Q&A: Dr. Camellia Okpodu, Norfolk State University

Q&A: Dr. Camellia Okpodu, Norfolk State University

Dr. Camellia Okpodu, Professor of Biology at Norfolk State University, worked on a cross-university project with Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project lead Old Dominion University as part of the Department of Homeland (DHS) Security Science & Technology Directorate-funded Summer Research Team exchange program. Dr. Okpodu spoke about the scope of her project, her past experience with coastal hazards and her hopes for future collaboration.

 

Q: Can you describe your summer project’s goals and if you felt they were achieved?

A: The whole concept was having a systems approach to look at the idea of sea level rise. We are trying to understand how minorities, particularly under-served and under-represented groups in this area, respond to sea level rise and coastal flooding. From a dataset working with the University of Virginia, one of the outcomes was that minorities, particularly African Americans, have a low affinity for the environment. That troubles me as an African American person who grew up in coastal North Carolina on a farm – that is not my experience.

I wanted to be able to look into this, so when the DHS funding came about, I decided instead of just working by myself this was a way to work across universities in a multi-disciplinary way and to have a social scientist and students from that area who were interested in crime and social justice issues. This is how Dr. Bernadette Holmes got invited to participate.

I wanted to take this questionnaire from the University of Connecticut, not just to compare directly with what he got but to ask additional questions. For example, one of the things I thought was culturally sensitive and I wanted to look at is that most minorities – people that are my age – we don’t refer to this area as Hampton Roads. We grew up calling this Tidewater or 757. One of the questions put on our survey is how they identify their area where they live. 

Q: How would you describe the connection between the work you do in your home department and the coastal resilience realm?

A: I am primarily interested in the people of Portsmouth, Va. Portsmouth is an “economic empowerment area” – it’s about 96,000 people but they have a high rate of crime, high rate of asthma – this is primarily epidemiological data I could get. I was interested in those social indicators and finding out what we can do in the landscape from a biological aspect. Are there things we can do with dune plants for coastal restoration and mitigation? I worked on a long-term ecological project to learn about what types of plants we can add back. Rebuilding wetlands is very important for storm surge. We wanted to look into what could be done to the landscape on the basic level to help mitigate some of that. We already have some of that information, but we wanted to better identify the plants that would be most responsive and tolerant in that area. The Eastern Shore is very fertile for farmland, but as we have more flooding moving inland it’s not just us being affected. We are looking into whether there are epigenetic markers that we can see, expressed in the DNA of certain plants, that make them more flood-tolerant or stress-tolerant.

Q: Do you have any personal experiences with coastal storms? How have they impacted your work?

In 2009, I experienced Tropical Storm Ida, in November – I’ll never forget, it was Veterans Day – that hurricane came through, the remnants of a nor’easter. It was high tide, it was a perfect storm – everything happened at once. Nobody told me how the tide came in here, so I got caught in it and I saw first-hand things I could not imagine. The houses next to us were two-story houses, and the first level was underwater. I went down a street close to the university and I watched the water come in through the tunnel like in a bathtub.

We have a real problem in this area – it’s going to take all hands on deck. We need to have different vantage points – nobody is going to have all of the answers but they can benefit from having a diverse team working on that.

I was just shocked. There was no siren to warn you that there was high water; I watched a lady’s car float off in front of me. Everyone else acted as though this was a normal occurrence. These people were acting like this was everyday business. I was freaking out. I realized this was normal to them. We need to be able to have some emergency preparedness staff in place and talk to them now because they should take this seriously. There are situations where you need to leave or make it a really high priority. That made it a priority for me.

The students at NSU informed me of a lot of this because they came to me – some of them are from the areas getting flooded – and they said this happens all of the time and nobody seems to care. We started a group called Strategies foe Ecology Education Development and Sustainability (SEEDS) that has been working to address this issue. For a long time, for sustainability after I go away, that students can continue.

I grew up near Wilmington, N.C. Hurricane alley – it changed my mind. I decided when I was an adult and someone said “leave,” I would leave, unlike my grandparents – near Holden Beach – who would refuse to leave and go to a better facility. I got interested as a plant biologist and am very interested in the environmental aspects of coastal resiliency.

Q: Can you talk a little about the opportunity to collaborate with other universities in the Hampton Roads/Tidewater region? Where do you hope this partnership goes from here?

I believe collaboration is always better than competition as a scientist. There’s always room for competition around collegiate things like basketball, but because we are all interested in what happens to our country and to our world we have to be collaborative. When I moved here in 2003 from Elizabeth City State University, as a farm child we always knew you couldn’t farm tobacco and do other work without your neighbor. I grew up learning that being collaborative isn’t a bad thing.

In 2007 I had the chance to go to ODU for a fellowship and shadowed their president at the time. During my time there, I thought about how we could bridge what happened in the past – not to forget but to use it as a building block so that we could be more collective and collaborative.

Rebuilding wetlands is very important for storm surge. We wanted to look into what could be done to the landscape on the basic level to help mitigate some of that.

We have a real problem in this area – it’s going to take all hands on deck. We need to have different vantage points – nobody is going to have all of the answers but they can benefit from having a diverse team working on that.

We share common issues that drive us because we’re all in the same boat. Sea level rise affects all of us, directly and indirectly, and it’s something we should all be interested in, irrespective of gender or race. It’s a universal question that we should all put our differences aside and work collaboratively toward addressing.

Hopefully we’ll have another focus forum and then I will take that out in the field with the SSEED students, collecting feedback and taking it to Dr. Holmes and her group to analyze it. I am hoping we’ll get funding to continue the project and have gotten good support from the community. I’m thankful that the funding that we have was a primer to get us started. I envision that this will be a tipping point.