Student Spotlight: Esther Palacios-Barrios

Esther Palacios-Barrios, portrayed as a 4th year Psychology Ph.D. student in 2020/21

As a first-generation graduate student, Esther Palacios-Barrios has been unafraid to break new ground — from pursuing research as a first-year undergraduate student to working with newly established research labs. In the Dietrich School’s Clinical-Developmental Psychology Joint PhD Program, she studies how adverse childhood experiences relate to the development of psychopathology such as depression, using neuro-imaging to explore how stress exposures affect brain development.

Ester’s budding interest in high school led to community-based research during her bachelor’s degree at Stanford University and an NIH postbac in collaboration with the National Institute of Mental Health. Esther then chose Pitt to expand on her neuro-imaging work and gain both research and clinical experience alongside Assistant Professor Dr. Jamie Hanson.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, like many researchers Esther adapted her research methods and identified alternative data collection mechanisms. Amidst the cascading crises that the US experienced during 2020/21, Esther navigated her own stress while supporting patients via the department’s in-house clinic that had moved to a fully remote, tele-health modality early in the pandemic. She was also starting to consider the longer-term socio-psychological implications of a global pandemic and the ways scientists will “consider COVID and its impact on children and their families.” As the pandemic unfolded, she started a remote clinical externship at the UPMC Services for Teens at Risk (STAR) program, treating adolescents struggling with depression and at-risk for suicide. In Spring 2021, she began another clinical externship, working in-person with youth pre- and post-organ transplantation at the Hillman Center for Pediatric Transplantation at the UPMC Children’s Hospital. By summer 2021, Esther was providing therapy in Spanish to unaccompanied refugee children/adolescents from Latin/Central America at Holy Family Institute – Journey of Hope.

Esther had been recruited to Pitt with a highly competitive K. Leroy Irvis Fellowship for outstanding underrepresented minority graduate students. She has since captured multiple, highly selective national awards, including via the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the Ford Foundation. Esther recommends that students pursue such Fellowships not only for the obvious advantages entailed in receiving fellowships with enhanced stipends and accessing professional support networks, including, in her case, of women scholars of color. More broadly, Esther emphasizes the intrinsic benefits that come with applying. It “is a great experience, whether or not you get awarded. Everyone should have the experience under their belt, understand what it means to synthesize their research and think critically about where they want to go with it,” she reflected. “I had to think about what I am really interested in and what research aims I am hoping to aspire to as a graduate student.”

Modeling wellness throughout her academic journey, selfcare and family have remained essential to Esther. She refrains from pulling all-nighters, stresses the importance of students and advisors communicating expectations clearly and transparently, and makes time for family during evenings and weekends.

When envisioning her future career, Esther  plans to serve as a Bilingual mental health provider, offering therapy in Spanish to Latinx youth and their families. She hopes to “balance research, teaching, some imaging, and clinical hours,” whether in a hospital and/or university setting.