Aaliya Aaliya, a doctoral student in the Earth and Climate Sciences program, recently shared insights into why she's pursuing her degree at Duke, her research focus, impacts of her research and a memorable experience as a doctoral student so far.

Aaliya’s faculty advisor is Brian McAdoo, and she is studying how planetary-scale, human-induced environmental changes such as climate change and land-use change are impacting the health and well-being of marginalized mountain communities across the Himalayas.

Why did you want to pursue a PhD at Duke?

“Not every girl is fortunate enough to attend school, let alone a reputable one. Growing up in the Hunza Valley, a rural mountainous and agrarian village located in the Karakoram range of Pakistan, my access to quality education was limited. I attended a nearby Urdu middle school due to financial constraints. Although I performed well, I worried about the quality of my education and the uncertain future. I was determined to gain control of my ‘next steps’, so I persuaded my father to enroll me in an English middle school in a nearby village. The transition was full of challenges, but it was a turning point in my life that opened windows of opportunities.

Over the years, I improved my English skills and won a scholarship to pursue my bachelor’s degree in Bangladesh at the Asian University for Women, the first liberal arts women’s college in Asia. Since, then I have become passionate about pursuing higher education abroad at diverse and multicultural institutions that help us grow personally, professionally, and intellectually.

I strongly believe that diversity is the strength of pluralism. Hence, I decided to pursue a PhD in Earth and Climate Sciences at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. I was attracted by the cultural diversity and interdisciplinary research partnership between the Nicholas School, the Duke Global Health Institute, and the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, as well as the Sanford School of Public Policy. This interactive exchange of knowledge and innovation between schools, departments, and the faculty motivated me to become part of the vibrant and stimulating environment at Duke. I truly believe that pursuing a PhD at a multicultural institution such as Duke will equip me with necessary knowledge and skills to provide an integrated suite of services back in my community to maximize the impact of academic research and interdisciplinary studies for the social, economic, environmental, and health benefits of communities.”

What is your research focus?

“Planetary-scale, human-induced environmental changes such as climate change and land-use change are impacting the health and well-being of marginalized mountain communities across the Himalayas. This is more than just an abstract subject to me; it is rooted in my personal story.

Growing up in a remote mountainous village, I have experienced firsthand the debilitating effects of hazards such as glacial lake outburst floods, flash floods, debris flow, landslides, earthquakes, and snow avalanches on our socioeconomic conditions and sources of livelihoods.

With each passing year, the remote mountain communities in Gilgit-Baltistan have become increasingly susceptible to these hazards. In these precarious situations, these communities either choose to live in the same area or migrate internally to urban areas. When they migrate to urban areas, pre-existing socioeconomic issues further exacerbate their socioeconomic vulnerabilities. When they choose to stay back in their ancestral lands, climate-related hazards pose a constant threat to their physical safety and health as well as their quality of life and mental well-being. These challenges have motivated me to focus on understanding, analyzing, and addressing planetary-scale human-induced environmental changes impacting the mental health and well-being of remote mountain communities across the Himalayas.”

What are the broader impacts of your research?

“In countries like Pakistan, where mental well-being is a sensitive topic, it is even more challenging to talk about mental health outcomes and lived experiences related to the loss of loved ones, properties, livelihood sources, and social networks due to hazards. To close this gap in knowledge, I would like to codesign and coproduce empirical studies with the remote mountain communities in Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan to explore strategies and coproduce indigenous knowledge for reducing the impacts of environmental risks on mental health and the quality of life.

Our theory of change is that codesigning and coproducing research on a sensitive topic such as mental health will enhance the confidence among the remote mountain communities to talk more openly about the well-being of their mental health. This research approach will strengthen their adaptive capacity to manage any stressful situation with confidence and hope.”

What has been your most memorable experience as a PhD student so far?

Aaliya fieldwork in Nepal

“My fieldwork in Nepal has been one of the most memorable and valuable experiences as a PhD student. For my initial project, I conducted fieldwork comprised of interviews and focus group discussions with local people in earthquake-impacted Gorkha, Nepal. We visited eight remote villages to conduct interviews and focus group discussions with the local communities.

I had the opportunity to learn about their cultural values and norms which enabled me to build relationships with the local people. I also learned about their perspectives, observation, and past experiences related to how environmental change might be impacting their health and well-being. I was amazed when they shared their vivid memories and painful experiences of the 2015 Nepal earthquake as well as its far-reaching consequences. It has been 8 years now since the earthquake; however, the local people still remember the way they became homeless in the blink of an eye due to an earthquake. Hopefully the work I am doing here at Duke will in some way reduce their suffering.”