· Faculty Mentor, UCSF
· PhD, MPH
· Associate Professor, Departments of Medicine & Epidemiology & Biostatistics, UCSF
Irene is all about community and neighborhood. In work and at home, she cares about the impact of where we live on our physical well-being. Born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan, Irene's Chinese immigrant parents were determined to give their children the opportunity to both excel academically and maintain a strong connection to their Chinese language and culture. Before Irene was born her family spoke exclusively Chinese at home. From a young age, Irene's mother held Chinese lessons after dinner.
Irene was not sure what she wanted to be when she grew up. Despite the usual social challenges of middle school, she had a very nice experience and has fond memories of learning to play bridge with her friends; one friend's parents were master-level players. In high school, Irene's closest friend lived 10 miles away; they spoke daily about school, things that happened, and their community. "I went to her basketball games. She came to our baseball games." Irene admired athletes who overcame adversity and became successful: "singles tennis players seemed fearless, on the court by themselves, battling head-to-head with competitors, whom they clearly respected." Watching professional sports was for entertainment. At home, her mother made education a priority. She organized regional museum and art gallery trips to see King Tutankhamen's tomb, Pompeii, and ancient Chinese bronze. The family visited national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone, as well as trips abroad to London and Paris. These experiences showed Irene the larger world outside her East Lansing community and she appreciated the different cultures, histories, architecture, and cuisines she encountered. Irene was one of a handful of Asian Americans in her Michigan high school of over 1300 students. She attended a university with a much higher proportion of Asian American students, approximately 15%. She realized however, that she had little in common with this group because of her isolated upbringing; she had a very different Asian-American experience and identity. She often asked herself, “How does your community impact your well-being?"
This question followed her to college. Although she didn't know that she wanted to be a scientist, "I wanted to do something related to health and decided against clinical work". Collecting data and using it to inform public policy was ideal. So she majored in microbiology and political science. Irene was very methodical in selecting her classes, making a four-year plan and sticking to it. "If the professor was uncaptivating or the material not engaging, it didn't occur to me to drop the class and find a better option." She did not want to bother her instructors so she stayed away for office hours.
Irene's current research is centered on the question of how place influences health. That is, how things like transportation, walkability, the food environment, and socioeconomic status influence health. She is also interested in social policy-health connections and would like to study the role of K-12 education in addressing public health outcomes. Mentoring was very important to her success. Leonard Syme, Irene's mentor, introduced her to the field of social epidemiology. "I wanted to investigate something that influences large numbers of people's experiences with relevance to health, without having to educate people directly about health relevant behaviors (what to eat, exercise, etc.)." Although Len is known to be an exceptional mentor for his generosity and focus on student's specific strengths, other colleagues helped her by being blunt and honest.
As someone who is all about community, Irene is excited that SF BUILD opens the door to more inter-campus collaborations between SF State and UCSF. She is at the heart of building that community of researchers who focus on questions relevant to health disparities in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When not working with SF BUILD, Irene enjoys working with her neighbors to solve problems, going to local plays and modern dance performances, and eating a wide variety of foods. She also really enjoys watching her two sons play soccer.
Back to SF BUILD Lead Team