Clean water for all

Environmental crisis in Louisiana leads Christy Craig to study environmental epidemiology

By Anne Riker Garlington

Christy Craig outside portrait
Christy Craig

Christy Craig was inspired to become an environmental epidemiologist when she learned of the horrific environmental health situation in an area known as Cancer Alley.

Located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, Cancer Alley is home to more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries built along the Mississippi River. Blacks and other minorities in the area were subjected to contaminated water, air and waste, resulting in a higher percentage of residents who developed cancer. In addition, the persistence of environmental problems caused many families to be uprooted from their communities. In a report published last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency described high emissions of chemicals linked to cancer in this region, as well as evidence of racial discrimination by state agencies.

After learning about the devastating effects of pollution to the environment and increased prevalence of cancer in the Black community, in addition to concerns of underlying environmental racism, Craig realized she wanted to make an impact by obtaining her Master of Health Science in Environmental and Global Health, with a concentration in One Health, at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions.

“My goal is to study bacterial infections from water sources and find solutions, as well as advance projects that control and prevent diseases, prolong life and promote healthy behaviors across all populations,” Craig said.

Multiple life-changing experiences influenced the future direction for Craig’s career, including implementing research focus groups for a deeper dive into historically Black college students’ perspectives of Africa. The purpose of the project was to foster collaboration with college students in Senegal, amidst political challenges to Pan-Africanism.

That research experience cemented her interest in global health and improving the lives of people who have been marginalized. In addition, as a research assistant at Western Washington University, Craig led the assessment of family planning use in Nigeria, evaluating the effectiveness of existing programs and identifying areas for improvement.

Craig was recently featured on Good Morning America: GMA, for her involvement with The Lighthouse: Black Girl Projects. According to their website, The Lighthouse has a mission to “lift up and empower Black American women across the Southeast, including elementary educational programs and camps to fund clinical research.”

As Craig shared with GMA, The Lighthouse “helped kickstart my dreams, and carried me in so many ways, mentally, financially, transitioning into adulthood.” 

Watch Christy Craig on Good Morning America

She currently serves on The Lighthouse Board of Directors and continues to maintain relationships with the young professional women she met in the program. She is inspired by her fellow collegians from the program, as they helped her to realize people who looked like her from various socioeconomic backgrounds and races can achieve success.

When it came time to pursue her master’s degree, the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions was the only graduate school she applied to, based on its reputation and the successful alumni featured on the PHHP department of environmental and global health website.

After applying to the online program, one of the faculty members reached out to her to share their appreciation for her impressive qualifications and ensure the program was tailored to her interests and long-term goals.

“I was amazed someone at that level would extend themselves to assist me,” Craig said. “In addition, my advisor, Dr. Sarah McKune has been very supportive and made me feel like it’s possible to pursue my goals.”

She expects to graduate in spring 2024 and has applied for an internship to study in Tanzania in January. Craig hopes to include that experience and research in her capstone project for her last semester.

After graduation, she hopes to continue to inspire other young women to seek careers in STEM through her work with The Lighthouse. She would like to further her career by working in an industry setting so she can help bridge the gap between scientific, medical and governmental communities.

“I’m interested in understanding biological, chemical and physical stresses so that I can help create changes to improve the lives of all people,” she said. In addition, “I’d like to work for an organization such as the CDC, as it is one of the most notable public health organizations in the world.”