Kryston receives inaugural environmental justice graduate research award from UNC Institute for the Environment

September 29, 2022

Amy Kryston

Amy Kryston

Amy Kryston, a graduate student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, has been named the inaugural recipient of the environmental justice graduate research award from the UNC Institute for the Environment (IE).

This $50,000 annual stipend is awarded to a UNC graduate student who can demonstrate a research plan that broadens understanding of environmental justice issues in underserved communities in North Carolina. The recipient must conduct research using methods that can be modeled for use beyond the state and is encouraged to partner with other disciplines and communities in their project.

Kryston, who is pursuing a Master of Public Health Degree in global health, will examine septic systems and other on-site sanitation usage and their relationship to health and socioeconomic indicators in rural and underserved communities in N.C., a state where nearly 50% of the population uses on-site sanitation systems, like septic tanks.

“We are especially interested in the health outcomes of unsafe sanitation in the United States,” Kryston explained, “which is why we’ll be looking at acute gastrointestinal illnesses that are likely to be spread in part due to unsafe sanitation.”

Since June 2021, she has been working with Associate Professor Courtney Woods, PhD, as part of the Environmental Justice Action Research Clinic. Their studies have used community-based participatory research methods, which tap into community expertise so that researchers are in continuous conversation with local partners to make the greatest impact.

“Dr. Woods is certainly one of the best people to have on this project, given her connections and experience with community partners,” Kryston said. “By working with her, I’ve been introduced to many local environmental justice issues, including those of air quality in the predominantly Black community of Anderson Township in Caswell County. Working with the dedicated group of community leaders opened my eyes to the insidious nature of environmental injustices and how they are often allowed and promoted at nearly every level, which was instrumental in my interest to better understand the issues surrounding sanitation in N.C.”

Kryston has been able to leverage her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering to study issues of water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) in informal settlements and in fragile, conflicted-affected, and vulnerable areas through a joint internship with the Gillings School’s Humanitarian Health Initiative and the UNC Water Institute. Aaron Salzberg, PhD, director of the Water Institute, connected her to Musa Manga, PhD, an assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering who has long been working in the sanitation space.

“Dr. Woods, Dr. Manga and my faculty mentor, Dr. Joe Brown, are invaluable to this project,” said Kryston. “Through my work with them, I’ve learned that the prevailing sentiment in the U.S and in other high-income countries seems to be that everyone has access to safely managed sanitation, but that’s not quite true. There are so many complicated reasons why, and we’re interested in exploring this further.”

“This program is connected to the IE mission, which is to do environmental research and provide the information generated to the people who need it,” said Mike Piehler, PhD, director at IE and professor of environmental sciences, engineering and marine sciences. “All of that connects back to an imperative to think about environmental justice as a freestanding research topic and increasingly as an element of everything we do. When we are looking to find solutions to environmental problems, we always want to have our eyes on understanding what a just solution might look like.”

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