Originally from O’ahu, Hawai’i, Nicole (Nikki) Deville joined the School of Public Health's epidemiology and biostatistics department as an assistant professor and now calls “The Ninth Island” home.
But her plans didn't always involve public health. She began her college studies at Stanford and planned to become a doctor. To stand out on future med school applications, she majored in international studies. An elective course titled Critical Issues in International Women’s Health introduced her to public health and she realized that path would marry her interests in medicine and policy.
She went on from there to pursue a master's in public health from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, completed her practicuum with the Republic of Palau, working with the Ministry of Health’s non-communicable disease unit to conduct a needs assessment and evaluation of programs, and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California, Irivine. After a postdoctoral fellowship in environmental epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, she was drawn back West.
Tell us about your research interests.
My current research focuses on using spatiotemporal approaches to investigate the impacts of multiple environmental and contextual exposures (e.g., air pollution, green space, and neighborhood socioeconomic status) on health disparities in outcomes such as cardiovascular disease and cognition.
My broad research interests include environmental epidemiology, social epidemiology, environmental mixtures, mental health and wellness, maternal and child health, health disparities in Pacific Islander and Indigenous populations, and public health pedagogy.
Why did you choose UNLV?
I was excited at the prospect of joining UNLV School of Public Health because of the innovative and important work the faculty, staff, students, and centers are doing, particularly around addressing health disparities and social determinants of health. I also appreciated that UNLV has been consistently recognized for the diversity of its students, staff, and faculty, and I knew I wanted to work for a Minority-Serving Institution (MSI) and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI).
Finally, Las Vegas and the surrounding areas are home to a relatively large population of Pacific Islanders and Indigenous peoples, who often experience disproportionate rates of adverse environmental exposures, social stressors, and chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and mental health conditions. My research agenda focuses on employing biostatistics, epidemiologic methods, and spatial analysis to characterize complex mixtures of environmental and contextual exposures that contribute to health disparities. However, I am very interested in expanding my research program to incorporate more mixed methods research, particularly community-based participatory research, and saw an opportunity to work toward addressing health disparities Pacific Islander and Indigenous populations in Nevada.
What is the most rewarding part about working in public health?
I really enjoy the interdisciplinary and dynamic nature of public health. Many public health issues cannot be solved from a single lens or perspective, and a solution that worked yesterday may not work well tomorrow. One of the most fulfilling aspects of working in this field is learning from and collaborating with others in different fields and sectors to tackle complex public health questions.
Mentorship can play a significant role in student success. How did your mentors help you, and what kind of impact do you hope to have on your own students?
My mentors encouraged me to pursue projects that interest me and always provided opportunities for professional and personal growth. Most of all, my academic mentors for my Ph.D. and postdoc exhibited compassion and always treated me as a person first. My mentors have provided outstanding examples of what it means to nurture their mentees, and I hope to carry forward the lessons they’ve taught me with my future students.
While getting my Ph.D. at University of California, Irvine, I worked with the Public Health director of undergraduate education on an initiative called Empowering Students for Success in Public Health, which provided discipline-specific programming focused on academic success and personal and professional development for first-generation, low-income (FGLI) undergraduate students affiliated with our department. We received funding from the vice provost for undergraduate education to implement a pilot program including panel presentations, themed group discussions, social/networking events, and a peer mentorship program. The following academic year, I co-developed and co-taught a year-long seminar focused on academic, personal, and professional development topics ascertained from the pilot program evaluation. The pilot program and seminar reached approximately 20 percent of FGLI students in the department.
Additionally, I served as a leadership coach for Division of Undergraduate Education’s Diverse Educational Community and Doctoral Experience: Partnering in Leadership for Undergraduate Students Program and had the privilege of mentoring 15 undergraduates who identified as first-generation, low-income scholars. As someone who has benefited immensely from mentorship in higher education, I am extremely passionate about working with these student populations.
What is your favorite thing about living in Vegas? Anything that surprised you when you made your move here?
I’m originally from O’ahu, Hawai’i, and Las Vegas is nicknamed “The Ninth Island.” What originally started as a popular vacation destination has become home to likely the largest population of Hawaiians outside of Hawai’i. It’s wonderful to see so many other Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and other reminders of home — my office sits directly across from a Hawaiian restaurant (Aloha Kitchen) and a poke shop (Poke Heaven).
One of my favorite things about Las Vegas is how diverse the city is. I’m a huge fan of food, and I appreciate how many different types of cuisine there are to try! I’m always open to recommendations. I also appreciate that there are a lot of outdoor activities and that we’re situated close to several national parks. I know this shouldn’t be that surprising, but I was most taken back by how windy it can get out of nowhere.
May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Isalnder (AANHPI) Heritage Month. As a member of this community, how has this part of your identity shaped your research interests in public health?
As a Native Hawaiian and Chamorro, my cultural tapestry has greatly influenced my studies and plans for my future. I’ve been very fortunate to live in and travel throughout the Pacific. During my time at University of Hawai’i, I gained considerable experience in data collection in a school setting and taught a substance abuse prevention curriculum to underserved students at middle and high schools on the island of O’ahu.
As a research associate at the UH Department of Psychiatry, I spearheaded a secondary data analysis of pre- and post-intervention survey data from a community organization that conducted a school-based alcohol abuse intervention program and provided mentorship to a culturally diverse undergraduate student research team. It was through these initial research experiences that I was exposed to health disparities within my community. Ultimately, my vision as a professor and researcher is to continue working toward reducing health disparities and improving health outcomes in Pacific Islander, Indigenous, and other vulnerable, underserved, and historically marginalized populations.
May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. Although there is still some stigma that exists, we’re seeing even more open conversations about mental health, especially among young people and the AANHPI community.
What are some quick tips to improve our mental health and wellness?
I believe it’s incredibly important to be more open to discussing mental health. These conversations are happening more often, but I’ve noticed that there seems to be a push for addressing mental health when there is a crisis. I believe we can do much more to help individuals before they get into that situation.
May 10th was also National Asian American, Native Hawaiian, & Pacific Islander Mental Health Day. There has been increasing recognition of mental health issues unique to the AANHPI community, especially in light of increased anti-AANHPI rhetoric over the last several years, and many national and community-based organizations are advocating for better policies that will increase access to culturally tailored mental health services for this population.
There are a few quick and easy mental health and wellness tips that everyone can practice regularly and keep in mind:
- One great thing we can do for mental health is take a walk outside, which could improve mood, restore our attention, and even spark creativity. Getting those steps in doesn’t hurt either!
- Find things and people that keep you grounded and allow you to refill your cup. During graduate school, I started practicing yoga and meditation. Making time for myself, even if it’s only a few minutes, is such a game changer.
- Finally, be kind to yourself and others.
If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self as a college student, what would you tell her?
I’ve learned throughout my academic journey – and life, in general – that the fear of rejection or “not being good enough” shouldn’t prevent you from taking a risk or taking advantage of what could be an incredible opportunity. There is a lesson to learn from every person you encounter and every situation – even those that don’t appear to go your way.
Any fun facts about yourself that your students may not know about?
I played rugby for Stanford and UC Irvine!