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Researchers tap technology targeting migrant workers in eastern N.C.

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ECU’s Mary Tucker-McLaughlin, left, talks with migrant workers about coping with stress during a focus group held at an Edgecombe County farm in September.


By ECU News Services

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Hurricane Florence had made landfall less than two weeks before a group of migrant workers gathered at sunset on an Edgecombe County farm to talk with East Carolina University researchers.

Mary Tucker-McLaughlin from the School of Communication and Nancy Winterbauer from the Department of Public Health are leading a project aimed at improving mental health among migrant workers through the use of geofencing and smartphones. Maritza Mata Betancourt of AMEXCAN has served as an interpreter and is assisting on the project.

Geofencing typically targets potential customers in a defined geographic area. Tucker-McLaughlin got the idea after talking with a friend in sales.

“It occurred to me that you could deliver health education messages the same way,” she said.

Tucker-McLaughlin, Winterbauer and public health colleague Ann Rafferty began working on a grant in 2012 that involved workforce development and its relationship to communication of public health messages through traditional media. From there, the faculty members have collaborated on several projects.

The latest project came about as a result of two previous studies using geofence as a channel to communicate public health messages, Tucker-McLaughlin said. The first focused on distributing information about coastal hazards, specifically rip currents. The second study communicated messages about the ECU dental service learning clinic in Robeson County.

With the current project, researchers hope to raise awareness about resources to combat stress, anxiety and depression in the migrant worker population in eastern North Carolina. They also want to determine which tool works best, such as an interactive website or phone app, and if positive messages about mental health are more effective than negative ones. For example, a positive message would be “taking steps to reduce stress can make you happier” while a negative one would say “not reducing stress can take a toll on your health and your family life.”

While Hurricane Florence spared the tobacco and sweet potato farmers in Edgecombe County, they were stressed from missing work because they do not get paid when they are not working. Some other stressors can be transportation, access to health care and family issues in Mexico.

Back home, the workers said they take walks or play soccer or other sports, or sometimes go to the park to try to reduce stress. Here, they also walk, doing laps down a rural road, or play soccer.

The workers have left eastern North Carolina temporarily, and either returned home or are working with Christmas tree farmers in the mountains. They are expected back in March for the planting season, when banner ads containing links to an interactive website about mental health established by the Mexican government will be launched as part of the ECU project, Tucker-McLaughlin said.

“In the next few months, we will be designing the banner ads based on feedback from the focus group,” she said.

The advanced mobile technology message will be dropped with a demographic to reach all seasonal migrant workers in eastern North Carolina. Farms in the region include approximately 200 workers, Tucker-McLaughlin said.

The project is funded by a $3,000 grant from the College of Fine Arts and Communication.

Anthropology students recognized through national competition

This semester, ECU anthropology students participated in a nationwide competition known as the Community Action Project. Administered by the Center for a Public Anthropology, the competition involved more than 3,500 students from 25 schools across the United States.

As their entry into the competition, students wrote editorial pieces on the topic of climate change. The articles were evaluated by peers from other universities throughout the country.

“No matter what part of the world you are from, it affects you in some way,” said ECU anthropology student Gayle Yoder.

Another entrant, Kaitlyn Lee, said, “It was important for me because I’m from the beach and it is just something that I’ve grown up learning about.”

Nine ECU students were selected as award winners and received special certificates for their writing. Winners include Chris Capone, Christina Dougherty, Kaitlyn Lee, Elizabeth Lyttle, Autumn Saski, Logan Stevens, Allyse Williams, Ashley Yeager and Gayle Yoder.

“I thought it was really cool being able to connect with people around the world, especially about a dispute that’s as important as this,” said Capone.

ECU students also reviewed other students’ submissions.

“It was interesting to see that this person clearly believes the opposite of what I think, but they make a convincing argument for it,” Lyttle said.

Dr. Robert Borofsky, director of the Center for a Public Anthropology, praised Dr. Cynthia Grace-McCaskey, ECU assistant professor of anthropology and assistant scientist with the Coastal Studies Institute, who taught the students.

“Professor Grace-McCaskey has played an integral part in public anthropology’s online student community, showcasing the ability of East Carolina students to learn effective writing skills while being active global citizens,” Borofsky said. “She demonstrates how combining technology with cultural concerns in academic courses positively engages students to participate in the broader world beyond their academic setting while gaining the skills needed for a productive, active life after graduation.”

Graduate student awarded yearlong national fellowship

An ECU graduate student is one of 66 from across the United States awarded a 2019 John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship.

William “Chris” Thaxton, who will graduate with a master’s degree in biology in May, earned bachelor degrees in biology and chemistry from ECU in 2016 as an EC Scholar.

The Knauss award, presented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Sea Grant, recognizes students who are completing masters, juris doctor or doctor of philosophy programs with a focus or interest in marine science, policy or management.

The 40th class of Knauss Fellows will begin work in February.

Thaxton, who grew up in La Grange, will be moving to Washington, D.C., for his fellowship year, where he will work on ocean and natural resource policy for Sen. Brian Schatz from Hawaii.

Thaxton said he is especially passionate about the topic of climate change and how sea level rise will impact coastal development.

“There is a lot of confusion, fear and uncertainty surrounding the topic,” Thaxton said. “Science can either relieve or exacerbate these issues depending on how it’s communicated.

North Carolina’s peculiar history with sea level rise policy piqued my interest in the subject as an undergraduate, and I’m excited at the opportunity to see firsthand how climate-related issues are being discussed at the federal level.”