Benika Dixon named School of Public Health’s inaugural ACES Fellow

The ACES Fellowship seeks to further the research, teaching and scholarship of early-career faculty committed to diversity.
September 20, 2021

Benika Dixon, DrPH, MPH, was recently selected as the first Accountability, Climate, Equity, and Scholarship (ACES) Fellow from the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. The ACES Fellowship is a faculty pipeline hiring program that connects those advancing outstanding scholarship with relevant disciplinary units on campus. The program promotes the research, teaching and scholarship of early career scholars who embrace the belief that diversity is an indispensable component of academic excellence.

“I felt that the importance of the ACES Fellowship is the values and goals it stands for and the importance of being able to diversify the faculty here at Texas A&M,” Dixon said of her decision to apply for the program. “I also saw it as an opportunity to grow as a researcher and a teacher.”

Dixon’s interest in public health began early. “Growing up in a community that was often seen as an environmental justice community with many different vulnerable populations, I was always interested in what I could do to make a change in my community,” Dixon said.

As an undergraduate student at Spelman College working toward a degree in chemistry, Dixon participated in the college’s health careers program. The program introduced her to public health as the field of study that would become her passion.

Dixon went on to earn a Master of Public Health degree at Southern Connecticut State University in 2011 and began pursuing a Doctor of Public Health at Morgan State University in 2012. At the same time as she was pursuing her doctorate, Dixon worked as health planner in Washington D.C. from 2011 to 2014 and then as a public health emergency planner in Baltimore from 2014 to 2016. Her experience in Baltimore during the Freddy Gray riots fueled her drive to pursue a career in disaster and environmental epidemiology. She transferred to the Texas A&M University School of Public Health in 2017 and completed her DrPH in Epidemiology and Environmental Health in 2020.

As part of the two-year Fellowship, Dixon will continue the research she began for her doctoral dissertation.

“My primary research focus is on understanding the health impacts of environmental exposures and hazards,” Dixon said. “In particular, I’m looking at hazards and exposures in environmental justice communities and how they impact vulnerable populations.”

Dixon’s research examines the health and environmental risk perceptions of residential exposure to coal tar creosote in Somerville, Texas. Creosote, a chemical used in some wood preservatives and pesticides, has been associated with a range of health problems, including skin conditions, different types of cancers, and immunological, neurological, reproductive and developmental effects. The chemical is classified as a probable human carcinogen by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Dixon’s other ongoing research projects include looking at COVID-19 and environmental exposure in prison populations. She has also coordinated COVID-19 testing logistics for The Texas A&M University System and worked on campus surveillance for COVID-19.

For the teaching component of the fellowship, Dixon will be teaching field epidemiology in the spring. She has previously been a teaching assistant at the School of Public Health and helped develop the MPH Core Curriculum taken by all graduate students in the School of Public Health.

Dixon is also a founding fellow of the William Averette Anderson Fund. Created in 2014, the charitable organization seeks to expand the number of historically underrepresented professionals in the fields of disaster and hazard research and practice so that the diversity of the hazard and disaster field is reflective of American society. She is also a faculty fellow with the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (HRRC). Established at Texas A&M University in 1998, HRRC supports interdisciplinary research on hazard analysis, emergency preparedness and response, disaster recovery, and hazard mitigation in the interests of reducing communities’ vulnerability to hazards and improving communities’ ability to respond to and recover from disasters.

The School of Public Health is currently conducting a search for another ACES Fellow.  After the conclusion of the two-year fellowship, Dixon will become a tenure-track assistant professor in the School of Public Health. She hopes that her time in the ACES program shows students what they can achieve.

“Diversity and inclusion are important to the faculty here,” Dixon said. “But I think it is also very important for the students to see representation in the faculty.”

– by Kelly Tucker

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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