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Environmental Scientist Eri Saikawa Takes Lessons from Lead Contamination Crisis to Help Tackle the Next, COVID-19

Eri Saikawa
Eri Saikawa.

The coronavirus pandemic has not only changed how environmental science Professor Eri Saikawa conducts her classes, but also what she teaches.

This term at Emory University, the research she and her students were doing on soil contamination in an economically struggling Atlanta neighborhood was halted because of the coronavirus lockdown.

“The reason we got this heavy metal project going was because we found out that there's no regulation to test the soil before you grow food. And I thought that was worrisome, with so much urban gardening. We found a lot of lead contamination,” Saikawa says.

But now, because of COVID-19, “We cannot do any kind of soil testing anymore at the community level,” she says.

Across the country, shelter-in-place orders are forcing millions of students and professors like Saikawa to slow or halt their research and adapt to online classes. Saikawa decided to use her expertise in lead contamination, air pollution and climate change, in her COVID-19-altered curriculum. She says she has changed her class midterm and final projects that were supposed to happen with community members, to be a project that's related to COVID.

“We can put out information that's hopefully useful to the community, looking at the link between air quality and climate change because of COVID,” says Saikawa.

Saikawa and her students are producing virtual conferences and videos. They will focus on topics including how African American and Hispanic populations are often more vulnerable to both the dangers of air pollution and to COVID-19. Her students are also working with local church leaders, a critical component of trusted communication in the neighborhood. And that’s just a start.

“We will be reaching out to the Georgia Department of Public Health, and different stakeholders that could hopefully use our results to change their current [lead contamination] standards,” she says.          

For Saikawa, the connection between environmental issues and COVID-19 helps put the spotlight on social problems. Her research is quickly pivoting so infectious disease experts and climate change scientists can work together in protecting human health. 

“I never really thought about how air pollution could potentially impact the severity of COVID, but it does really make sense. I've started talking with my colleague, Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, (who is) working on mosquito-borne diseases. [Those] diseases would most likely be very much impacted by climate change as well, and so if we can try to work together on the spatial analysis based off of this COVID case; then thinking about how that would relate to different infectious diseases, and think about links that we weren't really seeing before,” Saikawa says.

Saikawa is well versed in confronting difficult challenges. She says it began in her childhood, when she first became interested in STEM.

“I was not in an academic family at all, and I was always told that I shouldn't do science,” says Saikawa says. “The reason I pursued science in a way is because I was told I shouldn't, because I was such a rebel,” she laughed.  “Everybody was telling me that it's not for girls.”

Getting her community involved, especially young people, remains a focus for Saikawa. For several years Saikawa and her students reached out to young people at the Atlanta Science Festival. But in 2020, many events were canceled when lockdown and social distancing orders took effect. She says volunteer events like these are important in inspiring future scientists, for instance, by showing them how air pollution sensors work.

Storytelling is another vehicle for science communication Saikawa has found helpful. Especially when dealing with two crises at once; COVID-19 and climate change.

Saikawa says she and her students are modifying future environmental projects because of knowledge and warnings already gained from the human toll of this pandemic. While brainstorming with two students from Puerto Rico, she says they were worried that the island is not in any way prepared for climate change and saw parallels to some of the missteps of the coronavirus response.

“They started digging, and when they presented [their projects] it was so powerful. The two students were able to tell science through their own personal stories. And I thought, that’s what we probably want in current education.”

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