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Emory addresses global problems as part of Atlanta-based collaborative
Rebecca Philipsborn and Cassandra White

Rebecca Philipsborn (left) of Emory and Cassandra White of Georgia State were co-principal investigators on a project studying migration and climate change. Their work was funded through the Atlanta Global Research & Education Collaborative.

It’s an ingenious idea: identify large-scale global challenges and demonstrate how to solve them here in Atlanta. That’s what the Atlanta Global Research & Education Collaborative (AGREC) has been doing since its launch in 2020.

“At Emory, the story begins with our commitment to partner with other Atlanta institutions to mobilize global change,” says Philip Wainwright, vice provost for global strategy and initiatives. With the launch of our strategic framework in 2018 envisioning ‘Atlanta as a Gateway to the World,’ we focused on ways Emory could leverage its strengths in research and education by building up and creating new partnerships around the city.”

The Global Studies Center, a partnership between Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University, administers AGREC, which also includes Agnes Scott College, Spelman College and Kennesaw State University. The work being done has broad disciplinary range, often involving immigration and refugee populations. 

For those receiving grants in the program’s first three cycles, the key term is “collaborative.” AGREC allows for richer research pathways by bringing together faculty and students at member institutions as well as community partners. 

Probing the effects of climate change on Atlanta migrant communities

Rebecca Philipsborn is an Emory-educated pediatrician who treats patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, an assistant professor in the Emory University School of Medicine and a director of Emory’s Resilience and Sustainability Collaboratory. Also a founder of Georgia Clinicians for Climate Action, Philipsborn believes that “the health of people and the planet are intertwined.”

“When I first decided to work on climate change,” says Philipsborn, “there were very few pediatricians in this area, and now there are many. It has been amazing to care for patients in a clinical setting, teach and do research — and, in all of these roles, contribute to greater awareness of climate change.”

A colleague of Philipsborn, Jessica Fairley, an associate professor at the Rollins School of Public Health, connected her to Cassandra White, an associate professor of anthropology at Georgia State, who also counts among her research interests migration and health. Fairley knew of AGREC’s grant system, and soon Philipsborn and White became co-principal investigators on a climate project funded through the program in 2021–2022.

By 2050, 143 million people will be displaced in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, and the vulnerability of these populations may persist or worsen upon relocation. In other words, those who have contributed least to the problem will experience the greatest effects. Migration from Latin America to the U.S. has increased during the past few decades for reasons that now include climate change.

“Although economic factors are often given as the main drivers of migration from Latin America to the U.S., this is often an oversimplification,” says White. “Through this project in particular, we have been able to consider how climate change can intersect with other factors that affect health and well-being and that can influence decision making for people who leave their home countries.”

Hearing from those affected

In addition to White and Philipsborn, the team consisted of Fairley; Uriel Kitron, Goodrich C. White Professor of Environmental Sciences in Emory College of Arts and Sciences; Emory students Morgan Lane, Clary Herrera and Emaline Laney; as well as Amitha Sampath and Alexis Nkusi from the CPACS/Cosmo Health Center.

In Atlanta since the 1980s, the Center for Pan-Asian Services (CPACS) is a private nonprofit serving immigrants, refugees and people who are underprivileged; CPACS/Cosmo is a federally qualified health center within CPACS. Fifty percent of its patients are Spanish speakers. Sampath, associate medical director and pediatrician, and Nkusi, a public health physician, share a deep background in advocacy and global health. “CPACS/Cosmo is a grass-roots organization built from the bottom up. Most of the staff are immigrants or refugees themselves. We are an organization driven by the people we serve,” says Sampath.

Hoping to tap into the CPACS/Cosmo patient base, the team crafted an interdisciplinary, mixed-methods approach featuring in-depth interviews and infectious disease screening. Herrera brought key skills to recruitment. A 2022 Rollins MPH graduate, she is also a Spanish speaker with deep community ties. 

Says Herrera, “Trust building is hard, especially on such a sensitive topic — immigration status. The case I made was, ‘These are people who possibly can make policy changes for you.’”

Emaline Laney, who graduated from the Emory University School of Medicine in May 2022, worked with Philipsborn and fellow medical school students to introduce climate change into the curriculum and promote education of the profession more broadly through Climate Resources for Health Education. 

For the AGREC project, Laney helped to create the survey and in-depth interview guide as well as doing early data analysis. Before enrolling at Emory, Laney earned a double master’s in epidemiology and medical anthropology. “This project felt like coming home — a space where I could bring all my different disciplines,” says Laney.

Eventually securing about 60 participants, mostly women, Herrera and White did the interviews over the phone or in person. “Once we started interviewing, we learned the small ways that climate change makes a big difference,“ says Herrera.

Fully 76% of the participants had noticed changes to the weather, climate or land from year to year in places they lived. And while respondents didn’t necessarily target climate change as a reason for migration, many identified social and environmental factors directly or indirectly influenced by climate change in their decisions to relocate.

In a November 2021 presentation by the research team, results showed the migrants’ high vulnerability to social and environmental determinants — and yielded memorable firsthand accounts: 

•  “What I remember [during floods] is that the river would overflow [levee would break] and sometimes we had to leave running; houses would flood, cars floating — there would be turtles everywhere.”—Migrant from Mexico

•  “We could get easily dehydrated; plants wouldn’t grow; sometimes the water would be shut off because it got contaminated. You couldn’t get purified water/bottled water. There were a lot of illnesses. I have an autoimmune disease; cancers were common.”—Migrant from Mexico

Herrera used this data as part of her master’s thesis. According to her, “Their interest in talking to us was not only for themselves but for the other families that would come after them.”

The team views the work as a pilot they want to scale up in the future. “What we need to do now is make sure that we translate what we found into tools and strategies to help support the health care system caring for this community,” says Philipsborn.

AGREC’s collaborative power

Other 2020–2021 projects involving Emory faculty included “The Global Communities Internship Program” and “Saving Lives in the Refugee Community: A Cultural and Linguistic Adaptation of Stop the Bleed.”

Four of the eight projects awarded for 2021-2022 involve Emory faculty; watch the AGREC site for fall presentations on the projects. 

Wainwright notes that “AGREC has the ability to foster connections that otherwise would not happen.” That fact was top of mind for all the researchers, both from the standpoint of their connections to each other and to the communities they are serving.  

“I felt so privileged to be part of this team, which was run so effectively and with such camaraderie. Theoretically, a lot of us know that multidisciplinary work is important. At the end of the day, our work must be meaningful for our community partners and the people they serve. We have kept them at the center of everything we are doing,” notes Laney.

For further information, please contact Emory’s AGREC representative, Obse Ababiya, assistant director, Office of Global Strategy and Initiatives, Atlanta Global Partnerships:

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