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Pioneering work of ASU faculty member wins Harvard environmental health fellowship

Kirk Jalbert portrait

Kirk Jalbert.

November 15, 2018

As a new Arizona State University faculty member, Kirk Jalbert came armed with an array of multidisciplinary experiences and a zeal for exploring how local communities respond to environmental issues. After joining the faculty in June, he was poised to dive into an academic’s traditional quest for funding and support for his research — until opportunity came knocking.

News arrived that Jalbert was awarded a three-year JPB Environmental Health Fellowship from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The program is designed to foster a generation of leaders working on complex environmental health problems in vulnerable communities.

“I’m thrilled with the recognition by the JPB Environmental Health Fellows Program of Kirk’s pioneering work. He is expanding the boundaries of environmental health research,” said Dave Guston, director of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Jalbert’s principal academic home. “His research with communities has opened up new frontiers in understanding the role of public activism in response to environmental threats.”

Jalbert is also appointed in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineeringpart of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. His cross-disciplinary experience includes forays not only into computer science and data analytics, but also into art, science communication, digital storytelling and social justice. Working at the intersection of science and society, Jalbert has been studying public responses to shale gas extraction. He has investigated how people are empowered through citizen science and other forms of data collection activities. In particular, his core question has been: “What does data do and not do for people when they become the producers of data?”

In his prior position at the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, Jalbert also explored data practices in citizen activism. For example, he examined how data transparency and data mapping projects are used to drive changes in environmental oversight.

“Environmental social movements are now able to exist such that you have many pockets of active communities. These are often in very rural areas of America, yet they are mobilizing resources together. It’s fascinating to me how technology plays a role in that mobilization,” he said.

Bolstered by the JPB Environmental Health Fellowship, Jalbert anticipates expanding the range of environmental challenges in his research. He has recently turned his attention to studying movements that emerge around oil and gas pipeline projects.

“Pipelines are very interesting," he said. "You have an infrastructure that people perceive in various ways as producing risk (or not) that can run hundreds of miles across multiple states. You have concerned citizens from broad socioeconomic backgrounds that have common reason to come together. In responding, they bring different kinds of knowledge to the table.”

Jalbert is particularly interested in how advocacy groups have partnered with technical consultants to analyze data and produce their own impact assessments of pipeline projects. He believes these efforts are reshaping the dynamics of power among citizen groups, regulatory agencies and industry.

“The real questions in this are: How do people engage in complex scientific discussions? How do people engage in complex policymaking? And how do you insert local expertise, community values and people's sense of place into the ways in which decisions are made?”

Beyond the financial benefits of the fellowship, Jalbert is looking forward to expanding the boundaries of environmental health research and developing cross-disciplinary collaborations among his cohort of 15 fellows. These efforts will be facilitated by the fellowship program through workshops, mentoring and leadership training, project development assistance and in building relationships with vulnerable communities across the U.S.

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