Raven Smith knew from an early age that she wanted to go into the medical field.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Smith watched as her parents developed medical conditions and struggled to get the care they deserved.
“My parents were always older than my friends’ parents; they had me at a later age. They had been diagnosed with different illnesses, like diabetes and high blood pressure,” Smith said. “At an early age, I started to recognize the disparities in how certain demographics and different groups of people were diagnosed with illnesses, and how there was a lack of understanding of what it meant to have those illnesses.”
Smith’s innate curiosities about the world around her, and her determination to help her parents understand their conditions and advocate for their course of treatment, led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she was a Ronald E. McNair scholar and participated in a maternal and child health training program.
“Once I was more engaged in the field and learned more about it, I realized that this isn’t just an issue for my mom and dad,” Smith said. “This is an issue for whole communities. It’s a systemic issue. My interest and my love for nursing just grew from there.”
Now, after working as an emergency room nurse at Duke Regional Hospital and UNC Hospitals for the past three years, Smith returned to the classroom this fall to earn a doctorate degree in nursing from the UNC School of Nursing.
Smith will attend Carolina as a Royster Fellow, receiving full tuition funding and gaining access to a supportive community of interdisciplinary collaboration.
“Returning to school to obtain my Ph.D. in nursing is a pivotal moment for my career because, through research, I have the chance to question, explore and investigate the world around me,” Smith said.
Smith was drawn to Carolina by renowned faculty in the School of Nursing like Cheryl Giscombé, who researches stress-related health disparities in the Black community.
“Dr. Giscombé was really just the icing on the cake for me to come to Carolina,” Smith said. “Her work and research are just phenomenal and it has a lot to do with what I’m interested in studying.”
Smith’s research will focus on generational trauma and DNA methylation, or cellular-level manifestations of trauma that are passed down from generation to generation, specifically in minority communities.
She will use theoretical frameworks, such as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and critical race theory, to engage in deeper scholarship and conversations about health inequalities and disparities.
“I’m interested in exploring the experience of being Black in this country, and the experiences of being marginalized and being exposed to childhood and lifelong adversities,” Smith said. “My essential goal is to explore the influence of trauma and chronic stress on the human body, specifically identifying disease and illness that manifest from discrimination, racism and systemic oppression.”
Smith hopes that her experience as a bedside nurse will better equip her to understand how her research impacts real-life patients.
“The last few years of bedside nursing has taught me that there’s a lot of room for growth in health care. The disparities are real, especially in the emergency department, which a lot of people use as their primary care,” Smith said. “I enjoy bedside nursing, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave it completely, but research has always been my thing.”
Although Smith is just beginning her time as a Carolina student this fall, she’s no stranger to the University and the Carolina community. Her husband, Devon, is currently pursuing his Master of Fine Arts at Carolina, and their family lives on campus.
But now, Smith will be a Tar Heel in her own right.
“It is truly an honor to join the Tar Heel family,” Smith said. “I am excited and blessed to start this journey with Carolina.”