Communicating Science: Profile of Sierra Clark by Audrey Carleton

Today we have a guest student post, originally submitted as a class assignment for Communicating Science (CCOM 314). With support from Diane Dechief, Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre, we will be sharing more noteworthy student writing right here on The Turret.

Audrey Carleton chose to write a profile on Sierra Clark, a graduate student supervised by Dr. Jill Baumgartner in the Institute for Health and Social Policy.

Sierra Clark

Headline: Sierra Clark on indoor air pollution and academic uncertainty

Subhead: McGill Master’s student tests lifesaving interventions for Tibetan Plateau residents

By: Audrey Carleton

Date: December 1, 2017

Sierra Clark has been reading National Geographic for as long as she can remember. Even before she learned to read, she would eagerly flip through the magazine’s glossy pages to admire its photos. From this young age, she had her sights set on someday working for the publication as an archaeologist.

In the twenty years that followed, Clark had a few changes of heart. When she began her undergraduate degree at McGill University in 2011, she was enrolled with a major in Anthropology. But after sitting through a few convoluted lectures in an introductory anthropology course, she realized the program wasn’t the right fit for her. One meeting with an academic advisor later, she settled on a major in Geography, and swiftly fell in love with it. Upon graduating in 2015, she swiftly enrolled in a Master’s Program in Epidemiology at McGill, which she is completing now. All the while, Clark continued to read National Geographic religiously.

So two decades of continuous reading later, when Clark was awarded a grant from National Geographic to funder her Master’s research, she was over the moon. She had, in some way, achieved one of her childhood dreams.

“I had this moment […] where I was like ‘Wow, this is so funny, I am here where I wanted to be when I was like five years old, but I got here through such an odd way,’” Clark said. “Life has this weird way of coming around full circle.”

Clark’s National Geographic award sits on her CV alongside a slew of other accomplishments. It sits next to three academic papers she had published as an undergraduate Geography student at McGill, and a long list of honours, scholarships, and awards.

After all of these successes, Clark is just steps away from submitting her Master’s thesis to the university. Under the supervision of Dr. Jill Baumgartner at the Institute for Health and Social Policy, Clark has spent the past two years studying the cardiovascular impacts of indoor air pollution and the success of improved cook stove interventions to reduce exposure to pollutants.

Clark worked with a team at the Baumgartner Research Group to conduct this research on communities in the Tibetan Plateau. In this area, it’s common for people to cook indoors with traditional stoves that burn solids or biofuels such as wood and coal, emitting smog at levels that threaten their cardiovascular health. Alongside engineers at Tsinghua University (Beijing), Clark and the research team set out to identify new stove and fuel combinations to improve indoor air quality—and in turn, health and longevity—for village residents. The various aspects of her research combine skills and knowledge from multiple fields, and for Clark, this keeps things interesting.

“We’re looking at [intervention] adoption, […] the impact on air quality, and […] the impact on cardiovascular health,” Clark said. “Those are the three themes that I’m interested in, and those are the three themes that frame my thesis [….] It’s highly interdisciplinary, which I love. I get to be a behavioural scientist for the adoption lens, I get to be an environmental health scientist for the air pollution lens, and I get to work with instruments and patients [to test] cardiovascular health.”

At the crux of Clark’s research is the idea of environmental inequality. The Tibetan communities that Clark works with are unfairly vulnerable to the effects of pollution considering their emission levels.

“It’s often the poorest and most marginalized politically and socioeconomically—and all factors that create marginalization—that are often the most exposed to environmental risks,” Clark said. “I think this is a huge environmental injustice because half the world’s population, mostly in low and middle income countries […] are exposed to high levels of air pollution every single day. Indoor air pollution [is…] something that the global community really needs to come together and tackle because it impacts so many different facets of society.”

The research team conducted five rounds of data collection for this longitudinal project: Two before introducing the intervention, and three afterward. Clark’s research has taken her into the field several times, where she’s conducted surveys and interviews with members of local villages exposed to indoor air pollution from cook stoves. She uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods for both collecting and analyzing her data. To Clark, using mixed methods is essential to telling her subjects’ story completely and honestly.

“When you’re working with vulnerable populations, you are taking something from them,” Clark said. “What are you giving back? You’re advancing your career, but what do they get out of it? I think working with them and spending time with them for me has at least helped me continue keeping them in mind as I’m writing the research for them and not just for me.”

As Clark finishes up her research, she’s turning her focus toward figuring out what to do next. Despite the passion she holds for her research, she remains cognizant of the possibility of getting trapped in academia for too long, and she still grapples with an uncertainty that’s reminiscent of her days picking a major as an undergrad. But this time, Clark has learned to trust herself, and has taken a leap of faith into applications for PhD programs.

“I get up and I’m excited to get on my laptop and look at data,” Clark said. “I do feel uncertainty a lot of the time […] But I don’t think you should ever make decisions just based off of fear. I think those are always the wrong decisions.”

To learn more about Sierra Clark’s work, visit her profile on the Baumgartner Research Group site here.

Audrey Carleton is a U4 Arts student pursuing a Joint Honours Major in Sociology and Environment with a minor in Communications. She currently works as a Managing Editor at The McGill Tribune, where she edits News and Lifestyle pieces. In her spare time, she enjoys long-distance running, reading the autobiographies of female comedians, and drinking at least 6-8 cups of coffee per day in order to be able to do all of these things at once.

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