When Julie Gerdes accepted a job with Virginia Tech in January 2020, she had a plan: expand upon and publish her work on the Zika virus.

Then, COVID-19 arrived in the United States. And her priorities shifted.

Gerdes, who specializes in the intersection of technical communication and global public health, believes communication is key in stopping the spread of infectious diseases.

“Not to downplay scientific technologies or the important work that happens in the physical sciences,” Gerdes said, “but I see these things as being intertwined. It is all reliant on communication, and in the way that we care about other people’s reactions to our words.”

Initially, writing about Zika was the obvious choice for her. She spent five years studying its spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in her role as a technical advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

During February and March 2020, her last months with the agency, Gerdes was assigned as the COVID-19 response lead within the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, where she was responsible for briefing ambassadors and helping to coordinate the distribution of personal protective equipment.

Gerdes joined Virginia Tech as an assistant professor of technical and professional writing and rhetoric in the Department of English in August 2020. The havoc COVID-19 continues to wreak in the United States — especially among marginalized communities — inspired her to use her skills locally.

“Because of COVID rates in the country — and the disproportionate effect it was having on Black and Brown communities, as well as people with disabilities, those who were the immunocompromised, and pregnant women — it was of interest to me,” Gerdes said. “I felt like I could dive into it. It just became something of a rhetorical exigence, or a calling.”

Gerdes is now in the midst of a research project examining vaccine hesitancy among Latinx communities. The Virginia Tech Council on Vibrant Virginia awarded the project a grant, which is co-funded by the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment and the Virginia Cooperative Extension. The institute provided $25,000 for the project, while Virginia Cooperative Extension provided $11,436.

Before receiving the funding, Gerdes applied for and received a $5,000 Faculty Fellows grant through the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Soon, she began working with the Center for Public Health Practice and Research, and realized there was a huge need — and yet at the same time a lack of funding — for focus groups among area health districts.

Gerdes, in collaboration with the center, was able to arrange focus groups in the spring of 2021, as vaccines were being rolled out. Gerdes knew the important role vaccines would play in stopping the spread of the virus, and she initially considered conducting interviews to learn more about the link between vaccine messages and marginalized communities.

But COVID-19 presented several obstacles along the way, making door-to-door visits and in-person focus groups impossible. Gerdes couldn’t even put up flyers in community spaces because everything was shut down.

Gerdes conducted Zoom focus groups, mainly among individuals with disabilities. She recruited focus-group participants across southwest Virginia to fill out online surveys. To reach individuals with poor internet access, the team set up a phone number for those interested in the project to schedule a focus group.

Gerdes asked local organizations to share the information, left flyers in church mailboxes, and even visited vaccine clinics with paper versions of the survey for individuals to share with friends and family. Still, participation levels remained low, inspiring the team to use a Qualtrics Panel to survey 400 people across Virginia and West Virginia. But even as responses trickled in from other marginalized communities, Gerdes noticed a lack of responses from Latinx communities. The issue, she said, boiled down to a lack of trust.  

“And so we had both failure and success in our focus group recruitment,” Gerdes said. “We didn’t get the numbers of people we wanted to hear from, but we learned a lot from the practice.”

Gerdes reached out to Kris Tilley-Lubbs, president of Casa Latina, a nonprofit organization in Roanoke that provides services to the Spanish-speaking community. The collaboration led Gerdes to apply for the Vibrant Virginia grant.

Gerdes and Tilley-Lubbs, an associate professor emerita in the Virginia Tech School of Education, proposed a project in the Roanoke Valley to identify cultural dimensions of health that relate to COVID-19 and the vaccine. It turned into a 10-week course at Casa Latina, with a focus on oral history and videography skills, as well as an opportunity to earn continuing education credits. Gerdes said the topic of vaccines occurred naturally within the classroom, with students lamenting the tension it was causing within their families.

Each of the 15 participants have identified at least one Latinx friend or family member who will participate in an in-person interview. Participants will conduct three to five interviews on their own time with provided cameras and audio recorders.

“The vaccine is an area of interest for the students themselves,” Gerdes said. “We wanted community buy-in. We had written a participatory action research approach into our proposal, wherein stakeholders from the community would decide together how things would go and what they would want to accomplish.”

Once the interviews are completed, Gerdes plans to conclude with a presentation about what the findings mean for public health, and what health districts can learn from the interviews. She anticipates the project will be finished in June, and the stories will be archived by Special Collections and University Archives.

Virginia Tech is also a collaborator on “Voces of a Pandemic,” an oral history project sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin that collects experiences from the pandemic among U.S. residents of Latinx origin, which students used as inspiration for their interviews.

Funding the project was an easy decision for Karen Roberto, executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment and a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science. According to Roberto, the project fits perfectly with the university’s commitment to the Vibrant Virginia initiative, which strives to foster collaboration between universities and communities.

“Julie’s proposal really met the match of what we were looking for, where we had a solid researcher, a solid project grounded in research, strong methodology, and good partnerships,” Roberto said. “It has broader implications for health disparities and how we collectively think about communities, how we reach out, and how we understand and not assume that everybody thinks alike.”

Gerdes is also receiving project support from Cristina Moraza of Total Action for Progress in Roanoke, who is integral to tasks such as coordinating students and checking material translations. Meanwhile, the Department of English’s Center for Rhetoric in Society assigned two graduate students — Marissa Buccilli and Amilia Evans —  to the project for their research assistantships.

“So many times, academics’ work is not for public audiences,” said Bruce McComiskey, a professor of rhetoric and writing and the director of the Center for Rhetoric in Society. “It’s published in journals. What Julie does that’s different from what most academics do is her research has a direct impact on the communities that she writes about. That’s what excites me about working with Julie and giving her what support we can.”

Buccilli, a first-year PhD student studying writing and rhetoric, is currently assisting with the project’s curriculum development. Initially, she was instrumental during the proposal process, providing feedback and analyzing messaging surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccine.   

Buccilli said the project has taught her the value of a participatory research model.

“Julie’s investment in the community is teaching me the importance of reciprocal research, and the nature of collaborative research when you’re working with communities,” Buccilli said. “It’s important, for example, to make sure the research you’re doing about a community is actually giving back to that community.”

While communication is an important tool in ending pandemics, Gerdes warned it can create larger problems if not used responsibly, such as pitting people against each other. She said it is important to think about the terms used to describe the vaccine. Not listening to concerns, Gerdes said, creates distrust and negatively affects population health. 

“I’m obviously very pro-science, and I encourage vaccination,” Gerdes said. “But there’s a lot of harm in creating a false binary — that you either see the vaccine as a shield and a protector, or you are bad person — instead of also recognizing that it is a material from the outside that goes into your body and has real impacts on your actual physical system. When we don’t look at societal factors in how we’re communicating, we create larger problems for ourselves.”

Written by Kelsey Bartlett