ESE’s MacDonald Gibson awarded RWJF grant to study water and health disparities in NC

January 08, 2013
Dr. Jackie MacDonald Gibson

Dr. Jackie MacDonald Gibson

Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, PhD, has received one of this year’s four prestigious Health Systems and Services Research Mentored Research Scientist Development Awards, presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to emerging researchers who examine the effects of public health services on population health.

MacDonald Gibson, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at Gillings School of Global Public Health at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, will study disparities in public water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) service access, including the roles of race and socio-economic status, how lack of access contributes to health disparities and resulting health and economic costs, policy and institutional barriers that perpetuate WASH disparities, and potential solutions and benefits.

A central focus of the project will be the historically African-American Rogers Road/Eubanks neighborhood in Chapel Hill, N.C. A landfill located in the community has resulted in health risks for the residents, and many of the community’s homes still lack access to municipal water, sewer and other town services. The Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and its student organization, Engineers Without Borders, have been longtime data-gatherers and advocates for the neighborhood.

“This funding allows us to find ways to resolve a longstanding and thorny problem in North Carolina, continuing UNC’s tradition of conducting research in the service of the health of North Carolinians,” MacDonald Gibson said. “I’m thrilled to be granted this opportunity to help improve lives of disenfranchised citizens of our state.”

MacDonald Gibson’s mentors on the project are Jamie Bartram, PhD, Holzworth Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering and director of The Water Institute at UNC, and Jeffrey Engel, MD, executive director of The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and former North Carolina State Health Director (2009-2012). Both applaud her work to address inequities in the delivery of public services, particularly those involving water and sanitation.

“Inequality is a fundamental issue in public health,” Bartram said, “and inequality in drinking water access has become a major international policy issue since the United Nations General Assembly’s formal recognition of the human right to water and sanitation in 2010. [Jackie’s] work brings together her own proven skills with other work at UNC on water inequality and its measurement to look at practical ways to increase access to essential health-protecting services for needy populations. It tackles real, on-the ground problems in North Carolina and points to approaches of value across the nation and countries worldwide.”

Engel agrees. “It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century, gross inequities remain in the basic public health services of access to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation,” he said. “The legacy of slavery and Jim Crowism resulted in systematic exclusion of African-American communities to municipal utilities throughout the South. Dr. MacDonald’s project will provide real-world awareness and community engagement and solutions. Importantly, the local project results can be generalized across the state, the U.S. and in communities around the world.”

The two-year, $100,000 grant, administered by the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Services and Systems Research, housed at The University of Kentucky College of Public Health and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was established to produce timely evidence to guide decisions by public health practitioners and policy makers, while enabling early-career investigators to develop skills and establish independent careers in public health services and systems research.

Others who received this year’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation development award include:

  • Holly Jarman, PhD, research assistant professor of health management and policy and in the Center for Law, Ethics and Health in the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, for a project on collaborative governance to support exchange of public health-relevant data;
  • Thaddeus Miller, DrPH, assistant professor of health policy and management and of medicine at The University of North Texas Health Sciences Center, for an economic analysis to identify value and priority in domestic public tuberculosis control; and
  • Jenine Harris, PhD, assistant professor of public health in Washington University in St. Louis’ Brown School of Social Work, to develop the evidence base for social media use in public health.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing the U.S. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable and timely change. For 40 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. For more information, visit

About the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Services and Systems Research (PHSSR)
The goal of the National Coordinating Center is to grow the field of PHSSR by coordinating current PHSSR investments, supporting real-world applications, and strengthening the capacity of researchers and practitioners. The Center also works to determine the future direction of the field’s research initiatives, translate that research into practice, increase the visibility of the work and attract other funders to the field. For more information, visit



UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or