Dr. Jennifer Carrera featured by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

January 25, 2022

Dr. Jennifer Carrera, Assistant Professor of Sociology, was awarded a NIEHS-funded Transition to Independent Environmental Health Research (TIEHR) Career Award to pursue her work in Flint, Michigan. This profile of Dr. Carrera was published as a 2022 Grantee Highlight on Jan. 24, 2022.

Dr. Jennifer CarrearJennifer Carrera, Ph.D. – Joining Forces With Communities to Bridge Gaps in Public Health

NIEHS grantee Jennifer Carrera, Ph.D., works with communities experiencing environmental injustices surrounding inadequate water and sanitation systems to understand and address health risks.

While earning her master’s degree in sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Carrera became aware of the disparities in the resources communities had to properly manage their waste based on race and other social factors.

“These observations piqued my interest, and I began to ask questions about water, sanitation, and communities of color,” she said. “While clearly grounded in social causes, sociological methods offered little in the way of solutions. So, I went on to study engineering while completing my Ph.D. in sociology so I could focus on the complex dynamics between drivers of impaired access to water and sanitation, such as environmental racism, and solutions.”

Finding Solutions to Sanitation Issues
Carrera shared how some existing engineering solutions for water issues were too expensive for the communities who needed them. Others, such as the low-cost latrines used in international communities, she explained, are inappropriate for marginalized communities in the United States. There is a cultural expectation of indoor plumbing.

“Sociology offers an understanding of why problems exist, but not how to solve them, whereas engineering provides solutions to problems without understanding the root causes of why they exist,” she explained. “I decided to focus on building a bridge between these two areas to think about problems and solutions with a multi-dimensional view to create new solutions.”

Since starting as an assistant professor at Michigan State University, Carrera has focused her research on developing low-cost technologies to address the water quality and access problems that local communities struggle with. She was awarded a NIEHS-funded Transition to Independent Environmental Health Research (TIEHR) Career Award to pursue this work in Flint, Michigan.

Centering Community Perspectives in Research
The heart of Carrera’s work is supporting communities’ goals to access the information they need to address water and sanitation injustices. Before submitting the TIEHR proposal, the team working on Carrera’s current project in Flint held focus groups with community members. They wanted to understand residents’ priorities and expertise from their firsthand experience responding to the public health crisis.

“We use an approach called Listening-Dialogue-Action. The first step is to listen to community members about what is happening in their community, see what questions they have about their environment and health, and talk about what solutions they would like to see put in place,” she said.

Carrera pointed out how the critical role of Flint community residents in raising awareness and organizing change surrounding water management is often passed over.

“Not enough credit has been given to Flint residents whose raised voices galvanized the national conversation on discriminatory, inadequate water infrastructure and the need for environmental justice,” she stressed. “It’s the community organizing and speaking that raised awareness about what was happening in Flint. We owe a debt to the residents of Flint for all of their hard work which elevated the conversation on lead in water and aging infrastructure to the national conversation it is today.”

Through the preliminary focus groups, the team learned that the community members were more interested in how the information would be shared than in developing new, cheaper testing tools to measure contaminants in their water. They wanted communication tools to share information within the community.

As a result, the team shifted its focus in the proposal, and ultimately the project, to working with community members to develop a mobile application to promote environmental health literacy and share water quality data.

A New Model for Community Driven Research
In addition to the focus groups, Carrera’s team is working to model and apply their vision of true community-driven research.

“Our research leadership team includes me and six Flint residents, who are fully co-researchers in every aspect of the project. My goal is to work towards building pathways for academic scholars to support the research inquiries of community scientists.”

She explained how their partnership works as a collective to advance research while also building capacity within the community.

“One of the key pillars of our model is creating a program for mentoring and training academic researchers to engage in reflexive listening and support racial healing for communities,” she said. “Our goal is to create a network of skilled investigators that communities can call on for specific environmental justice concerns, and we hope to continually grow that network in the future.”