New faculty profile: Sarah Rios focuses on environmental justice, health, and race

Sarah M. Rios joined the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology as an assistant professor in August 2019.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Salinas-Watsonville area located in the Central Coast of California. If you purchase strawberries at a market in Madison, the chances are that they have been grown in my hometown.

What is your educational/professional background?
I received my Ph.D. from the department of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. After that, I was an Anna Julia Cooper Postdoctoral Fellow at UW–Madison, and then a visiting scholar at the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis.

How did you get into your field of research?
When I was 8 years old, I remember getting in trouble for playing in an irrigation ditch of a strawberry farm in Las Lomas, CA. My grandmother, who was working at the time, warmed me to stay out. She explained that I could develop skin rashes or get sick if I drank or played in the cool water. I quickly learned that seemingly natural places could be invisibly toxic. My interests in the study of environmental justice, health, and race came from this experience and many others that strengthened my critical conscious about how industrial agriculture affects farmworkers’ health. My graduate research about Valley Fever and its connection to cumulative vulnerabilities fostered this curiosity further. Farm workers and former prisoners elucidated new ways of knowing about this environmental disease and new ways of healing from its devastating effects.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
A growing focus of my research is to understand how spatial injuries are racial injuries, and thus a growing public health crisis. I am especially interested in how poverty, pollution and prisons lead to health problems, and the community-based knowledge and strategies to address and redress their health implications. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weighs the factors contributing to health, it reports that over 50 percent is caused by Social Determinants of Health (SDoH). SDoH are the conditions of life that make it possible and permissible to acquire good health. Poverty, for example, increases one’s chances of exposure to toxic environments, uncertainty of affordable housing, employment, and access to safe and nutritious foods, schools, and parks, all of which influence blood pressure, respiratory and cardiovascular systems that cause physiological deterioration, declined immunological defenses, and elevated levels of stress. The conditions in which life takes place can trump individual choices and practices to stay healthy. Over the next few years, my studies will develop a broad framework that sheds light on community-based knowledge and variation of community-based research methods to further explore the link between race, place and health.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?
The Department of Community and Environmental Sociology supports developing my interdisciplinary research interests and provides a collaborative intellectual space to unfold them.

What was your first visit to campus like?
On my first visit to campus the weather was memorably gorgeous. I enjoyed meeting the students, faculty, and deans in Agricultural Hall, and taking a stroll to the Allen Centennial Garden nearby.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope that my students find my class challenging, provoking critical thought and creative analysis about environmental justice and health that will be useful beyond their undergraduate and graduate degree.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
My research is about improving the health and quality of life for all residents. One way to do this is by shedding light on the policies, practices and patterns that create vulnerable communities. Grassroots community-based strategies such as “citizen science” and their experiential knowledge provide a complex and contradictory understanding of some of the most urgent environmental health questions of our time. Scholars at the top universities who grapple with such questions should know and understand how these issues connect to ordinary residents’ daily lives.

What are your hobbies or other interests?
In my spare time, I enjoy the company of my two children and partner. We have found the children’s museum, the zoo, and the arboretum as wonderful places to venture out of our daily routine. My interests include strolling at the county flea markets.