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Sheena Martenies

A Few Minutes With KCH Assistant Professor Sheena Martenies

AHS media specialist Vince Lara speaks with KCH assistant professor Sheena Martenies about why she chose Illinois, teaching during a pandemic and her research inspirations.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, a podcast that showcases Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara, and today I'm speaking with KCH Assistant Professor, Sheena Martenies, about why she chose Illinois, teaching during a pandemic, and her research experience. Did you always want to teach?

SHEENA MARTENIES: So, I didn't ever really envision myself as a teacher as I was going through graduate school, as I was going through my postdoc. But I took a position as an adjunct lecturer in the last year of my postdoc at Colorado State. And I was teaching at the University of Northern Colorado, and I really enjoyed it. I loved talking to the students. I was working with MPH, Masters of Public Health students, about environmental health, and I really enjoyed it. I found it very rewarding. So I never really envisioned myself being a teacher, but I found that it's something that I really enjoy and I'm thankful for the opportunity to get to continue that and to continue to grow as an educator. It's been really rewarding.


VINCE LARA: Yeah. You mentioned that you grew up in Southern California. I wonder how you made your way to the Midwest and the University of Illinois?

SHEENA MARTENIES: Yeah. So that was-- it's a little bit of a journey. I did my undergraduate degree in San Diego. I went to San Diego State. And then after that, I got a job. And the recession in 2008 hit and I didn't have a job anymore, and so I kind of bounced around. And eventually, I decided to pursue a Master of Public Health degree, and I moved to Washington D.C. to do that. And I thought I was going to be a regulator. I wanted to work for EPA, or maybe the Department of Energy. And I had a really wonderful advisor when I was at GW, and they really pushed me to pursue my doctoral degree. And so I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan and went to the University of Michigan, and got my PhD.

So I had been in the Midwest before, and I really enjoyed my time in Ann Arbor, but I moved out to Colorado to do a postdoc, like I mentioned, at Colorado State University, and loved being out in the Mountain West. It was just really, really wonderful having mountains, and all the hiking, and all that great stuff.

But then the opportunity to come to the University of Illinois came up, and I thought, well, you know, I loved being in a college town in the Midwest. Maybe this would be a great place for me. It didn't hurt that my partner was originally from Michigan, and so he got to be a little closer to home as well. So when that opportunity came up, it felt very appropriate for me to come back to the Midwest.

VINCE LARA: Yeah. You really can't beat the Midwest college towns, for sure. You know, you-- what's it been like teaching in this pandemic? You know, I'm sure you prefer being in a classroom with students. But you know, what kind of challenges have you experienced, or have there been, maybe, benefits of Zoom teaching that you didn't anticipate?

SHEENA MARTENIES: There is definitely some challenges, but a lot of opportunities as well. I think one of the biggest challenges, like you mentioned, is just not being there in the classroom. It's hard to get that real-time feedback from your students, or really make those kind of personal level connections.

Another thing is that I'm really new to teaching. Like I said before, this is not something that I've done a whole lot of in my graduate career. And so now that I'm an Assistant Professor, I'm really trying to learn how to teach, and learn how to teach online. So that's been a little bit of a challenge, but it's been wonderful. There's so many supportive resources here on campus that have really allowed me to make the best of teaching online.

One of the things that I think that's been sort of unexpectedly helpful is that students-- you're able to meet with students one-on-one in a more effective way. You know, office hours aren't always accessible to people. They've got scheduling conflicts. They have family obligations that don't really allow them to come to campus when you might be holding office hours. But it's really easy to hop on a quick, 20-minute Zoom meeting.

And so I think sometimes there are opportunities to meet with students, and we've got a much more robust framework for doing those types of quick, one-on-one opportunities that might be always accessible to students. And so I think that has been a real benefit of this online environment, where we've got these kind of quick and easy meetings, and people are generally more available if they don't have to come all the way to campus, or come all the way to your office.

VINCE LARA: Most of the faculty that I speak to here at the University of Illinois-- the faculty, I find that there are different things that inspire their research-- something that happened to them, some experience along the way. And I wonder what your inspiration was?

SHEENA MARTENIES: Sure. So like I mentioned, I grew up in Southern California. And I can remember we lived in Ventura County, and we would drive into the San Fernando Valley to go visit my grandparents. And you know, you'd come over this small mountain pass and you'd drop down into the valley, and every time, it didn't matter what time of year it was, there was always just this thick brown haze hanging over where my grandparents lived. And I just remember that from my childhood.

And then I took some courses in college and in graduate school and just realized how important environmental health is. It's one of those things that, a lot of people don't have control over their environment. They live where they live because of their socioeconomic status, or their job, or their family. And so they're just sort of in the environment that they're in. And so I think that there are a lot of really interesting research and policy questions we can ask about the environment and environmental health.

And so I think that is really where my interest comes from, I think. Just knowing that those exposures are out there, they're largely involuntary, and they can have a pretty dramatic impact on a person's health.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, which leads into my next question which is about your research and focusing on pollution and child health outcomes. And can you talk a little bit more about what that is?

SHEENA MARTENIES: Sure. So I'm particularly interested in air pollutant exposures that happen during the prenatal period and during that early life period, and sort of what the subsequent health outcomes are for children. So we know that developing fetuses, infants, and small children, they have respiratory symptoms that are rapidly developing. Their bodies are undergoing a lot of changes, and they might be really susceptible to those air pollutant exposures.

So a lot of the research I'm doing right now is with a cohort study based in Denver, Colorado called Healthy Start. And this is a group of children that have been followed from their prenatal period on, and we've been able to look at things like air pollution in the prenatal period, some of those features of the built environment. You know, whether there are a lot of trees and parks or a lot of paved surfaces-- those types of factors.

And we've found that there are some relationships between those early life exposures and those prenatal exposures to outcomes like birth weight, which is a really good neonatal indicator of later life outcomes like obesity and respiratory health. So we're starting to explore how the environment in which children develop and then grow impacts their long-term health. And so that's a line of research that I'm really interested in continuing as we start to understand how these environmental exposures that are really not voluntary impact children's health.

VINCE LARA: At an R I University, you always are thinking of what's next in the pipeline. And I wonder, is there something that you have planned, post-vets research for your next project?

SHEENA MARTENIES: Yeah. That's a really great question. I am becoming increasingly interested in some of the spaces that children spend their time outside of their home. A lot of environmental epidemiology and environmental health research that looks at childhood health outcomes really focuses on home environments, and those are so important.

We want all children to grow up in a healthy home, but we also know that kids, especially young kids, don't spend all of their time at home. A lot of children might be spending time in daycare facilities or preschools, and I'm becoming more interested in what's going on in those types of environments.

So I'm hoping to partner with some of the faculty here on campus in the Family Resiliency Center and in the College of Engineering to start to look at those types of indoor spaces-- those child care facilities, those preschools. Try to understand what the exposures might be in those spaces so that we can get a more complete idea of what early childhood exposures might be for kids as they grow up.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Sheena Martenies. For more podcasts on Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeart Radio,, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

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