A question & answer session to get to know the 2021 GG Scholar Nikia Smith, 1st year graduate student in the Genetics Program. She has joined the labs of Drs. Catherine Hoyo and Anthony Planchart.

What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?

Epigenetics interests me most because it studies impact on gene expression without changes to the underlying DNA sequence. Epigenetic changes can be influenced by an individual’s behavior and environmental exposures, and can act intergenerationally to affect the health of future populations.

What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?

I was influenced to go into this field of study by my former Master’s advisor Dr. Rebecca Fry at UNC Chapel Hill, and through my fascination by epigenetic research landmark papers published by Dr. Randy Jirtle, who is currently a professor of epigenetics associated with North Carolina State University.

Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?

I hope that all people can benefit from my research, especially populations exposed to environmental contaminants.

How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?

My research can inform decision makers about how to protect sensitive populations, especially underrepresented populations that are exposed to environmental contaminants leading to chronic disease. Showing the mechanism by which environmental exposure affect one’s epigenetics and leads to disease will allow law markers to put more restrictions in place to prevent contaminants from being introduced into the environment, or influence legal decisions and funding to move sensitive communities out of contaminated environments.

What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?

The most pressing issue in my field of study is to determine the mechanism by which environmental exposures lead to changes in epigenetic markers thereby leading to disease, especially with a focus on health disparities.

How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?

I expect GG Scholars to impact my work by leading me to training and networking opportunities to improve my skillset as a scientist and to help in creating important collaborations. These opportunities will assist to drive my research forward and to make important discoveries in my field.

How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?

I would describe my research interests to a 3rd grader by saying that I research ways that unhealthy behaviors and environments lead to disease. I specifically focus on how exposures affect how we respond or react to these environmental contaminants.

What’s your dream job?

My dream job would be to become a prolific and proactive professor of epigenetics that also works with law makers to protect the health of the population.