program, announced in October 2020 as a pilot program from the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program. The participating institutions are funded through a five-year, $12.7 million grant from the National Academies.

“This was born out of conversations the National Academies had on how to get students more involved in these research projects,” said Jeffrey Wickliffe, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health. Wickliffe and Amy Chatham, Ph.D., assistant professor in Environmental Health Sciences, lead the Gulf Scholars Program at UAB with program manager Meena Nabavi. “This is solely focused on the Gulf and the unique nature of problems we have in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico,” Wickliffe said. The Gulf Scholars Program is housed in the UAB Honors College with the approval of Dean Shannon Blanton, Ph.D. (no relation to Olivia Blanton). The effort has also been in part a collaboration with the School of Engineering with the help of Dean Jeffrey Holmes, M.D., Ph.D.

rep gulf scholars dauphin island 2017 STEVE WOOD 1000pxThe Gulf Scholars Program "is solely focused on the Gulf and the unique nature of problems we have in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico,” said Jeffrey Wickliffe, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health.

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A commitment to interdisciplinary learning

Blanton is one of four students in the first cohort of the Gulf Scholars Program at UAB. Joining her are Jaiden Hatch and Grace Williams, both part of the Personalized Path in the Honors College; and Sonoka Deguchi, who, like Blanton, is a member of the Global and Community Leadership Honors Program specialized program in the Honors College.

When Blanton heard about the Gulf Scholars Program and its mission to prepare undergraduates to address pressing environmental, health, energy and infrastructure challenges in the Gulf of Mexico region, she was eager to take part. “Since starting at UAB, I have been committed to the concept of interdisciplinary and intersectional learning as the next wave of the future,” Blanton said. “I saw Gulf Scholars as a way to do so at UAB and beyond. I loved that it presented an opportunity to connect with students and faculties from other universities.”

In addition to coursework that delves into issues in the Gulf of Mexico, students pair with a mentor to design and implement a Gulf Impact Project that relates to one of the Gulf Research Program’s core focus areas of community health and resilience, environmental protection and stewardship, and offshore energy safety. The projects are meant to be an “out-of-UAB experience,” Chatham said. Students can identify a mentor at one of UAB’s many existing community partners, or a community partner affiliated with the University of South Alabama, which was part of the second group of Gulf Scholars universities. “We really want to facilitate students who can connect anywhere in the state of Alabama,” Chatham said. “This is a great opportunity for students who want to make a difference in their communities.”

rep gulf cahaba river STEVE WOOD 1000pxJaiden Hatch, another member of the first Gulf Scholars cohort, studied the Cahaba River as a tool for economic empowerment in the Black Belt.

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A river empowering residents in the Black Belt

Jaiden Hatch, a senior who is also part of the Accelerated Bachelor’s to Master’s in Public Health Program, chose to study community attitudes toward the Cahaba River in the Black Belt region of Alabama. Her mentor is Myra Crawford, Ph.D., of the environmental nonprofit Cahaba Riverkeeper — herself a UAB alumna and former director of Research in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Heersink School of Medicine. Using a tool called community asset mapping, Hatch and Crawford asked residents of the Black Belt to answer such questions as “Can the Cahaba River be used as a tool for economic and social empowerment in the Black Belt?” and “Can increasing a community’s value, appreciation and pride in a natural resource, such as the Cahaba River, increase overall community development and health?” Hatch’s impact project will culminate in a report of her findings that she will share with various community members and organizations.

“Through this program, I’ve connected with local organizations that all act as an extension of the community, and then also connected with professors who taught at higher academic institutions in the region,” Hatch noted during a presentation of her work at the first virtual meeting of the Gulf Scholars Program institutions in fall 2022. “I’ve really learned a lot from them, and I hope to continue learning from them.”

In March 2023, Blanton and Deguchi had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans for the program’s first in-person conference. Blanton said she was pleasantly surprised “by the level of passion that each attendee held. We all seemed to share the same valuing of advocacy and research as tools to save the Gulf region. Additionally, the ability to connect with students from other universities face to face was invaluable.”

Hosting this first meeting of Gulf Scholars in New Orleans was a perfect choice, Blanton added, “as the city could be considered ‘ground zero’ for so many points of environmentalism for the Gulf, including offshore oil, the chemical industry, rising sea levels and natural disaster destruction.”

“We really want to facilitate students who can connect anywhere in the state of Alabama. This is a great opportunity for students who want to make a difference in their communities.”
—Amy Chatham, Ph.D., assistant professor in Environmental Health Sciences

Second cohort starting soon

The Gulf Scholars Program at UAB recently finished recruiting for its second cohort (none of whom are majoring in Public Health and Engineering, Chatham points out). Students can “apply at any time, but we are ideally looking for students in their sophomore and junior years,” Chatham said. Funding is available to assist with Impact Projects and travel to the program conferences. Chatham developed a one-credit course, Historical and Contemporary Environmental Issues of the Gulf South; but many of the other curricular requirements can be met by classes that students have already taken. “This is very co-curricular,” Chatham said. For instance, “students can use their Impact Project as a directed study if they want to get credit for it.”

“In setting this up, we tried to not add a whole other layer” of coursework, Wickliffe added. “The team has scanned the existing curriculum to see what plugs in well to this program across all the different majors. Students can look and say, ‘Oh, I’ve already taken three classes that qualify.’ We want them to spend more time on their projects. A lot of our students are from Alabama, and they are thinking about the future of the state. This is really connecting them to their place and their responsibility as residents.”