The rich scent of fresh-cooked fish wafts through Watermen’s Hall on the VIMS campus. PhD student Erica Holloman gently lifts a fish from a frying pan to a small weighing scale. “Salmon patties are my favorite,” says Holloman. But she won’t taste this salmon or any of the other more than 50 pieces of fish, crab, and shrimp that she has carefully weighed, vacuum sealed, and arranged on a display board.
Using the board to conduct interviews, she will begin to understand the risks posed to African-American women by consumption of mercury-tainted seafood.
Frequent trips to the Georgia coast while growing up inspired Holloman to study the natural sciences. Continuing support from family and friends instilled a strong sense of community. “Having come this far in disciplines traditionally under-represented by people of color, it’s imperative to my community and my field that I reach out to the under-served,” says Holloman.
Combing through literature during her first year at VIMS in Dr. Mike Newman’s trace-elements lab, Holloman found that cultural factors influence the amount and kinds of fish and shellfish that people eat, and thus the health risks they face from potential seafood contamination. Analyses of blood and hair demonstrate that African-Americans carry elevated levels of toxic mercury, a contaminant known to build-up in the tissues of bass and other fishes. Realization of this link gave Holloman the focus for her PhD project, as well as a way to give back to the community.
Using the Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) model, Holloman is studying the sources of mercury to African-American women in Newport News, Virginia, an industrialized area on the shores of the James River and Chesapeake Bay. CBPR allows researchers to work with communities to gather data, but most importantly, communicates these results right back to the community using a “bottom-up” approach.
Holloman says, “Working with churches, community centers, and other community organizations, which are established and trusted sources of information, will help me provide localized information regarding seafood consumption and mercury exposure so that people can protect themselves.”
“You can’t do what you don’t know,” she adds. “Information properly communicated can empower people to make healthy decisions.”