Black History Month Spotlight: Kiana Bess

As we’ve celebrated Black History Month, we’ve shed light onto historical Black figures who made significant contributions to behavioral science. However, we should not only think about historical figures, but those in the present moment. There are so many Black scientists in the making who are currently publishing papers, launching projects, and teaching classes, and Black History Month is a chance to amplify their voices as well.

For our final Black History Month blog post, I had the honor of interviewing Kiana Bess, a fourth-year doctoral student studying Public Health at the University of Michigan. Kiana and I chatted about her research, goals, and inspirations.

Kiana Bess is a Portsmouth, Virginia native who spends most of her time working on her dissertation, however in her free time she likes to engage in physical activities, such as running and Pilates. Kiana has a passion for health and has been in the health space for most of her academic career. She received her Bachelor of Science (BS) in Health Science at James Madison University, and went on to get her Masters in Public Health (MPH) in health promotion (now known as Department Prevention and Community Health) at George Washington University. Shortly afterwards, she worked at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University where she received hands-on research training.

You mentioned that you’ve been in the health domain for most of your academic career. Could you tell us more about that, such as what your research interests are? 

Kiana Bess: Broadly, my research interest focuses on the intersection of place and child/adolescent health outcomes. Particularly I’m interested in how neighborhoods and housing influence the health of Black children who live in metropolitan and urban areas, with a residential segregation lens. So, bringing that component of historical racial housing discriminatory policies to today and contemporary policies and how that affects neighborhood development, housing choices, housing affordability, and how those together are associated with the outcome of Black children.

So, what led you to wanting to know more about how the environment shapes our health and, in particular, Black families? What made you decide, “Okay, this is what I want to focus on”?

KB: A lot of it comes back to my time at GW [George Washington University] that program was absolutely phenomenal and rooted in the community. During that time, I worked with a student-led coalition called “Save Lives, Free the Condoms.” It was formed in response to the presence of condoms being locked or inaccessible on store shelves in pharmacies located in primarily minority neighborhoods in Washington D.C. The overarching goal was to increase condom accessibility to all Washington D.C residents and to reduce reproductive health discrimination.

For me that’s kind of how I got into environment space and health outcomes. The children and youth aspect came into it because we read at the time that HIV and STIs disproportionately affected African Americans in Washington D.C. So, then I was like – well if that’s the case, then why isn’t contraception readily available where these youth live? That was my first connection between neighborhoods and health.  

Could you tell us about your current projects? Is there anything in particular you’re working on that you’re excited about?

KB: Well, my dissertation is my biggest project right now. My dissertation examines the associations between neighborhoods, housing, childhood opportunity levels, and healthy child development. Healthy child development is such a broad term, but I’m looking at behavior (internalizing and externalizing behaviors). That’s actually a new area for me, so I’m excited about that.

“My dissertation is my biggest project right now. My dissertation examines the associations between neighborhoods, housing, childhood opportunity levels, and healthy child development.”

I’m also working on projects related to housing insecurity in association with childhood obesity and stress patterns. Most of my work involves childhood health equity. Race is my thing right now, but I also do work on income. Really for me it’s about the structural factors that are within the environment that are associated with the health outcomes of children.

Let’s transition into understanding more about your identity. You talked about it a little bit. Let’s expand by understanding how it influences your experiences on your academic journey. In what way do you think your race has impacted your academic journey so far?

KB: In public health, we read all the time about health outcomes. It gets heavy and it’s disheartening to hear about the health disparities among Black people, whether it’s chronic illnesses like, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity; mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety; mortality rates and so forth.

“Now the question becomes how do we bring equity and justice to combat these disparities in our community?”

For me, it’s about what can I do to advance health equity? We know there are tons of disparities that we’ve been studying for years. Now the question becomes how do we bring equity and justice to combat these disparities in our community? For me, it starts with looking at all of this within the context of discriminatory structural systems that disproportionately affect Black families and children. That’s how race has impacted my journey.

So, who would you say inspires you, career wise?

KB: I would say, women, women of color, and particularly Black women, who are in the academic research space. I say that because academic research (from what I understand) is kind of cutthroat, it’s a tough field to be in. While it’s rewarding, everyone acknowledges that it can be challenging.

When I see women of color, particularly Black women excel in a space that wasn’t designed for them, it inspires me to keep going because I know it can be done. I’m so appreciative of them because they opened the door for me. This allows me to open the doors for public health scholars or psychologists that are coming in generations behind me.

Do you have any advice that you would like to share with aspiring researchers or people who want to get into public health space?

KB: For the public health space, and any space for that matter, my advice would be two words: keep going! There are going to be roadblocks, there are going to be detours, there are going to be some no’s, there are going to be some rejections, especially in the academic space – like rejection from publications. But if it’s something that you’re really passionate about, just keep going.

“For the public health space, and any space for that matter, my advice would be two words: keep going!”

For example, I was not accepted the first time I applied to doctoral programs, yes, it was a bit devastating. I experienced all the emotions and then I regrouped, reassessed and said okay, what do I need to do to strengthen my application.  I don’t know why I got rejected my first time applying – I could not have been competitive enough. It could have been external factors such as funding or advisor availability, that is more program/school related, I don’t know. But what I did know is I needed to do what I could to ensure I was a stronger and more competitive applicant the next time.

So again, cliche, but everything happens for a reason and in due time…So just keep going, keep trusting, keep believing in yourself.

Well, thank you so much – is there anything else you would like to share before we close out the interview?

KB: No, I can’t think of anything else. When I think about this interview, it made me think of my journey. It can be discouraging sometimes but at the end of the day, it’s so rewarding. Anything that has to do with health equity or equality is such a rewarding field and place to be in.

If you’re interested in learning more about Kiana Bess and her work, please feel free to contact her via email at


Shanta Ricks is a researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science research lab that helps people be happier, healthier, and wealthier. You can reach her at