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When it comes to research, Dr. Jason Marion, associate professor of environmental health science, considers himself an opportunist. Like many EKU faculty researchers, a combination of student interests, current issues and available resources determine the direction of his research topics. This approach has led to him leading a multitude of research projects based around his area of expertise in environmental epidemiology.  

Focusing primarily on water-related diseases and prevention, his student-centered research has taken him across the globe to Kenya and to low-resource communities in the United States gathering data on the safety of drinking water. In Kenya, he also conducted studies on antibiotic resistance stemming from the antibiotics in milk; and in South Central Kentucky, he’s looked at the prevalence of MRSA among livestock workers.  

When a student wants to research an issue in their hometown, Marion jumps at the opportunity. Having students from rural communities within EKU’s service region and international students from low-income countries, like Kenya, he’s realized those areas are often neglected in terms of research studies. 

“If our students want to work there, then I’m going to help them,” he said. “There are so many communities that have so many questions about what’s going on in their community. In many cases, they just need the data to be able to make future decisions on how to deal with their problems.” 

One of Marion’s current research projects focuses locally on e-cigarette usage among college students in the Appalachian region. With a graduate student taking interest in studying e-cigarettes, the initial survey was conducted in 2014. The student received award recognition by the tobacco control section of the American Public Health Association. Then, the survey was repeated in 2018 by another graduate student using the same data collection technique. 

Surveys on what Marion calls “hot button issues,” like e-cigarettes, can generate strong participation bias. To avoid skewed results, the students took the approach of visiting general education courses to conduct their surveys. This method produced a high response rate and cross-section sampling consistent with the University’s student population. 

Between the first and second surveys, Marion and the student researchers discovered an increase in e-cigarette usage among students, along with a significant softening of support for policies related to prohibiting e-cigarettes on campus. The noticeable increase in e-cigarette usage was especially prevalent among students engaged in Greek life, and even more so among fraternity men. Furthermore, the study showed students under 21 years of age were more likely to use e-cigarettes than older students. And Kentucky students were less likely to use e-cigarettes than out-of-state students, although both groups were more likely users than students attending universities outside Kentucky. 

“There’s still a lot of other studies that can be taken from our data set to look at how people’s perceptions of e-cigarettes have changed,” Marion said. He’s hopeful a future graduate student will take interest in the topic and conduct another repeat study. Because e-cigarette usage seems to correlate with social activities, he’s curious to find out if this year’s COVID-19 pandemic has had any effect on e-cigarette usage. 

Through his many research endeavors, Marion’s seen success with college students conducting surveys as an effective means of data collection. 

“When you have students that are from certain communities, people are much more willing to work with them,” he said. In working in rural areas like Kenya, Marion noted “So few people are actually employing international students to be able to go to their home communities where this kind of work is needed and empowering them to collect the information.”

The most difficult part of the research, Marion said, is “when you do discover an extensive problem, what are you going to do about it?” To address his concern, he’s exploring ways to give communities the data collection tools they need to develop solutions. He’s working to develop the technology for communities and well water users to test their own water, for example.   

Marion joined EKU’s faculty in 2012 after working for Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources for 13 years while pursuing his graduate studies. Being from an Appalachian community and having attended a regional university in Kentucky, Marion wanted to give back by working at EKU. He was also drawn by the faculty in his department. 

“They were all just so kind and generous,” he said. “And not only that, they were also leaders in the profession.”

Marion is now considered a leader in his field and also serves in various leadership roles on campus. With this year’s pandemic, he’s been participating in federal review panels and evaluating proposals regarding technology for COVID-19 surveillance and the development of early warning systems. He also plays a key role in EKU’s COVID-19 response team. All the while, he prioritizes teaching and stays active in research. 

“I have learned so much through my research applications that have forced me to stay current, and that has impacted my teaching,” Marion said. “I use the research to make me a better teacher.”