Social Work joins WSU research team studying interdependency of drinking water and health systems with NSF funding


Researchers from the School of Social Work are part of a Wayne State University research team that has received a four-year $1.57 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a project titled "Water and Health Infrastructure Resilience and Learning" (WHIRL). The award is part of a multi-institutional $2 million collaborative project funded under NSF's Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes program.

Joanne Sobeck, director of the Center for Social Work Research, and Associate Social Work Professor Richard Smith will contribute to project, which will examine drinking water and public health systems to provide new insights as to how these systems interact, with a focus on crisis events. The team, which is led by WSU Associate Professor Shawn McElmurry, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Dean and Professor Matthew Seeger, College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, will also explore how these systems learn about and adapt to changes and how the public engages with these systems.

The project, which includes researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina (UNC) builds on the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP), which was conducted in Wayne County and Flint, Michigan and produced information on how water systems function under stress and how communities respond. McElmurry asked Sobeck to join WHIRL because they had worked together on FACHEP, which linked legionella pneumophila to variations in water quality. Sobeck recommended the addition of Smith, who has two decades of professional experience working with sustainable community development in legacy cities that experience poverty and inequality, as well as advanced training in "big data" analytics and modeling data about people in changing places.

WHIRL will assess how different kinds of disruptions, from routine challenges to large-scale disasters, shape the community's relationship to water systems. Understanding how tightly coupled interdependent systems, such as water and public health, can help enhance resilience. Study data will include interviews with managers of water utilities and public health agencies as well as a national survey to understand how well water and public health infrastructures can adapt to future challenges. Information gained from project partners and the national survey will be used to identify factors and develop models that will enhance resilience of the two systems.

Social Work brought to FACHEP knowledge of community engagement, reflective listening, and referrals for services into the sampling frame of Flint residents. For WHIRL, Sobeck will work on a national survey of water and health systems, the engagement of stakeholders, and research dissemination strategies. Smith will focus on quantifying the social and economic impacts of the two critical forms of infrastructure on communities. He will be working with the other investigators on bringing together data about health systems, water systems, and residents. Most notably, he will work closely with UNC's Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson on Bayesian Network Modeling and machine learning to predict disruptions in water systems and how officials respond to the disruptions.

"The School of Social Work has a rich tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration to create knowledge about the most pressing social issues," Smith said. "We are looking forward to working with engineers, health scientists, and other social scientists on WHIRL to contribute to social work's Grand Challenge to harness technology for social good."

Ultimately, the overall goal of this project is to promote access to cleaner, safer drinking water for all communities, including the socially and economically disadvantaged. Collaborations with the Water Research Foundation (WRF), National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), American Indian Mothers, Inc. and others will assist in conducting the study and translating research results to new practices and policies that reduce the burden of disease in vulnerable populations. The project will also provide training for students, including underrepresented minorities, in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

For more information about the National Science Foundation, visit

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