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Each year, The Graduate School honors graduate students in programs throughout our University for their powerful discoveries that contribute to a better future for people and communities in North Carolina. PhD Candidate Pavithra Vasudevan’s  project, entitled. ‘In Aluminum’s Shadows: Finding Power in Resident Voices and Experiences’, has been selected by the Graduate School for its powerful discoveries that contribute to a better future for people and communities in North Carolina.

Badin has a population of nearly 2,000 and a history in which Alcoa, formerly known as the Aluminum Company of America, has played a defining role. Badin was a “company town”; Alcoa was the proprietor and de-facto government for the town through much of Badin’s history. In the aftermath of the closing of the Alcoa Badin Works aluminum smelting plant, residents are negotiating concerns with environmental contamination and racism. Doctoral student Pavithra Vasudevan — working directly with black residents of Badin — integrates scholarship from black studies and environmental studies to explore how racism and toxic exposure have converged in the area encompassing the aluminum smelter, the adjacent residential neighborhoods and the landscape.

Vasudevan developed an oral history project in collaboration with Naeema Muhammad, co-director and community organizer for the N.C. Environmental Justice Network, and the Concerned Citizens of West Badin Community, a grassroots organization that addresses racial exclusion, environmental contamination and health concerns. Vasudevan wrote the script for a research play incorporating oral histories, her observations of community meetings and archival materials. That play, titled Race and Waste in an Aluminum Town, has been staged for local and regional audiences, and continues to be revised based on audience and community feedback.

Vasudevan is now collaborating with UNC-Chapel Hill epidemiology doctoral student Libby McClure to explore the health impacts of occupational toxicity on workers and their families in Badin. They will analyze records gathered by Alcoa in their smelting plants, archival materials from the United Steelworkers union and a household survey to be developed with the local community.

Vasudevan’s collaborative research seeks to support Badin residents in their fight for justice, and is relevant to other communities struggling with issues of racism and environmental contamination.

The longstanding Impact Award, made possible through the generous support of the Graduate Education Advancement Board, recognizes discoveries with a direct impact on our state in the present time. The Horizon Award, created in 2017, recognizes discoveries with future potential to benefit North Carolina (and beyond). Doctoral and master’s students, working in close collaboration with their faculty mentors, pursue promising new ideas. They then apply their new knowledge to improving human health, strengthening communities and creating greater understanding of our world’s biggest challenges. For more on the award and the project, see:

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