She’s a second-year doctoral student in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University
By Robin Huiras
The childhood curiosity of Britney McCoy ’05 flabbergasted her elders. Relentless in her questioning, she would ask one after another, no matter how impossible to answer. But while her thirst for knowledge may have annoyed her parents and teachers, her intellectual curiosity has taken her places she never thought possible.
- The McDonogh Report celebrates the contributions of African Americans to the Lafayette community.
“Even though I expected great things in life, it’s hard to believe I’d be here now,” says McCoy. “A lot of the people I grew up with in Washington, D.C., aren’t here any more. So it’s still a little surreal, and sometimes I find myself asking myself if it’s real or not.”
McCoy’s academic and social pursuits are indeed real, and her work, as a second-year student in Carnegie Mellon University’s doctoral program in Engineering and Public Policy, is affecting change all around her.
In fact, her research, focusing on the characteristics of air emissions from petroleum refineries and how those emissions affect the health of residents in surrounding communities, not only earned her a prestigious Teresa Heinz Environmental Scholarship award, but has gained the attention of state and national policymakers to the extent that McCoy was invited to speak at this year’s Environmental Justice seminar staged by Carnegie Mellon’s Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research.
McCoy began exploring environmental justice issues while at Lafayette, conducting research and writing her honors thesis, under the direction of Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, on the justice implications surrounding a water contamination episode in Washington, D.C. (She double majored in A.B. engineering and government & law.)
While her curiosity certainly explains her attraction to environmental justice issues, McCoy says she particularly drawn to areas with a personal connection.
“I think that sometimes when something affects you personally, you have a tendency to expand upon it. For instance, with my air quality work, five years ago my mother was diagnosed with asthma, four years ago my brother was diagnosed, and last year I was. It’s very rare that adults are diagnosed with asthma, but it’s happening more and more. It’s thought that respiratory-related issues and illnesses are highly linked to the quality of the air, so I wanted to look at emissions and really examine how they’re reported.”
In the same way that McCoy uses her intellectual fortitude to solve social problems, she’s driven to help others in her community on a personal level.
At Lafayette, this took shape in the work McCoy accomplished as president of the Association of Black Collegians.
One time several multicultural student organizations had scheduled programs on the same night, causing splintered attendance at the events, she explains. So McCoy got the leaders of ABC, NIA (the multicultural women’s support group), and the Brothers of Lafayette together to meet regularly and devise ways to make their groups, and campus in general, more inclusive.
“Once a month we had an open forum and panel discussion where we talked about major issues affecting people on campus,” McCoy says. “And we also worked to get more sororities and fraternities involved, because it felt like those groups were really isolated from the cultural groups. We really tried to break all those barriers.”
McCoy’s community building was so valued that she was given the Jeffrey Robinson ’80 Award for Leadership.
“I didn’t realize I had the potential to be a leader until I arrived at Lafayette,” McCoy says. “There were certain people, like Dean Hutchinson [Fluney Hutchinson, associate professor of economics and business and former dean of studies], who encouraged me to really get out there, get more involved, and take more responsibility in the Lafayette community. After a while, you just become driven to improve. That’s the whole point of community, you work together to improve it.”
McCoy’s role as a leader and mentor have grown with her, and as a member of Carnegie’s Black Graduate Student Organization she has formed partnerships within Pittsburgh’s public school system, serving as a positive role model for area youths.
“Even though these students are surrounded by several universities, most of them have never been to campus before,” McCoy says. “We really want them to see students of color who are in college and have decided to extend their careers into graduate school – and to show them about the possibilities. There is this whole world of careers that is not taught in school, and if all you see of minority heroes are basketball players and entertainers, that’s all you’ll aspire to be.
“If not for the people placed in my own life, I would not be where I am today. So for me, everything is about giving back – I believe all people need is a spark to get to where their true potential is.”