In this new Vital Signs series, we feature graduate student Aleah Bailey in the Jaspers lab. Ignited by a longtime passion for environmental justice, Bailey seeks to assess how stress and sociodemographic factors affect systemic immune responses to wildfire smoke exposure.
Aleah Bailey is a 4th-year PhD candidate in the lab of Ilona Jaspers, PhD, professor of microbiology & immunology and director of the Curriculum in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. In the lab, Bailey uses in vitro cell cultures, human clinical samples, and animal models to understand how stress affects the immune system, and subsequently, one’s resilience to future environmental chemical exposures, such as wildfire smoke.
Q: What were your interests when young, and how did you get into biomedical science?
A: Growing up, I was interested in criminal justice and considered pursuing a career in law. I attended a vocational high school where I “majored” in criminal justice and was even a member of the mock trial team. However, during high school, I discovered that I had a stronger interest in science, specifically biology and chemistry.
Unable to decide between the two subjects, I decided to major in biochemistry at Rutgers University- New Brunswick. I was introduced to the field of toxicology through a Biochemical Toxicology course and through my undergraduate research on the neurotoxic effects of pyrethroid insecticides.
Q: Why did you choose UNC and the lab you are in?
A: I initially came to UNC as a post-bac student after graduating college in 2019. I participated in the UNC Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), a year-long research program, to gain more research experience and better prepare for graduate school. Because I was interested in gaining more research experience in toxicology, I joined the lab of Ilona Jaspers, who’s research broadly focuses on the human health effects of inhaled pollutants.
Under the guidance of Ilona Jaspers and Meghan Rebuli, PhD, my bench mentor, I developed better research skills and gained a lot of confidence in my ability to succeed in graduate school. I also really enjoyed the inclusive, supportive and challenging environment of UNC, so I decided to stay and join the Biological & Biomedical Sciences Program (BBSP) upon my acceptance. I re-joined the Jasper lab in 2021 as a graduate student because of her supportive mentorship, the overall lab environment, and the research opportunities available. I am currently a 4th year student and am very grateful for that decision.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: My research focuses on understanding the role of stress in modulating responses to wildfire smoke exposure. Populations that experience a high burden of stress, such as minority and low socioeconomic status (SES) populations, also disproportionately experience a greater burden of environmental health disparities.
The basis of my work is the hypothesis that high stress loads, assessed using an allostatic load index, are causing underlying health issues that reduce resilience to future health challenges, such as environmental exposures. My research involves using a novel multi-model approach (in vitro cell culture, human clinical samples, and animal models) to assess how stress and sociodemographic factors converge to alter systemic immune responses to wildfire smoke exposure.
Q: What inspires you the most about working in your field?
A: I appreciate that the field of toxicology is constantly evolving to better address the impact of chemicals on human health. For example, incorporating non-chemical stressors experienced by disadvantaged communities into toxicological approaches is an emerging area of toxicology. My research, along with others studying extrinsic chemical susceptibility, will help to ensure that the disparate health risks present in disadvantaged communities are being considered in toxicology risk assessments.
Q: What are your goals after earning your PhD?
A: While I am still learning about potential career opportunities that align with my interests, I hope to obtain a position where I can continue proposing new ways to incorporate non-chemical stressors into toxicological risk assessments and advocate for environmental justice. I am also passionate about mentorship and plan to continue mentoring students and young professionals as I progress in my career.