Susan Craddock: Studying infectious disease through a social and environmental lens
Meet Dr. Susan Craddock, a professor at the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and a member of the 2020 IonE Educator cohort. As a researcher, Craddock examines social, political, and environmental factors – including inadequate infrastructure and degraded living conditions – to help determine how and why certain populations of Americans experience particular diseases at a greater rate. Through identifying the social determinants of environmental exposure to health-compromising toxins, her work thus far has focused largely on low-income communities and communities of color. As an IonE Educator, Dr. Craddock plans on creating online modules in her area of expertise that foster collaboration with students. Below, Craddock shares about her work.
What inspired you to look at infectious diseases through an environmental and social lens?
I think that from the very beginning, I’ve observed the gross inequalities that exist in our societies. For me, looking at health was my window into trying to understand the causes and outcomes of these inequities. I was fascinated by health outcomes.
How do health inequities intersect with environmental issues?
The COVID-19 pandemic makes the relation starkly obvious. Within urban low-income communities, people are experiencing housing that is crowded, structurally unkept, and has inadequate infrastructure. Additionally, communities are under-resourced and left without access to healthy food or health clinics. Services might be located in other neighborhoods.
Within the United States, low-income communities and communities of color often overlap. New studies show evidence [that these communities tend to be in] suboptimal locations, near high levels of air pollution. According to one study, they’re exposed to 66% higher levels of pollutants. Environmental racism has made it abundantly clear that these communities are located in areas where toxins are being pumped into air and water. This explains why people of color are being infected at much higher rates and dying of COVID-19.
How have recent social justice movements impacted how you teach?
It has enhanced the way I teach because I have always led with a social justice perspective. I focus on making it clear to students that these are not irrelevant injustices; they are part of a larger ongoing system.
Systemic and structural racism shows up at the molecular level in bodies, whether it’s police brutality, COVID-19, higher maternal mortality (particularly for Black women), or other health insults that are experienced more in lower-income communities. People of color, even when they have higher education or income levels, are still dying at higher rates and suffering from diseases more than white people. It obviously has to do with everyday racisms.
How has switching to an online format due to the pandemic impacted how you teach? Have you encountered any obstacles?
It’s hard to keep enthusiasm. For myself and several colleagues, that comes from being in the classroom and being able to feed off of student energy. Teaching is a form of communication, and human expressions are so vital to how we communicate. I’m learning from students and taking cues from them; it’s a two-way street.
Last semester, when COVID-19 hit, I already had a relationship with my students and knew who they were. Now, it’s harder to make relationships with disembodied voices that are coming out of these little black boxes on your computer screen. But I try to be an instructor that varies the ways in which I teach and engages different types of learners because people learn very differently. In a way, these shifts can make participating more accessible to different types of learners.
What does sustainability mean to you? How does it apply to your work?
For most, “sustainability” immediately suggests something temporal, something that lasts over time. In my work, I want to address how we redress and tackle the many practices – social, political, and economic – that are devastating to the Earth. I want to be all-encompassing in the way that I look at sustainability. Everything – both humans and non-humans – have some sort of role in the ecologies that we create and are shaped by.
About the IonE Educator Fellowship: IonE Educators are selected from University of Minnesota tenure-track faculty, instructional staff, and adjunct faculty, who have a special interest in effective pedagogy and curriculum development. During their 15-month fellowship period, Educators pursue individual projects aimed at improving existing courses or developing new courses and educational experiences for UMN college students, K-12 students, and the general public. All projects champion the need for diverse perspectives in solving complex sustainability challenges and are supported through a partnership with the Center for Educational Innovation.
Abby Hornberger is a UMN senior studying Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and an IonE Communications Assistant.