Class of 2022 Spotlight: Axel Berky PhD'22

Involvement with DGHI helps environmental researcher look at contamination through a global health lens.

Published April 25, 2022 under Alumni Stories

Written by Alicia Banks

Axel Berky

Axel Berky, who will graduate this spring with a Ph.D. from the Nicholas School of the Environment, sits outside the Duke Global Health Institute in Trent Hall. Berky has done work with DGHI since 2013, and he will also graduate as a Doctoral Scholar and with his Global Health Graduate Certificate from the institute this year.

Axel Berky remembers when Duke University became an option for graduate school. He was fond of an environmental risk assessment class he took as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He asked his professor about the top graduate programs in the field, and he applied to Duke’s master’s program in environmental management, offered by the Nicholas School of the Environment.

“The Triangle seemed like a good place, and I thought I’d like to be here for a while,” Berky says. “I’ve been here for 10 years now, maybe it could be forever.”

This May, Berky will graduate with a Ph.D. from the Nicholas School. As part of his doctoral studies, he completed DGHI’s Global Health Graduate Certificate and was also a global health Doctoral Scholar.

While studying the environment, Berky started to see how much the field is intertwined with global health. Berky credits becoming more involved with DGHI through the years for his better understanding of global health, how it’s evaluated and its influencers.

“In undergrad, I wasn’t as focused on public health because most of my interests was in the environment and politics,” he says. “But you can’t talk about the environment without understanding policies that manage it, and DGHI helped me understand public health more broadly.”

Since 2013, he’s worked with Bill Pan, PhD, an associate professor of global environmental health with dual appointments at DGHI and the Nicholas School, and longtime collaborator Ernesto Ortiz, MPH, Senior Manager of Programs at the Global Health Innovation Center. They’re investigating the impact of increased lead and mercury levels in water and food in the Madre De Dios region of Peru.

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Axel Berky in Peru

Some of Berky’s research tasks included setting up sensors to measure water depth and how far it penetrated the soil. Berky returned from a recent trip to the region in April as the research continues. In addition to his work, Berky has taken away different lessons about research and working with communities, thanks to Pan and Ortiz.

“Pan has given me guidance in areas such as statistics, how to write manuscripts and analyze data,” says Berky. “And Ortiz, who’s a doctor, has showed me how to work and talk with community leaders and study participants. On top of that, I’ve been working in an environment that’s collegial, enjoying the work and the people I’m doing it with. It’s hard work, but rewarding at the same time.”

Another rewarding moment for Berky this year was successfully defending his dissertation on Jan. 18. His research focused on lead exposure in game meat, which was related to increased cardiovascular disease, and a study on the maternal nutrition of pregnant mothers and how toxic metal mixtures affected birth outcomes such as gestational age and birthweight.

“My family joined on Zoom, but my mom flew down as a surprise and saw me,” he says.” It was a relief and nice to share what I had been working on for so long. It was a good experience.”

He adds, “What I did as a researcher was unique, being able to help design, analyze, collect and publish. All my time in the field helped me understand what it’s like living in another community, know what’s going on and ask the questions to help.”

Berky will continue his work with the environment and global health after graduating in May. He accepted a position with Raleigh-based Geosyntec Consultants as a senior professional staff consultant, collecting and measuring materials found on contaminated sites. His first day is May 25.

In other words, the Triangle could really be his home forever, and that would be just fine with him.