Adolescent Researcher Named a Duke Health Scholar

Adolescent development researcher Dr. Sherika Hill has been named a Translating Duke Health Scholar in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University School of Medicine.

In addition to her new role, Hill currently serves as a senior research associate at the School of Medicine where she works on studies that look at a certain type of early life stressor and later health outcome in adults. She also is a social clinical research specialist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

To add to all of her positions, Hill also teaches as a co-instructor in the master’s of Biomedical Sciences program at Duke. In her course, Hill collaborates with students on a systematic literature review of the effects on IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) and on the risks for childhood cancers – something that’s “specifically generated” to help recruit underrepresented minorities into the biomedical sciences, she says.

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Dr. Sherika Hill

“It’s a way for me to give back and really encourage and mentee younger researchers from underrepresented minority groups,” she says.

Hill’s research focuses on the risk and resilience in adolescent development but more specifically on the role that socioeconomic status and epigenetics play in creating disparities in health and behavioral outcomes.

She first became interested in adolescent development during her Ph.D. training at UNC Chapel Hill, where she conducted obesity research.

“I was looking at longitudinal trends of growth in the first years of life. At that time, infant obesity wasn’t a real term or concept that people gave a lot of creative [attention] to but they were definitely a lot of researcher-established research in adolescent obesity and how to bend the curve,” Hill says. “That’s when I first started thinking about adolescent health in general, trying to understand what the social determinant of obesity is, and a lot of that is around parenting and then the psychology of the mind and the whole development.”

As a Translating Duke Health Scholar, Hill now has more access to researchers and investigators within the School of Medicine and more specifically, the Department of Pediatrics.

“They connect me with those resources because we have a group at Duke that’s organized not around discipline but around childhood health outcomes and so my scholarship allows me to work with the other investigators who’ve been identified at Duke as being experts in early childhood health. I get to sit at the table with them, having been identified as one of the researchers in that space,” says Hill who received a bachelor’s degree in political science and medical studies from Davidson College, a master’s in health care administration from UNC Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Public Health.

Hill plans on using her five-year scholarship to establish a “clinical arm” to do biomedical research among children who have experienced child maltreatment, whether that’s abuse or neglect. She is also working to determine a way of not only recruiting these individuals into clinical research, but to do research in a trauma-informed way, she says.

An Atlanta-native, Hill first came to Duke as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychiatry in 2013 to learn more about child development and mental health. In 2016, she worked in a two-year training fellowship at UNC-CH geared towards child development and epigenetics, while simultaneously working part-time with Duke as an adjunct faculty member to continue the collaborations that began while she was a postdoctoral scholar.

During her last year of her Chapel Hill fellowship, Hill began a searching for faculty appointment opportunities. Given her previous experiences at both universities, Hill “had my heart set on Duke or UNC as top Schools of Medicine and Public Health, respectively.”

Hill ended up accepting a primary appointment at Duke because, the university has “a really well integrated and collaborative School of Medicine that would not only allow me to continue my research with adolescent mental health, but also looking more into the disease programming aspect of it through our biomedical science capabilities and cores,”  she says.

Having the opportunity to return to Duke to do this research was something she says that she just couldn’t pass up.

“Even though UNC also has a really great School of Medicine and they also have a good School of Public Health, I had established relationships already at Duke from my postdoc where I led a year-long symposium on behavioral epigenetics … I knew most of the labs and investigators who were working in that space,” Hill says.

Another aspect that made Duke so attractive to her was that she is able to keep her affiliation with UNC-Chapel Hill. This allows her to balance her biomedical interests at Duke with more of a public health and public policy outreach at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In her role as a social clinical research specialist at UNC, Hill is able to connect “more directly” with state and federal legislatures and try to “influence them on what are the pressing needs and priorities for this demographic.”

Dr. Gary Maslow, an assistant professor in the Duke University School of Medicine, who was heavily involved in Hill’s recruitment to Duke back in 2013, says that she has been a “wonderful faculty member” to work with in the Department of Psychiatry.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with her on several studies and have found her to be both diligent and hardworking, as well as incredibly creative,” Maslow says. “I am continually impressed by how thoughtful Sherika is about being inclusive in research. We at the Department are very excited about her independent career and know she will be extremely successful in all of her work.”

In the early stages of her Translating Duke Health scholarship, Hill hopes to establish evidence of the importance of the first few years of life in determining health outcomes down the road.

“What happens in utero and those first two years, they have lasting effects and I don’t think that we have a real appreciation for that right now,” she says. “I think people think it’s important, but they don’t really understand the extent to which disease programming actually happen in utero and continues to impact your vulnerability or your resilience to life experiences that happen later on.”

Monica Levitan can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @monlevy_.

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