Communities of concentrated poverty suffer in ways less obvious than monetary. Hasibe Caballero-Gomez ‘21 used her chemistry thesis to investigate the lead-poisoning crisis in Philadelphia’s most vulnerable communities. Her thesis, “A Spatial Analysis and Lead Risk Assessment of Philadelphia,” was inspired by a Philadelphia Inquirer story about lead poisoning in Philadelphia schools. She was particularly affected by it because she had worked with younger students in the city as a teacher at Southwark Elementary the previous summer.
“It was a very intensive investigation that illuminated not only the extensive amount of lead in Philadelphia, but highlighted the impact it had on so many children in Philadelphia,” said the environmental studies minor. “It broke my heart to read and only made it harder to read when I thought about the students I had just a year before… their school was amongst one of the Philly schools struggling with lead paint and pipes.”
Inspired, Caballero-Gomez went to work for the STEER Program under the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, where she helped create a policy proposal for preventing childhood lead poisoning. The policy focused on identifying high-risk areas based on demographics correlated with lead poisoning. But she didn’t want her work in public health to stop there.
“I wanted to go deeper, and really identify the neighborhoods at highest risk for lead poisoning, so that lead policy prevention could be more detailed,” she said. “So I shared my project with other faculty members, and luckily it caught the interest of a Penn faculty member in the earth and environmental science department, and that’s how we were able to do my thesis.”
That professor was Reto Gieré, and she also collaborated with two graduate students, Jonas Topal and Michael O’Shea. Gieré helped Caballero-Gomez access soil data collected by UPenn and EPA.
At Haverford, Caballero-Gomez worked with Associate Professor Helen K. White on her thesis. “[She] supported me throughout my project by hearing my analysis and providing perspective on my readability,” she said.
In her work, Caballero-Gomez learned about the relationship between health, politics, and the environment. She realized the importance of having several perspectives and disciplines within health work. Absence of representation can lead to neglect, causing even more damage to the communities that need the most help.
“There are so many factors that amplify the effects of lead and other public health hazards (i.e nutrition, built environment, class, etc), which if you ignore result in a very shallow understanding of the issue and therefore a poorly made solution,” she said. “So that analysis of hazards like lead, which are typically done strictly in a scientific lens, requires a sociopolitical analysis paired with them.”
What are the implications of your research?
My research pinpoints at a very small geographic level where lead continues to exist and harm folks, therefore, it allows the City of Philadelphia to clearly know where resources [and] support needs to be concentrated. It also provides information as to where to start work, such as stricter demolition protocols, increasing screening in select census tracts outlined in my thesis, and identifies areas for the EPA to sample soils and remediate. I think it provides a lot of practical knowledge, and shows the way lead risk can be assessed without having access to direct information, [such as] being able to sample for yourself or [know] where lead pipes are so that other cities can do the same.
What are your plans for the future?
My current plans are going to UCLA for my Ph.D. in environmental health sciences so that I can continue working towards engaging with communities, like my own, that are adversely affected by environmental racism and health issues. I hope I can go back home to L.A. and be a part of a community effort to improve health, quality of life, and empowerment.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.