Ashley Collier-Oxandale – Reflections on Taking Part in Community-Based Science as a Graduate Student

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By Ashley Collier-Oxandale

This blog is part of Students in Community Science, a series of Thriving Earth Exchange articles featuring students who have had internship, educational or volunteer experiences in community science.

 

Several years ago, I began working on a Thriving Earth Exchange project with Taking Neighborhood to Heart (TNH2H), a nonprofit in Northeast Denver. The community was interested in several questions regarding their local air quality, so together we narrowed the questions down and planned a project. This project included collecting data on indoor air pollutants, analyzing this data together and determining next steps.

Among the results of the pilot project, we found high levels of radon in more homes than expected and a general lack of awareness around the importance of testing for radon and acting to reduce levels in the home. Given these results we decided to continue and expand the project. Currently, we are in the third iteration of this project and supported by an Environmental Justice Small Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Through these different iterations, I have transitioned from a role leading the project to one as a scientific advisor, allowing me to gain a more thorough understanding of community-based science. This work with TNH2H and Thriving Earth Exchange has made me confident that I will be able to incorporate the principles of community-based science into my work during my professional career.

Beginning this project with TNH2H and Thriving Earth Exchange early in my graduate school career was particularly beneficial as it helped to shape my work throughout school and lead me to the next stage of my career. This project helped me to build the skills useful for this type of work, while I was simultaneously building the knowledge and skills required for my degree program. In addition to ongoing work with TNH2H, these skills lent themselves to my other research projects. For example, I received the opportunity to work with community-based organizations in Los Angeles and what I learned from my work on this Thriving Earth Exchange project helped to enable my other projects to be successful. Following the completion of my PhD I was lucky enough to be offered a position working with a regulatory agency, in which I will be able to both continue my research into low-cost air quality monitoring technologies and support community outreach and engagement.

Something that has continually surprised me throughout this work is that we, as scientists, have more skills and broader knowledge than we realize (e.g., reviewing/translating scientific literature and reports, or grant writing and project planning, or even connections to other researchers able to assist with different questions communities might have), and it is possible to use these skills and resources to support community-based work in a meaningful way even while conducting more conventional research. Not only is it possible, but it’s also worthwhile – this work has strengthened my skills as a scientist. It has kept the applicability of my work at the forefront of my mind and challenged me to improve my communication skills. Participating in community-based science has also helped me to see my work in a larger context, as often your community partner working on or at least thinking about a variety of issues affecting their community, beyond your project and area of expertise. For any students interested in community-based science, I would urge them to find a way to get involved early on. I think this will help them to identify the ways in which they are best suited to support community-based science during their graduate work and beyond.

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