Dr. Maggie Sugg receives NSF’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty

Dr. Maggie Sugg, assistant professor, Department of Geography and Planning has been awarded a CAREER Award by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This award is offered by NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program, a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

“Dr. Maggie Sugg is a top researcher on campus and she has connections to wide-ranging collaborators from the fields of public health, psychology, geography, climate services and government officials across the University, North Carolina and the United States," said Saskia van de Gevel, chair, Department of Geography and Planning.

The award comes with a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years. The NSF grants these awards once a year and the reviewing, award and selection process is one of the most competitive within the NSF. Sugg’s grant will total over $413,796 over a five-year period and is titled, “CAREER: The Geography of Mental Health: Understanding contextual, compositional and external stressors.”

This project advances the understanding of the complex relationship between mental health and geography across an array of mental health outcomes ranging from less severe (e.g., depression, crisis help-seeking behaviors) to more severe (e.g., suicide). 

“The findings of this research are potentially transformative for both mental health and geographical research because it uses geographic methods to identify populations with elevated mental health risks and creates a conceptual framework for environmental and social drivers of patterns in mental health outcomes. On a more fundamental level, this project raises awareness of the impact of COVID-19 and environmental stressors on mental health and the populations at risk for adverse mental health consequences,” said Sugg. 

The model and research approach developed in this project are likely to be generally useful for evaluating mental health stressors in numerous locations. The project's educational activities will target first-generation college students and K-12 educators who use instructional technology. Mental disorders and suicide are acute public health crises and there is a critical need to understand the myriad of mental health disorders and implement public health interventions at multiple levels.

This study examines mental health across contexts using a geographic lens to describe a complex set of interacting factors that produce adverse outcomes. More specifically, this project will address the following research questions: 

  1. What are the spatial and temporal patterns of mental health outcomes (e.g., suicide, self-harm, depression, anxiety, etc.)?

  2. What are the underlying contextual factors (e.g., community-level poverty, racial segregation) and compositional (e.g., gender, age, veteran status, lethal means) that influence these outcomes?

  3. What are external stressors (e.g., COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters) that lead to increased mental health outcomes? 

This project's findings will be enhanced through collaboration with colleagues and students in psychology, ensuring that the information derived from this project is put into practice rapidly, accurately and effectively. Jennifer Runkle, an environmental epidemiologist at the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies and research assistant professor at Appalachian; Kurt Michael, Stanley R. Aeschleman distinguished professor of psychology, Department of Psychology and Dr. Saskia van de Gevel, professor and chair, Department of Geography and Planning are all involved in this grant work. It will also include one fully-funded master's student and three undergraduate students each year.

Sugg is the second App State faculty member to receive a CAREER award. Colleague Dr. Baker Perry, also from the Department of Geography and Planning received the award in 2014 for his project titled “Multiscale Investigations of Tropical Andean Precipitation.” 

Sugg’s research focuses on the spatiotemporal patterns of environmental health illnesses and how these patterns relate to environmental, socioeconomic and climatic determinants. She earned a B.S. in Biology (2008); M.A. in Geography (2011) and Ph.D. in Geography (2015) all from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

To learn more about her research visit her website or read these recent articles about her work:


About the National Science Foundation
The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2021 budget of $8.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

About the Department of Geography and Planning
The Department of Geography and Planning promotes the understanding of the spatial dimensions of human behavior within the physical and cultural systems of the earth, and the role of planning in achieving improvement in those systems. The department offers degrees in geography and in community and regional planning. Learn more at https://geo.appstate.edu.

By Ellen Gwin Burnette  and James Johnston
May 11, 2021

Dr. Maggie Sugg, assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Geography and Planning. She studies climate and health. Photo by Chase Reynolds
Published: May 11, 2021 9:31am