Q&A with Jeliyah Clark, PhD Candidate in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering
We at Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Jeliyah Clark about her professional background prior to Gillings, her PhD program in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, her first time being abroad, and what global health means to her.
What was your background prior to coming to Gillings?
I began my PhD in 2018 after completing my BSPH in Environmental Health Sciences. As an undergraduate, I worked in the lab of Dr. Rebecca Fry on projects related to private well water quality in North Carolina and identifying epigenetic “fingerprints” that could capture exposure to chemicals during pregnancy.
Will you tell us more about your PhD in Environmental Sciences and Engineering?
Most of my research explores some aspect of the relationship between exposure to chemicals during pregnancy and altered fetal development. In the Fry lab, we often use the placenta as a model organ because of the important role it plays in exchanging gases, wastes, and hormones between the mother and fetus. Some chemicals mothers are exposed to during pregnancy are also able to cross the placental barrier and reach the developing baby. My dissertation investigates whether maternal diet—specifically, consuming B vitamins like folate and B12—can protect developing babies from low birth weight associated with exposure to arsenic during pregnancy.
Can you tell us what made you decide to go abroad for the first time?
I entered graduate school right after graduating college and have had to balance pursuing a PhD with developing and maturing as an individual. Sometimes this came with academic and/or emotional challenges that I wasn’t equipped to handle well. This past year, I worked with a therapist and life coach to cultivate new ways of thinking and approaching life, work, and relationships. This included learning to trade perfectionism for self-compassion and setting/honoring boundaries among many other things. As part of that endeavor, I also decided to use the last bit of my PhD to take some time to rest, create room in my schedule for what brings me joy, and reflect on all that I’ve learned the past few years as I prepare for whatever is next in my career. Being able to work with leading scientists in my field in different countries is just a sweet bonus!
Can you tell us about your experience being abroad for the first time?
So far, my experience has been exceedingly, abundantly above all I’ve ever asked or imagined. I feel grateful and privileged to be here and reflect often on how much taking time to rest feels like a privilege and an act of resistance. I love the appreciation for work-life balance here in Spain and how progressive and community-oriented Barcelona feels. Life isn’t perfect here by any means, as anti-Black racism continues to be a global issue, but it’s been disappointing to see America taking even larger strides in the wrong direction with recent Supreme Court rulings. Later this summer, I will be collaborating with researchers at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and Imperial College London, and I expect it will be an enriching experience—academically and culturally. I’m also nervous about living in France because I don’t speak French.
What does “global health” mean to you?
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that when I first began studying public health, global health seemed like a separate area of the field concerning the well-being of people living outside of the US. I didn’t consider my research “global health.” Now, I understand that the policies, values, and practices that shape our environment and health here in the US also influence communities around the world—and vice versa—because the world is so interconnected. Some of the clearest examples of this are in the impacts of the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that countries who emit the least amounts of greenhouse gases will be most impacted by climate change.
What drew you to the Gillings School of Global Public Health?
I was drawn to the Gillings School of Global Public Health as an undergraduate because of my experience in the High School Summer Symposium. As a graduate student, I decided to stay because I had a strong community of support at UNC and my family and friends lived nearby. (I was afraid of juggling the pressures of acclimating to a new city on top of the stress of a PhD program.) If I could go back in time, I would still choose Gillings because we have such a rigorous training program, but I wouldn’t let fear of change be the greatest motivating factor. I’ve learned since then that my greatest moments of growth will occur outside of my comfort zone.
What is your dream job?
I hope to do work that is practice-oriented and that advances the health and well-being of Black women and girls in some way. I don’t have a dream job, but I do dream of a life filled with plenty of opportunities to spend time with the people I love, to travel, and to rest.
Did you have any summer traditions amongst your family growing up?
One of my favorite summer traditions growing up was spending time with my family, especially my cousins. I am an only child and summers were always a sweet time for me because I was able to spend weeks at a time playing with my cousins, visiting my grandparents/extended family, and watching movies and playing games with my daddy. My dad also took me to Disney World every summer and sometimes my cousin(s) would join. I loved that he rode all the rides with me and took me to every park. I’ll always cherish those memories with him!