Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative: Introduction


My name is Maggie Lincoln (she/her) and I am a 5th year student in the David C. Frederick Honors College at Pitt. I’m double majoring in Environmental Science and Ecology and Evolution and minoring in history and chemistry. On top of this, I am getting my Sustainability and GIS certificates as well as the Sustainability distinction. I currently work as the Managing Director of the Student Office of Sustainability, where I collaborate with fellow students, Pitt employees, and community organizations to develop and support sustainability initiatives on campus. In this role I also sit on the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Sustainability and oversee the Pitt Green Host Program, which works to train students and staff on sustainable event planning. My main passion outside of academics and work is ultimate frisbee, which I have played since the sixth grade and travel nationally for. I am on Pitt’s women’s club team Danger as well as a mixed team based out of Virginia, where I lived this summer for an internship with NASA DEVELOP.

As part of the sustainability certificate, I am taking the sustainability capstone course, which centers around helping a project partner solve a sustainability issue they’re experiencing. My team elected to work on a project connected to the Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative (ACRI). The ACRI, led by the Appalachian Regional Commission, is aimed at fostering economic and community development in the Appalachia region through partnerships with higher education institutions. I think this project is important due to its benefits both to the communities it serves and the students undertaking the projects. Many rural areas in Appalachia have suffered in the past century from economic downturns, with industries and people moving out of the area. While the towns still have much to offer to their residents and outsiders, they often have fewer financial resources and limited access to well-paying jobs, education, and healthcare services. The projects taken on by students focus on specific community needs, helping to revitalize the economy by identifying community strengths, marketing the area, and more. Something I enjoy about this project is that it empowers local communities by involving them in research and decision-making processes, giving residents a voice in shaping their future and addressing the issues that matter most to them. Students are instructed to not charge in with a project idea off the bat, instead they meet with community members, planning officials, organizations, and other groups in the area to understand the important issues in the locality they’re focusing on and make sure their work fits in to existing structures to best benefit the region. Students are also able to get a lot out of this project, developing their skills in community-based research, project development, technical writing, and more. It’s also a great opportunity to network with leaders in community organizations and politics. The culmination of the semester-long projects is speaking at a symposium in DC, which is great experience for public speaking. Overall, the ACRI combines education, community engagement, and research to drive positive change in the Appalachian region while nurturing the development of socially responsible and skilled students.

The connections ACRI builds between higher education institutes and Appalachian communities are also notable. Pitt has been a part of the initiative for three years now, working specifically with the Fayette County Cultural Trust (FCCT), and plans to continue the partnership for many more years to come. Although students might only be working on their project for a semester, there’s continuation, with current students building off the work of previous cohorts. The faculty and partners involved are also consistent, helping to foster a strong relationship between the University and the community and develop a greater sense of how the two groups can best help each other. Something unique about Pitt’s role in ACRI and this capstone project, is that students are given the option to continue their work with Fayette County by interning for FCCT in the spring semester.

Another factor of this project that appeals to me is that Fayette County is relatively close to Pittsburgh, so there’s the ability for travel to the county to hear from our partners and other community members in person and visit sites of interest. It’s much easier to understand an area and the issues it’s facing when you can see and experience it versus simply reading about it online or meeting virtually with stakeholders.  This summer, for my internship, my project focus was on using remote sensing and GIS to pinpoint areas at greatest risk of stormwater flooding, particularly in socially vulnerable areas. Our study area was the Greater Richmond Region, about an hour drive away. We got the opportunity, about midway through our project, to go to Richmond and were shown around by our partners. We were able to drive through areas that we were told anecdotally had many issues with stormwater flooding and compare it to the sites our fully virtual research indicated were at high risk for pluvial flooding. What we found was that there was indeed a lot of match-up, letting us know our research was on the right track. It also gave us much needed context. We were able to more evidently see how streets came together at problem intersections and how water was directed there. We talked to planning organizations about stormwater mitigation practices they were implementing and challenges they’ve seen. We also talked to local highschoolers involved in a local Green Team about problems their families have had with flooded basements. Getting to physically be in a community you’re working to help and talking to the people who will be affected is important in not only making your research feel more personally meaningful but shaping it so that your deliverables can do the most good and stakeholders feel heard and represented.

My career goals are focused on using my skills and knowledge to contribute to sustainable development and environmental conservation. I am particularly interested in working in the public sector, where I can help to shape policies and programs that promote sustainability and environmental protection by incorporating earth science data into decision-making. I also see myself continuing to develop my technical skills in GIS and other tools for spatial analysis to inform, monitor, and evaluate initiatives. In my future, I see myself working in a position in a government agency or non-profit organization that is dedicated to environmental justice, water resources, renewable energy, or other topics focused on sustainability, hopefully with a community focus. I hope to have had a positive impact on the environment and society. I also expect to have built a strong professional network that includes colleagues in government, academia, and the private sector, which will allow me to collaborate on new projects and ideas. I think that working on this project will help me develop my writing and presenting skills. Although the project isn’t defined yet, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to work on my GIS, coding, or other technical skills. The project also involves working with students and faculty from various disciplines, giving me exposure to different perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. Many sustainability challenges also require collaboration and engagement with local communities. During this work I’ll gain experience in community outreach, communication, and building relationships. These factors and the hands-on nature of the project go beyond my usual work during school projects, making it much more applicable to real scenarios I’ll face in the workforce.

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