The Loka Institute

Making research, and science & technology responsive to democratically-decided social and environmental concerns

How Community-Based Research Changed a Professor's Career


News coverage inspired by Loka's recent release of our 18-month study Community-Based Research in the United States.

Copyright 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.

From the issue dated September 18, 1998

Alanah Fitch, a professor of chemistry at Loyola University of Chicago, had no idea what she was getting herself into six years ago.

There she was, chatting at a faculty retreat with a quiet, mild-mannered guy named Nyden from the sociology department. He said he directed a group at Loyola that focused on something called "community-based research."

Ms. Fitch was at a turning point in her career. She had created a niche for herself in electrochemical research, having won support from the National Science Foundation and tenure at Loyola. Now she hoped to focus more on teaching.

She'd been pondering the so-called "pipeline" issue -- what tenured professors could do to encourage more young people of color to pursue science careers.

As she and Mr. Nyden sipped wine and sampled cheese, she mentioned a notion that she felt he could relate to. "I wonder," she ventured, "if you could have elementary students do real science that means something, that has a real impact on their lives."

Maybe studies of local lead contamination, she mused aloud.

Philip Nyden, director of the Policy Research Action Group, a partnership among four local universities and more than 20 community organizations, is low-key and personable. But he's a pit bull when it comes to his passion -- linking researchers and community groups to help residents design and carry out precisely what Ms. Fitch had described -- "real science that means something, that has a real impact on their lives."

A few weeks later, Mr. Nyden called to tell her about a meeting he had organized with some community leaders, who wanted to explore lead hazards in the neighborhood of West Town. They, too, wanted to involve children in the project. Would she come?

She gulped and agreed; how hard could it be? And so she went, she says now, "like an unsuspecting lamb to the slaughter." Little did she know how consuming -- and stimulating -- the work would be.

Since then, Ms. Fitch has carried out three studies of lead with community groups, and is beginning another study to follow up on the most inconclusive one.

That work, in turn, has inspired her to revamp her undergraduate chemistry course on instrumental analysis. Students used to analyze a range of substances to learn how to use scientific instruments for analyses. Now, after years of painstaking calibrations, she's learned how to use all of the instruments for lead analysis, giving the course a unifying theme that helps students focus on the underlying goal: learning when, and how, to use each instrument.

Whenever possible, she combines the class with joint projects with community groups.

The community's concerns, the fact that neither she nor her students know what the results will be, and the real-life pressure on them to be sure that the results are accurate -- "because it matters," she says -- generate the kind of enthusiasm and commitment that makes science so riveting. It beats textbook experiments, she argues.

Ms. Fitch and her students have collected samples from soil near an incinerator, and helped fifth-graders safely collect soil samples from the local park and swabs from windowsills at home. The children delivered the samples to her laboratory -- a first step, she hopes, into the world of academic science.

She's designed a course on the 5,000-year history of lead and humanity that draws on the humanities, social sciences, and chemistry. She has published papers and delivered lectures on her new model of using lead to teach instrumental analysis. And she's presented results to a roomful of politicians and city officials.

In the midst of all of that, she spent a semester exploring the ethical problems of community-based research. For example: Who owns the data -- the researcher or the community? Her answer: Both of them do. Who gets to decide what the data mean? She has concluded that the two must reach an accord.

She knows now that "inconclusive" may tell a scientist that more research is needed. But for the community, it may mean that action is needed -- to be on the safe side, just in case -- whether or not funds are found for further study.

Ms. Fitch is expanding her mainstream research agenda, too, seeking N.S.F. support for work investigating human migration, based on analyses to determine the sources of lead found in ancient bones.

And she has just been named director of the new environmental studies/sciences program at Loyola, where officials praise her for bringing the social relevance of chemistry to life for her students.

She marvels at her evolution into a more well-rounded scholar, ready to continue the hard, time-consuming work of research designed with and for people in Chicago's neighborhoods. She smiles. "You can see what Philip Nyden did to me," Ms. Fitch says, "and why I don't speak to him anymore."


Community-Based Projects Help Scholars Build Public Support
Section: Government & Politics
Page: A39