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Southern Campus students earn high honors at Research Expo

When the spring Student Research Expo was held at the Athens campus, Southern campus students who competed came away with two top awards: First Place in the Appalachian Rural Health Institute and First Place in the Regional Campus category. The topic: Wild and Wonderful: Risk Communication and Socio-economic Consequences of the West Virginia Chemical Spill.

(From left) Amelia Wilson, Nicole Mollica, Purba Das, Sarah Dillon and Allison Williamson are seen at Ohio University’s Student Research Expo.

In January of 2014, more than 300,000 residents living near Charleston, West Virginia awakened to the startling news that their tap water supply was contaminated following a massive chemical spill at nearby Freedom Industries, a company situated along the Elk River that processed and stored chemicals used in the coal industry.
As news of the disaster spread across the region and the country, one thing was certain: getting accurate information was a challenge. At the time, Dr. Purba Das, assistant professor of communication studies at the Southern campus, saw an opportunity to provide her health communications students with a real-world example of how a situation such as this can go from bad to worse overnight.
After applying for and securing the prestigious Ohio University Provost Undergraduate Research Fund grant to underwrite the student research project, Dr. Das wanted her students to dissect the communication elements of what went so wrong. “It seemed that there were so many problems from the beginning and it only got worse with each passing day. We all wanted to know how this could happen and what health issues could result from those who had used the contaminated water without knowing,” said Dr. Das.
As faculty advisor, Dr. Das wanted the students to use the opportunity as a case study for research. When students Sarah Dillon, Nicole Mollica, Allison Williamson, and Amelia Wilson began the eight-month research effort, they knew some of what had transpired, but were surprised by the critical mistakes made early on. Add to that the perspectives of many of the people who live near the Elk River area who rely on the jobs that the chemical companies provide, often at great risk to their health and safety.  This was not a simple task.
For days and weeks that followed, amidst speculation that what was really going on involved some sort of conspiracy to protect violators of environmental regulations by withholding or misrepresenting details of the incident, people simply lost confidence in the company and government representatives who were supposed to protect them. Many people made trips to the emergency rooms of area hospitals to address symptoms of sickness related to the spill.