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Yolanda J. McDonald

Assistant Professor, Department of Human and Organizational Development
Faculty Affiliate, Program in Climate and Environmental Studies, Vanderbilt University


Dr. McDonald is the Lead Investigator of the Vanderbilt University Drinking Water Justice Lab (DWJL). She earned her M.A. in Sociology from the University of Texas at El Paso, focusing on human health outcomes associated with lack of access to a public water supply in Colonias located along the U.S.-Mexico border. Dr. McDonald earned her Ph.D. in Geography from Texas A&M University, focusing on health inequities associated with accessibility to preventive cervical cancer healthcare services in New Mexico, USA. She is a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow and a  National Institutes of Health, Health Disparities Research Institute Scholar.

Dr. McDonald’s research draws on geography, sociology, public health, data science, and public policy to conduct interdisciplinary research to explore how structural social determinants of health influence the built environment and health disparities. She founded the Vanderbilt University Drinking Water Justice Lab (DWJL) to create critical spatial data to assess drinking water injustice and health outcomes at the county and community levels. The DWJL, in collaboration with the Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the Tennessee Association of Utility, constructed a geospatial database of the service area boundary of Tennessee community water systems and a state-wide survey to assess the drinking water industry sector front-line employees’ perceptions of their water system technical, managerial, and financial capacity. Dr. McDonald is passionate about mentoring students and providing them with experiential learning opportunities to deepen their understanding of the value of applied research. Dr. McDonald has published articles in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters in healthcare accessibility, water justice, energy justice, climate change, and human health.

Teaching: Professor McDonald teaches courses spanning environmental health, social determinants of health, and water justice. She is also an instructor for HOD Capstone.

Service: Professor McDonald serves as an ad hoc reviewer for more than 20 journals, including Environmental Justice, Nature Water, Nature Communications, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Social Science & Medicine, and The New England Journal of Medicine.

Community Engagement: Professor McDonald chairs the Tennessee Drinking Water Stakeholders Committee, comprised of members from the Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, Tennessee Association of Utility Districts, Vanderbilt University, and Community Water Systems Operators.