Feature Stories 2023: Anna Balkus '24: Studying the mental health impact of our environment

Biology major and Sustainability minor
Honors College student and women's soccer captain Anna Balkus '24 studied abroad in Iceland and is researching how our environment affects our mental health for her Honors APEX Project.
Feature Stories 2023: Anna Balkus '24: Studying the mental health impact of our environment
Anna Balkus '24: Studying the mental health impact of our environment

Soccer captain and Honors College biology major aims for a career in environmental conservation

As any student-athlete knows, juggling college athletics and academics can be challenging.  Being both a captain and an Honors College student requires careful planning and organization to successfully manage multiple responsibilities, assignments, and deadlines.

Anna Balkus '24 of Franklin, MA, is captain of the UMass Dartmouth women's soccer team and has just completed her final season as a student-athlete. After hanging up her cleats, Balkus is focused on completing the requirements for her biology major, with a concentration in conservation, and minor in sustainability. She's also finishing her Honors APEX Project, researching how our environment impacts our mental health especially in marginalized communities. The results of her research exposed connections between environmental quality, social justice, and mental health.

UMass Dartmouth experience

Why did you decide to attend UMass Dartmouth? Was your brother an influence?

"My brother, Salvador Balkus '22, is an alumnus so he definitely put in a good word, emphasizing the great community here. What attracted me most to UMass Dartmouth are its' size and affordability. Being a biology major, it was also important for me to find a school with extensive research opportunities, which I knew I could find at UMassD. It also helped that the school is fairly close to home."

How would you sum up your experience?

"My experience at UMass Dartmouth has been very memorable. This past summer, I had the great opportunity to study abroad in Akureyri, Iceland, which was incredible. The program was Arctic Microbiology, which gave me good hands-on research experience in the lab as well as in the field. Not only was I able to experience the beautiful scenery of northern Iceland, but I also met students from the University of Akureyri and the University of Reading in England."

What did you study in Iceland?

"We spent the first week sightseeing and conducting fieldwork, where I was able to experience the process of sample collection firsthand. My group's topic of study was Pseudomonas syringae on lichens, which is a type of plant pathogen, and we explored how types of lichen affect the growth of Pseudomonas. One of the sites we sampled from was Langanes—a northern peninsula very close to the Arctic Circle. This site was perfect for our sampling because it was completely covered in different types of lichens.

"The second week we spent most of our time in the lab, where I became more familiar cultivating bacteria and conducting colony PCR, a method used to determine the presence of the desired DNA in bacterial growth, and I got to try a new method of using a mortar and pestle to create a dilution series. From my groupmates, I learned what an API test was and how it can be used to identify different types of bacteria, as well as gram-staining. This made me realize the importance of collaboration in the scientific process.

"Working with students from different countries with different backgrounds and majors was helpful because each one of us had specific strengths and knowledge to bring to the table. For instance, an API test was something that I had never done in a lab at UMass Dartmouth but was something my lab mates in Iceland were familiar with.

"When we had down time outside of the lab, I was able to go to Forest Lagoon, a new geothermal spa in Akureryi. We also visited Akureryi's Botanical Garden, which is one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, where we saw different types of flora that are unique to the country."

Arctic Microbiology program
In a unique study abroad opportunity, Anna Balkus '24 researched Arctic microbiology in northern Iceland where she did field and lab research last summer. She is pictured in Langanes, located near the Arctic Circle.

What have you enjoyed most about UMass Dartmouth experience?

"One of my favorite parts of my experience at UMass Dartmouth has been being a part of the women's soccer team. Growing up, I’ve played on a lot of different sports teams, but the community I found here has been unlike any other. I’ve met some of my best friends being on the team and it has been a really fun and unforgettable experience."

A four-year defender on the women's soccer team, Balkus played or started in every game during her college career for a total of 4,119 minutes. She was named to the 2021 and 2022 LEC All-Academic Team and is a Third Team honoree to the All-Conference team. This week, Balkus was named to the 2023 Academic All-District Soccer Team, selected by College Sports Communicators. She also serves on the Student Athletic Advisory Committee. 

2023 team captain
Women's soccer captain Anna Balkus '24 played or started in every game during her four-year college career with a total playing time of over 4,000 minutes. She was named to the LEC All-Academic Team and the All-Conference Team as well as the 2023 Academic All-District Soccer Team.

Honors College

What has your experience been like in the Honors College?

"My experience in the Honors College has been very helpful in preparing me for my future. The ability to 'honorize' classes has allowed for more flexibility in my schedule, which is especially helpful being a student-athlete. This also has allowed me to dive deeper into classes that interest me in more fun and engaging ways, as well as develop my independence.

"The Honors College advisors have also been helpful in planning my schedule and are always so welcoming and kind, which has made the experience ten times better."

What do you enjoy most about Honors? How has it been beneficial?

"Being a part of the Honors College has challenged me academically and allowed me to become more well-rounded. Working with others from outside my major has helped me expand my knowledge across disciplines and it is also motivating to work with other like-minded students.

"One thing I've really enjoyed are the benefits that come from being a part of Honors College, like the free membership to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Another benefit I've enjoyed is being able to study in the Annex in the library, which is reserved for Honors students. It's more comfortable and quieter."

How did you balance being a college athlete with Honors studies? How did the Honors College provide the flexibility you mentioned?

"I was able to balance being a college athlete with Honors studies through effective time management and organization. Every day, I would plan out the assignments and studying that were top priority, and I would get them done in the morning or in between classes so I wouldn't be stressed out after practice. Having practice and games every day can make it difficult to find classes to fit into your schedule, but the ability to honorize my classes allowed me to fulfill multiple requirements into one course. It was helpful to have a wide variety of classes offered each semester so I could fulfill my honors requirements while also getting credit toward my major and minor."

APEX Project

All Honors students complete the Academic Project or Experience (APEX). The APEX demonstrates students' learning and can take the form of three tracks: traditional research, performance/expression, and applied service/internship. 

Tell us about your APEX Project. What are some of your findings?

“The faculty advisor I worked with is Dr. Kristen McHenry, director of the health and society program, who was very helpful throughout the process. I conducted my research by looking at existing primary peer-reviewed literature, and I really enjoyed the opportunity for in-depth study, especially in a topic that interests me.

"I found that air quality, water quality, noise pollution, and access to green space and quality food all had associations with mental health. Specifically, higher rates of pollution were associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. Sufficient green space and park accessibility were big indicators of happiness and improved mental health conditions.

"A built environment encompasses any human-made space such as the buildings we live in, workplaces, transportation systems, and much more. Most of the studies I observed found worsened built environment conditions among those of lower socioeconomic status and/or racial minorities, indicating the injustice in urban areas. These findings supported my hypothesis that socioeconomic and racial disparities in environmental factors predispose certain groups to mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression."

Future plans

While unsure of her specific career path, Balkus plans to attend graduate school to study environmental science. At UMass Dartmouth, she has developed the important skills that will help her manage any challenges that come her way.

Did the trip to Iceland impact your decision to attend graduate school?

"The trip to Iceland definitely impacted my decision to attend graduate school. Being in a completely different environment gave me a new appreciation for fieldwork and it is something I would love to continue. I found that these hands-on experiences helped me narrow down what types of work I enjoy doing and the area of biology that I want to focus on (environmental/conservation), which are both important when exploring future careers."