Catawba Cover Photo

Mission

Ecological and Human Health in Rural Communities (EHHRC) partners work to understand the relationships between social arrangements and  ecological systems in order to advance the well-being of rural communities.

Vision

A world in which human flourishing is supported by thriving ecological communities.

About

Despite widespread recognition of health inequities and considerable evidence linking human activities to ecological health, very little research directly links human health and ecological integrity in rural environments. Building on existing interdisciplinary strengths in engineering, geography, cultural studies, and public health, researchers are pursuing urgent unanswered questions regarding the linkages between humans’ well-being and the conditions of the broader ecologies and social structures they inhabit in rural areas.

Education, research, and engagement activities will focus initially on Central Appalachia, simultaneously known for its unique ecological richness and dramatic landscapes, as well as intensifying health disparities that cannot be fully explained by socio-behavioral factors. As the initiative grows, activities will expand to rural communities worldwide, potentially collaborating with Virginia Tech's ongoing initiatives and investments in India, China, Malawi, and Ecuador.

Guiding Questions

Our specific research questions include:

  1. Are ecological health indicators, such as species diversity, predictors of human health in nearby communities, and vice versa?
  2. How do long-term exposures to different combinations of environmental contaminants, combined with structural inequalities, affect human and ecological health?
  3. How can researchers and educators connect with communities to inform and support their decision-making, and strengthen the opportunity for residents to influence research priorities, policy, and education?
Study Area Map

According to the National Healthcare Quality & Disparities Report (2017):

  1. Life expectancy for U.S. residents decreases as the level increases.
  2. The causes of death contributing most to lower life expectancy in rural areas include: heart disease, unintentional injuries, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, stroke, suicide, and diabetes.

"Morality rates due to colorectal cancer, lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are significantly elevated in Central Appalachia as compared to the United States as a whole and cannot be explained by socio-behavioral factors alone."

- Krometis et al, "Environmental Health Concerns and Disparities in the Central Appalachain Region of the United States," Reviews on Environmental Health (2017)

Yokum sampling

The EHHRC team envisions a curriculum that builds upon at least three new Pathways minors: Pathways to Sustainability, Civic Agriculture and Food Systems, and Appalachian Cultures and Environments. We seek resources to support courses that promote citizen science and community-engaged learning across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Our program leverages Virginia Tech’s renown in science and engineering, its growing public health stature, its increasing number of international partnerships, and its geographic location in order to attract students to pursue studies at the intersection of ecological, societal, and human health within the College of Natural Resources and Environment, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Zelphia and Judy

The EHHRC team emerged in part in response to Appalachian community members’ requests to know more about the relationship between environmental exposures and the health of their extended families and social networks. Successfully meeting the EHHRC goals requires our engagement with local knowledge and experience via multi-directional community dialogue and community based participatory action research.

 

PILOT STUDY: TAZEWELL COUNTY, VA

Jerry White

How does environmental landscape change shape community and ecological health in the Central Appalachian coalfields?

In Summer 2016, concept team members collected oral histories centered around land use, environment and health from 14 Tazewell County residents. The researchers combined the oral histories with land use and land cover data to identify critical time points and development activities where changes in the local environment were most likely to impact ecological and human health.

The project demonstrated the synergistic value of collecting local and experiential knowledge via oral histories in conjunction with remote sensing data analysis to assist in more fully interpreting environmental monitoring and health records.

Paul Angermeier

Paul Angermeier
Professor
Fish & Wildlife Conservation

Deb Dickerson

Deb Dickerson
Associate Professor
Myers-Lawson School of Construction

Rebecca Hester

Rebecca Hester
Associate Professor
College of Liberal Arts & Human Sciences

Linsey Marr

Linsey Marr
Professor
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Emily Satterwhite

Emily Satterwhite
Associate Professor
Religion and Culture,
Appalachian Studies

Samarth Swarup

Samarth Swarup
Research Assistant Professor
Network Dynamics & Simulation Laboratory

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson
Faculty of Health Sciences, Neuroscience

Susan Clark

Susan Clark
Associate Professor
Horticulture

Julia Gohlke

Julia Gohlke
Associate Professor
Population Health Sciences

Korine Kolviras

Korine Kolivras
Associate Professor
Geography

Shyam Ranganathan

Shyam Ranganathan
Associate Professor
Statistics

Stephen Shoenholtz

Stephen Schoenholtz
Director
Water Resources Research Center

Terry Swecker

Terry Swecker
Associate Professor
Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences

Did you know?

  • 3.4 billion people live in rural areas worldwide, but research funding tends to focus on high-density populations.

  • Over 72% of land in the United States is in rural counties, which are overwhelmingly responsible for meeting the food, water and energy needs of the nation.