Faculty co-investigator, Institutional Development Core
ScD, MS (Public Health)
Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics, UCSF
Maria grew up curious about our world and beyond. She is from Latimer County, Oklahoma where as a child she had a strong influence from her family and grandparents, in particular. She holds dearly those times eating strawberries with her grandmother, and being in the garden with her kind-hearted grandfather. Family was central to Maria’s intellectual development, along with the logician Raymond Smullyan, who wrote puzzle books for children. Interested in science, it was fitting that Maria wanted to be an astronaut, though she soon realized it was not the best fit given her motion sickness with feelings of being ‘seasick’ in cars and even elevators.
Maria went on to study biology in Chicago, where on her first day of orientation, she arrived late and already homesick. But, she did not let that completely define her experience. Maria described college as being from “difficult to harrowing, although that alternated with the thrill of being there.” Though at first she did not realize how stereotype threat affected her directly in high school and college, she knows many people assume women are not good at math. She said: “It’s kind of fun to watch their reaction when they realize they’re wrong. I become self-conscious easily, so it’s often easier for me to figure things out on my own than in a group on the fly.” But again, her family was fundamental in giving her advice: “my Dad told me that because I was a girl, people would underestimate me and encourage me to be less than I could, and it was my job to fight that.”
Some of Maria’s defining learning moments, which brought her to decide to be an epidemiologist, were when she learned about the health and human rights movement, research on the health impacts of war, income inequality and social isolation. In reflecting on her professional path, she knows that mentors have been impactful in guiding her and even fighting for her when she was too intimidated or overwhelmed to stick up for herself. She has always been excited about the possibility of using research and empirical evidence to guide individuals and institutions to promote health. What is striking to Maria is that we don’t know about the health impacts of really important social programs (like school desegregation, or introduction of Social Security retirement benefits, or changes in immigration policies), because nobody has ever done the research to provide a convincing evaluation of the health effects. These policies probably have important effects on health, but we don’t know until someone provides a careful evaluation using the most rigorous research tools.
Maria’s current research is on how social experiences throughout life - from prenatal period to old age – affect healthy aging. She also works on how those social policies, such as access to high quality education, influence healthy aging and risk for dementia. To be more specific, she says that “one general theme is how we can show ‘what works’ for interventions that are difficult to study with our usual best tools in health research, e.g., access to kindergarten or income.” Another area of research is using genetic information to learn about non-genetic factors that influence health. “For example, we have seen that education offsets genetic vulnerability to type II diabetes, i.e., for people with more education, the genetic risk factors mattered less,” Maria explains.
Ultimately, one of her hopes for the SF BUILD project is that she can pass on the message that epidemiology is a powerful way to make the world better. “There’s nothing cooler than figuring out new stuff. Some jobs you’re glad to walk away from and some jobs you just can’t stop thinking about; and research is the second kind.” Other hopes for SF BUILD are to bring new students into science and increase the engagement and enthusiasm of everyone involved. “Academic research is best when people from many different backgrounds and perspectives participate. The hardest thing about research is thinking of new ideas – seeing the familiar in a new light – and that’s why diversity is critical. If students work with me, I hope they make my research better!”
When Maria is not thinking about evaluating social policy and research, she likes to “eat, talk, and walk.” She also loves reading.