My name is Chad Greville (he/him) and I’m a senior at Pitt with majors in Environmental Studies and Political Science, as well as a certificate in Geographic Information Systems. Two summers ago, I posted to this blog as part of a Wyoming field study in ecology, geology, and paleontology, but this semester, I’ll be writing about my experience with the Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative (ACRI) team researching community development in rural Appalachia. This opportunity is especially attractive because I’m from rural Appalachia myself. I enjoy everything outdoors: hunting, fishing, horsemanship, rock climbing, and snowboarding are a few, so I’m eager to see what kinds of opportunities Fayette County has to offer in that department. I’ve never been to Fayette County but expect it to be familiar as it has some things in common with my home in McKean County. Fayette is much more populous but is similarly an eco-tourist destination. Fayette has Ohiopyle State Park and the Fallingwater monument, and McKean has the Allegheny National Forest and Kinzua Bridge State Park. Struggling local economies might be boosted by tourism to these attractions, but at what cost to the local identity? How do we manage these possible outcomes? Those are the kinds of questions that I’m interested in and hope we can start to answer with this research project.
The Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative is organized and funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), including thirteen universities across Appalachia that engage with local communities to support economic development. For the University of Pittsburgh, the current goal is to work with the Fayette County Cultural Trust (FCCT) to create an asset map for the county. This is the third year that Pitt has been working as a part of ACRI. Our approach is interdisciplinary, including students and faculty with business, engineering, and political science backgrounds in order to grasp the entire scope of possibilities in Fayette County. Developmental problems in Appalachia are so complex that this approach is crucial. Economic, political, cultural, and environmental factors are all important when it comes to change in rural communities, so urban outsiders like the University should take a holistic approach to avoid bungling things. History has shown that that is often the case for outsiders’ intervention in Appalachian communities. It will be refreshing to work alongside people from different fields; I’m sure that we’ll learn a lot from each other, and the project will be better for it. We’ll make two trips to Fayette County over the course of the semester to meet with local leaders and potentially conduct surveys to gauge public opinion. I’m excited for these visits so that I can witness the reality of the area we’ll spend so much time studying. Between trips, we will work with the data we’ve collected and do research to create more. We’ll present our progress this semester to the community in Fayette County, then take a trip to Washington, D.C. to do the same for the ARC and other ACRI schools. I look forward to that trip in particular to learn about the progress that is being made elsewhere and get ideas about ways to move forward in Pitt’s research. This project feels worthwhile and close to home. I hope that we can finish the map this semester so that there is a completed deliverable for FCCT. With the map, local leaders will have a proper inventory – a comprehensive, georeferenced one – that will help them identify areas of opportunity; and, equally as important, areas in need. It will also aid the University for the rest of its 10-year commitment to the project. Pursuing new channels for research will be easier with such a powerful resource in the map.
Moving forward professionally, I’d like to work in the GIS space. GIS is a powerful tool for informing all kinds of projects; in my current role as an intern for the Game Commission, I use GIS to track the effect of mining and oil drilling on northcentral State Gamelands. Based on the data I’ve collected this year, reclamation projects have been approved to mitigate the environmental hazards caused in resource extraction, which is a crisis spanning Appalachia. Improving the quality of habitat on public hunting grounds increases their value for the Game Commission, as well as the rural communities near them. They are an ecological, cultural, and economic resource. This project will be exciting because it uses GIS to examine a social issue, which is much different than what I’ve been doing. In that sense, it will help round out my experience when it comes to GIS applications, and will also prepare me to use data to make arguments – not just curate it and pass it off to a superior at work. That’s a chance for professional development that this research offers. Academically, I’ve never participated in research before, so this project will help fill out my undergraduate experience, which is something I’ve been working hard on this year. I’ve been able to find roles as a TA and in research, which have been goals from the beginning of my college career. Research is such an emphasis at Pitt that I think it would be a mistake not to take advantage and get involved.
I decided to join this project because it’s at the intersection of things I care about: Appalachian communities, and my professional interest: GIS. I’m not worried about checking boxes for degree requirements; this won’t check any for me at this point in my college career. The asset mapping aspect of this project will give me practice in research, data manipulation, and mapmaking. The presentation will be an excellent skill-builder, too; I’ve spoken to large crowds before, but never in a place like Washington, D.C. and never for a project I’ve felt is this important. I have a lot to learn from the faculty and students on this research team. Ultimately, I look forward to the work associated with this research and sharing my thoughts about it to this blog.