5 questions with… doctoral candidate and food access researcher Gwen Donley

Photo of Gwen Donley

At first glance, Gwen Donley’s research appears to explore divergent topics: food systems, incarceration rates and transportation trends, to name a few.

But viewed together, there’s a common thread—the impact disparities, crises and stress can have on cultures and groups of people. 

Donley, a PhD candidate in the Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences and a pre-doctoral fellow with the Mary Ann Swetland Center for Environmental Health, is a fellow with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR). She was selected as one of three winners in the foundation’s “Lightening Talk Competition” earlier this year for her work with the Food Nest 2.0 Study, which takes a step back to examine food systems, diet quality and food environments in different neighborhoods. 

During the competition, Donley offered a concise overview of her work understanding how a number of external factors play into food access. She explained the overlap between food systems—the production, distribution, sale and consumption of food and the various factors at play within each stage—as they relate to transportation, incarceration, neighborhood financial strength and local ownership/sovereignty—all factors that contribute to food access. 

“We see a lot of crisis and stress come up in terms of how food systems work and how those are impacting food system dynamics and also diet quality,” she said.

The FFAR fellowship program promotes professional development, communication skills and the ability for doctoral candidates to explore the food and agriculture industry in a lens beyond academia. Fellows are funded partially through the foundation and partially through an industry partner. In Donley’s case, that partner was Steve McHale, representing the Unify Project. Donley also is mentored by Jennifer Scofield, former director of the Greater Cleveland Hunger Network.

“[It’s] been really, really valuable to me in building relationships with mentors who are outside of academia to get this well-rounded picture of what this work could look like in the ‘real world,’” Donley said.

Donley’s other work examines the interactions between housing instability and perceptions of food environments and diet quality and the impact COVID-19 is having on Black pregnant women.

“Although these topics may seem quite different, they actually have a lot in common,” Donley said.

The ability to draw from a number of different topics and apply them to her research was a key driver in Donley’s educational path.

Donley, who calls Cleveland home, earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from The Ohio State University. Her studies in genetics and qualitative research were framed by understanding cultures and groups of people. Ultimately, her undergraduate experiences pointed her toward health and she went on to earn her master’s degree in public health from the The University of Eastern Finland. 

“I wanted to be really integrated into a country that had a completely different take on medicine and on health care for its citizens,” Donley said.

Case Western Reserve appealed to Donley because the Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences offers the opportunity to examine public health from various perspectives. Donley has drawn upon many fields for her research; her dissertation committee includes faculty members with wide-ranging expertise, including genetics, geo-spatial analysis, and community psychology and anthropology.

At CWRU, Donley said she’s been able to use several methodologies, involving both quantitative and qualitative data, to gain a better understanding of the issues at play in the topics central to her research, ultimately “allowing the data to tell that story.”

Read more about Donley’s work on the FFAR website, but first, check out her answers to this week’s five questions. 

1. What was the last book you read? 

My hour of reading before bed is my lifeline! The last book I finished was Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald (quite tragic, but would recommend) and now I’m working on Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.

2. When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

It changed every year … I recall artist, ballerina, author and newscaster being on the list. We all pivot our goals in life!

3. If you could have a superpower, what would it be? 

Probably to freeze time. Think of all the naps you could take! All the work you could get done! I could take my dog on so many walks.

4. Who has had the greatest influence on you? 

My grandma (Carol Donley). She got sick of being a housewife, took herself to grad school, got two MAs and a PhD, and went on to be a professor of biomedical humanities at Hiram College. And raised three kids! She still teaches part-time at Hiram and has always been one of my biggest supporters. (And actually, her MA in bioethics is from Case [Western Reserve]!)

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve? 

I love feeling like I’m really contributing to research that matters. I think that graduate students in particular get to play a significant role in the research process at CWRU and I’ve been given the resources and leeway to pursue projects that I think are interesting and important. That level of support and trust is a great thing to feel as a PhD student.