Laurel Sharpless is a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Health Behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She completed a post-baccalaureate fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine and she received a Master’s of Public Health in Chronic Disease Epidemiology from the Yale School of Public Health where she pursued her interest in how social justice and gender-based violence intersect to shape mental health among survivors as a Solomon Student Fellow in Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School.

We reached out to Sharpless to learn more about her work, her life, and her academic journey through the following Q & A.

How did you get into injury and violence prevention work?

Laurel Sharpless Personal experience with adolescent dating violence made me passionate about women’s health and social justice in the context of medicine and inspired me to gain exposure to medicine in a clinical setting. I was awarded a post-baccalaureate research and clinical medicine fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine where I served as a medical scribe for two physicians in internal medicine. There, I witnessed a notable disparity between intimate partner violence survivors and the healthcare they sought due to the sequelae of violence exposure. I sought out the opportunity to be part of the solution by leading a quality improvement project that resulted in the identification of a more effective strategy for screening patients for intimate partner violence, which engages medical assistants as an initial step of the healthcare response to intimate partner violence. I presented my results to the medical directors of Stanford Primary Care, which prompted an initiative leading to improvements and standardization of intimate partner violence screening throughout the university’s network of primary care and gynecology clinics. This experience exposed me to the impact system-level interventions can have on the health and wellbeing of intimate partner violence survivors and ignited my passion for public health research to address gender-based violence and its health effects.

What projects are you currently working on, and what makes them exciting to you?

I am currently serving as a research assistant for a Restorative, Effective Solutions Towards Accountability, Responsibility and Treatment (RESTART) evaluation planning project under Beth Morocco, PhD, and Deborah Weissman, JD. This interdisciplinary project aims to develop an innovative theory- and evidence- informed model Domestic Violence Intervention Program that incorporates restorative and transformative justice praxis. My responsibilities include leading the development of a program evaluation measurement inventory and guide that will provide evidence-based assessment tools for programs to evaluate  implementation and effectiveness. This project excites me because I have a substantive interest in restorative and transformative justice to address gender-based violence, and this project expands my knowledge of how these principles can be used to move the justice response to gender-based violence forward.
I am also conducting a sequential explanatory mixed-methods study as my doctoral dissertation to examine the role of state-level restorative justice policies on depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation among adolescent dating violence girl survivors and determine whether these policies may work to decrease (or increase) racial and ethnic disparities in mental health.

What were you doing before you started your program at UNC?

I was at the Yale School of Public Health pursuing my Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Chronic Disease Epidemiology where I gained interdisciplinary training at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale Law School in restorative and transformative justice. This training helped me conceptualize restorative and transformative justice as upstream approaches to address the mental health impacts of gender-based violence. Under the guidance of my mentors, Drs. Tiara Willie and Trace Kershaw, I led an analysis and manuscript that found that perceived adverse mental health among women intimate partner violence survivors is attenuated in states with a restorative justice policy than states without a policy, particularly in states with strong policy implementation support. I still work with my mentors from this program and am currently piloting a scale regarding transformative justice for intimate partner violence I developed under their guidance!

What do you enjoy doing outside of work and school?

I danced at my mom’s dance studio in Houston, Texas for over 20 years, so dancing is one of my passions that I really enjoy! Additionally, I enjoy spending time at the beach, reading, shopping, traveling, and trying out new restaurants with friends!

What makes you unique?

I am a former National Football League (NFL) cheerleader for the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers! Dancing and representing the community for 70,000 fans is an indescribable experience, and I am so grateful I had this unique opportunity.

UNC IPRC’s Injury and Violence Prevention Fellowship program provides an opportunity for UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and professional students from diverse academic, professional, and demographic backgrounds to gain hands-on experience in injury and violence prevention by working with faculty mentors, networking, and pursuing professional development opportunities.