Yasmin V. Barrios is a doctoral candidate in epidemiology in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. She earned her master of public health degree from the University of Washington, with a focus on community-oriented public health practice. Her international public health research experience includes running two large studies in Lima, Peru. She is a science communication ambassador with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center IMPACTS Program and a co-chair of the Gender-Based Violence Research Group, one of the Gillings School’s earliest student-led research groups.
What made you choose UNC-Chapel Hill when deciding on a program/place to study?
My decision to apply to UNC was primarily due to the guidance I received from my long-time academic and professional (and wonderful!) mentors who knew I wanted further training in epidemiology (or epi). They recommended UNC because it offered a supportive learning environment, a large number of substantive research areas and an impressive focus on cutting-edge epi methods. UNC felt like a good fit because I wanted to really understand how data collected through rigorous research studies are analyzed to reach valid conclusions that inform and guide policy, interventions and future research.
My final decision to attend came after my admitted student visit. I had a chance to sit in on multiple classes, meet current students and mingle with potential future classmates. The current students were full of information, freely shared it and confirmed that the department and their classmates were supportive and caring. I felt incredibly welcomed by the students, the faculty and by the department’s academic advisors. My experience during that visit was instrumental in my decision to attend UNC.
Tell us about your research.
My research aims to better understand depression and anxiety faced by women during and after their pregnancy. Pregnancy brings with it a wide range of emotions, but experiencing persistent symptoms of depression and anxiety can negatively impact the health of both the mother and her baby. Women who suffer from depression and anxiety may have smaller babies, babies with impaired cognitive development and have difficulty bonding with their baby. Children of depressed mothers are also more likely to experience their own episodes of depression when they are older, demonstrating that mental health disorders have far-reaching and intergenerational consequences. Current research has helped identify numerous factors that can increase a woman’s chances of experiencing depression and anxiety during her pregnancy and some of these include: poverty, neighborhood safety, intimate partner violence, low social support and other serious events across their lifetime. Additionally, medical complications during pregnancy and delivery have been linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Because many of these factors do not occur in isolation, a woman can experience more than one of these risk factors at the same time. Therefore, my research focuses on understanding how the risk of depression and anxiety might increase for pregnant and postpartum women who experience multiple risk factors.
This research contributes to the growing recognition that mental health and life events screening for pregnant women during prenatal and postpartum care visits is of vital importance. Women should be asked about their symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as other current negative and difficult experiences, to gain a better understanding of their overall risk of
suffering mental health issues. Identifying women who may be at risk can lead to more efficient and effective treatment, and ultimately improve the health of the mother and her baby.
What does it mean to you to be a first-generation graduate student in your family?
To me, being a first-generation graduate student is a double-edged sword. It means that I will have accomplished one of the many dreams my parents held for me when they came to this country. I was born in Mexico and when I was 6 years old my father took a risk and moved my mother and I to the U.S. in hopes of a better life. My parents allowed me to cultivate my love of science and supported me in all my endeavors. When giving me permission to participate in science fairs, school government or exchange student programs, their only question was: “Will this help you succeed in school and with going to college?” I was raised with this one mantra: “Education is important; your only job is to go to school.”
Being a first-generation student means I have had to do a lot of on-the-job learning by navigating this sometimes overwhelming education system. In pursuing higher education, I spent just as much time figuring out what I was supposed to be doing as I did explaining it to my parents, because it was important they remain included. The double edge is that, in reaching the Ph.D. level, it has become more difficult to express why it takes so long and why I can’t do this (get my Ph.D.) at another school closer to home. Despite the long-term effort, a bachelor’s and a master’s behind me, it seems I still have to learn as I go and still have to figure out how to best help my parents understand this phase of my education. As a first-generation graduate student, I am filled with appreciation for the sacrifices my family made and continue to make. Thanks to their love, support and expectations, I have been able to work with amazing mentors and accomplish my goals. I also recognize that one of the main reasons I chose public health is because the collective experience of immigrant families boils down to wanting things to just be better. As I reach the end of my Ph.D. journey (hopefully!), the meaning of accomplishing this goal has gone from wanting to make my family proud to also wanting to be supportive to students in similar situations and to pass along the many lessons I’ve come across.
What are you hoping to accomplish with your Carolina degree?
I plan to continue my work with maternal mental health research in order to develop interventions aimed at preventing and managing depression and anxiety among pregnant women. I would also like to increase my work with science communication and mentor students interested in public health. Ideally, I would like to do this within a university setting as faculty.