Alumna profile: Katelyn Jetelina, Ph.D., M.P.H. (Dallas)

Katelyn Jetelina photo - talking about bullying to a class of fifth graders-sq
In April, Jetelina talked to Plano Daffron Elementary fifth graders about bullying and the importance of communication. “It was great to see my research disseminated, and put into practice.”

Katelyn Jetelina, Ph.D., M.P.H., alumna
Assistant Professor of Epidemiology
UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas

HOUSTON – As a child, Katelyn Jetelina, Ph.D., M.P.H., saw firsthand how bullying hurt her friends and savaged their self-esteem. Her experiences inspired her to pursue a career in public health focusing on violence prevention and injury among vulnerable populations. After studying physiology at the University of Arizona, she earned her M.P.H. and Ph.D. in epidemiology from UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas. Earlier this month, she was made an assistant professor of epidemiology.

Why did you choose UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas?

The UT system is known internationally, which put the school on my radar. I thought the School of Public Health was very forward thinking. ITV afforded me the opportunity to have colleagues and peers across the state of Texas, which opened doors for future collaborations.

I had such a great experience with my master’s degree, so it seemed natural to complete my Ph.D. in Dallas. Also, I realized that the School of Public Health was a very research-heavy school, and the most important thing for me was to continue my research on violence and injury prevention. My mentor and advisor, Jennifer M. Reingle Gonzalez, Ph.D., who is known for her groundbreaking research on criminology and epidemiology, really got me interested in this topic. Her mentorship was key and shaped me as a researcher today.

How did your personal experience with bullying inspire your research?

Bullying was prevalent at my elementary school. I remember witnessing it on the playground with my friends. Once they got an adult involved — just that small gesture — helped improve their situation. Later on, after researching bullying, I realized that my experience wasn’t siloed. It was common. I couldn’t believe how many children were involved with bullying. I thought they needed all the help they could get.

Your dissertation investigated the relationship between bullying and injuries among children. What did you discover?

Bullying prevalence rates are highly sensitive to the structure of a survey question. For example, if you asked how many times someone was bullied in the last 12 months, compared to behaviors indicative of bullying, like how many times a person was pushed or shoved, there were staggering differences. It revealed the need for more research on how children cognitively process sensitive survey questions and whether this partially explains bullying disparities.

I also found that bullying perpetrators and victim-perpetrators (children who are both victims and perpetrators) were at increased risk for violent injuries, such as stabbings, gunshot wounds, and assault-related injuries that required medical attention, and that these injuries were partially explained through substance use and weapon carrying.

What was most surprising was the number of children involved with bullying who reported violent injuries. An estimated 17 percent of fifth graders reported one of these injuries, and the numbers rose as they were surveyed in seventh and 10th grade. Also, I was surprised to find that depression in children involved in bullying did not lead to violent injury. They may immediately internalize depression rather than externalize through aggressive acts.

What else should we know about bullying?

There are four main types of bullying: relational, verbal, physical and cyber. While cyber gets the most attention in the media, it is actually the least prevalent. Girls experience more relational bullying than boys, and because it is not physical, they don’t always realize they are perpetrators or victims of bullying. We try to include information about each type of bullying within our brochures and interventions to increase knowledge about what constitutes bullying.

What’s next for you?

I hope to create a violence prevention program here at UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas, building on my research on bullying among children, and also focus on violence and injury among other vulnerable populations. We have so much potential in Dallas with our relationship with UT Southwestern and Children’s Health. Right now we’re working to develop a clinical bullying screener, which will empower physicians to identify patients who are affected by bullying. I was also recently asked to join an anti-bullying committee at the hospital. It is a very exciting time!

What advice would you give public health students?

Take advantage of being part of a multi-site campus. It’s a positive. I tried to go to Houston each semester at least once to meet students and professors in person. It really helped me when I was looking for a job. Now I have peers from all across the state.

— Written by Anissa Anderson Orr