Name: Dr. Monica Javidnia Job: Experimental Therapeutics Fellow Country: United States and Iran Age: 31
Dr. Monica Javidnia is a neuropharmacologist and Experimental Therapeutics in Neurological Disease Fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She earned both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas and her Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Georgetown University. Her work focuses on pharmacological and non-pharmacological management of motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, disease progression modeling, and patient outcomes. Find Dr. Javidnia on Twitter and LinkedIn.
On her neurodegenerative and aging research:
“My work largely focuses on Parkinson’s disease, treatment and progression, and I’m interested in how we can use digital tools to monitor response to treatment. I’m fortunate to be working in the Center for Health + Technology and Department of Neurology with many innovative researchers and collaborators. With the addition of virtual study visits, telemedicine, and remote assessments, the team is bringing research opportunities and clinical care to people who may not have previously had access. One such program is Parkinson Disease Care New York, a state-wide telemedicine initiative that provides specialist care to people with Parkinson’s. Sometimes, the closest specialist is hours away, and driving or getting a ride can be a huge burden. With telemedicine, people can see a neurologist from the comfort of their own home.”
On a surprising fact about Parkinson’s disease progression:
“When I learned about Parkinson’s disease through descriptions in a textbook (for example, average age 65, predominantly male, primary drug levodopa), I didn’t understand just how different things can be in real life. For about six months, I shadowed a movement disorders clinician once a week to learn more about Parkinson’s. It was eye-opening to see the range in ages, symptoms, other conditions they have, response to treatment, and more.”
On her work with 1000 girls, 1000futures:
“The New York Academy of Sciences 1000girls, 1000futures program pairs women in STEM with girls interested in pursuing STEM careers. In addition to the one-on-one mentorship, the program has message boards which are a great way to engage with people around the world, ask and answer questions, share articles, and participate in “Ask Me Anything” sessions. I have participated for two years now, and it has been wonderful getting to know the girls and other mentors.”
On her outreach and science-communication (SciComm) efforts:
“I try several methods to get my message out to the masses: Letters to a Pre-Scientist, Twitter, 1000girls, 1000futures program, Skype a Scientist, seminars, talking to people with Parkinson’s and their care partners, slipping some science in to my yoga classes, directing a science communication course at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and answering as many questions as I can. I started working with Ellen Wagner, a user-experience (UX) specialist, and it has definitely changed how I get my message across. Given my fields, I get a lot of questions from friends, family, and people I just met on all types of topics. I try to create a space in which they feel comfortable asking questions, gauge their background knowledge, respond clearly without excessive jargon, and hopefully leave the door open for a follow-up question or discussion. I don’t think I am perfect at SciComm, but I am definitely a better communicator than I used to be, and it just takes practice. As a side note, I applaud SciComm folks like Dr. Efra Rivera-Serrano, who have active social media accounts, post regularly, and maintain a large reach. I wish I had their skill and energy!”
On her future goals:
“Too many to count! Aside from my research goals, I want to provide personalized yoga practices for people with Parkinson’s. I believe yoga has the potential to improve symptoms, help prevent falls, and may also be beneficial for their care partner.”
I believe yoga has the potential to improve symptoms, help prevent falls, and may also be beneficial for their care partner.
Name: Dennis Eckmeier Job: Science Editor and Communicator Country: Germany, USA, Portugal Age: 41
Dennis Eckmeier supports scientists who are preparing manuscripts and funding applications. He is further establishing himself as a podcast producer in science communication. His podcast is about the role of science and academia in society. The project resulted from his engagement in the March for Science in Portugal. Dr. Eckmeier has a university degree in biology and a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Originally from Germany, he spent a total of 13 years conducting research in Germany, the USA, and Portugal. In 2018 he quit the academic career path and moved back to Germany as an independent scientist. You can find him on Twitter and his website.
On his fears about getting older:
“My fear of advanced age is the threat of poverty. Spending 20 years in academia has left me with sub-par retirement funds.
In Germany, the current working generations – Millennials and Generation X (my generation) – pay the retirement of the current retired generation (Baby Boomers+). For this “generation contract” to work well, however, the working population needs to be larger than the retired population. But the German population is shrinking because of low birth rates.
Currently, the retiring baby boomer generation is the largest age-group in Germany; they are also the first generation to enjoy retirement for 20 years on average because of increasing life expectancy (81.41 years in 2020).
This means, our growing population of retirees needs to be financially supported by a shrinking working population, which is already causing problems. In response, the government is encouraging us to buy private retirement plans in addition to paying for public retirement insurance.
Subsidized private insurance plans were conceived. I couldn’t buy one before I left Germany – and still can’t – but they have proven insufficient, anyways. Many cases were made public where the insured are lucky to get out what they paid in. On the other hand, interest rates in Germany are currently lower than inflation, meaning that saving money in the bank will shrink rather than grow your wealth.
Being an academic prohibited me from paying even average amounts into retirement plans. The amount of money you receive from the German public retirement insurance depends on the years and the amounts you paid into it. But as an academic, you usually don’t pay into it until after graduation. So, most workers have already paid for a decade before academics even begin. This is supposed to be offset by a higher salary that academics are expected to earn. But, academics in the public sector in Germany aren’t paid particularly much – and good long-term contracts are rare. As a Ph.D. student, I only got a 50 percent part-time contract despite working 50 hours per week. Colleagues who received a fellowship did not pay retirement insurance since fellowships are tax-free. That sounds great until you realize that fellowships are so low, that after paying mandatory health insurance, they have less money than those who have working contracts with the university (where health insurance is included).
In addition to the four years part-time contribution to my public retirement account, I have a 401(k) from my time in the USA (4.5 years), and I am entitled to some retirement funds from Portugal. But my 401(k) only received minimum rates, and the median income in Portugal is quite low. So I can’t expect big returns from either.
I’m now 41, and despite having earned a Ph.D. and having worked at top research institutes, my retirement savings are below average. And I’m currently not paying into my retirement plan at all, because I just started my own business.
The uncertainty further increases, as German politicians struggle to find a good solution for the failing generation contract. They are raising the retirement age to decrease the ratio between working and retired people, and they are discussing how many years you need to have paid into retirement to receive full retirement pay.”
On how academia can help improve quality of life:
“Where retirement is purely a private responsibility, salaries must be sufficiently high for graduate students and postdocs to not only live a middle-class lifestyle in that area but also ensure they have a proper retirement plan. In some regions, it may even be worth considering building houses specifically for postdocs to live in. In countries where fellowships are tax-free, but also mean no contribution to public retirement insurance, this must be changed. People should receive the same rights and benefits regardless of who pays for the salary. Where there are special rules for academia so that worker protection regulation is being circumvented, this must stop. There is really no reason to have special rules for academia that allow them to exploit early career researchers the way it is happening right now.”
On his financial struggles as a postdoc:
“After I graduated in 2010, I was advised to go abroad for international research experience. I spent 4.5 years in the USA at a top research facility in Long Island, so my pay was relatively high for a postdoc in the USA. I even had a 401(k)! However, while other employees received payment to their 401(k) at nine percent of their salary, postdocs only received one percent – the minimum for having a 401(k) at all, as far as I know. It was justified by claiming that postdocs were only temporarily – even though most postdocs stayed for more than five years. And despite the relatively high salary, I could not afford to pay into retirement, since living in Long Island is very expensive. Also, as a postdoc abroad, I needed my savings for the next move. I later moved to Portugal for a second postdoc, where I had a tax-free fellowship, so I didn’t pay into their social security system – except for a minimum voluntary amount.
On his future goals:
“I am currently in the process of building a business for Science Editing and Science Communication. I hope to, at some point, be able to retire without ending in poverty.”
On his healthy habits for self-care:
“I try to reduce stress by choosing work I can enjoy, and by getting some physical activity in.”
Where retirement is purely a private responsibility, salaries must be sufficiently high for graduate students and postdocs to not only live a middle-class lifestyle in that area, but also ensure they have a proper retirement plan.
Name: Beth Prusaczyk Job: Instructor of Medicine and Health Informatics Country: United States Age: 34
Beth Prusaczyk is an Instructor at the Institute for Informatics and in General Medical Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She is an implementation scientist who specializes in improving healthcare for older adults and other vulnerable populations by understanding how to better implement existing research findings into real-world practice and policy through the use of healthcare data and systems and team science. Dr. Prusaczyk completed her postdoctoral training at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She received her PhD and MSW from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. She also received her undergraduate degree in journalism from Webster University. As a 2018-2019 Health and Aging Policy Fellow and American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow, Dr. Prusaczyk worked with Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and her website.
On bridging policy, research, and practice:
“My work is focused on taking research findings and getting them used by practitioners and policymakers. I study that process and find ways to make it happen faster and better, and with better success. It’s the science of dissemination and implementation. And I do this all with a focus on older adults’ healthcare! I’m absolutely thrilled because my research interests include broadly what are the strategies to improve the implementation of evidence-based practices for older adults in the healthcare system, including the effect of interpersonal team dynamics on the implementation process and the use of existing healthcare data and system science methods such as social network analysis to inform and speed the implementation process. I currently serve as Secretary of the Society for Implementation Research Collaboration (SIRC). ”
On how health systems can support patients with dementia and their caregivers:
“One thing we found in our work is that hospital providers weren’t prioritizing education to patients with dementia or their caregivers. And this wasn’t exactly because the patients had dementia but more because patients with dementia were more often discharging to a skilled nursing facility, rehabilitation hospital, nursing home, etc. They weren’t as likely to go back home by themselves or with their caregiver. So the hospital providers felt like because the patient was going straight into the care of another healthcare professional, educating the patient or their caregiver about their diagnoses, symptoms to watch out for, medication side effects, etc. were not a priority. But, because we know older adults with dementia are at a higher risk for readmission and adverse events after hospital discharge, our research suggests that maybe hospital providers should consider prioritizing education for these patients and their caregivers so that they can advocate for themselves when they are at the nursing home, rehab hospital, etc.”
On her experience as a fellow in the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging:
“I was extremely lucky to be chosen as a 2018-2019 Health and Aging Policy Fellow, where I worked with the Senate Special Committee on Aging with Ranking Member Senator Bob Casey. This was an incredible experience to learn how policymakers use research findings when creating and negotiating policies for older adults. The training we receive as fellows and the network we become a part of are – as they tell you when you begin and it’s true – life-changing!”
On how her journalism experience informs her research:
“I think one thing that helps me be that bridge is my former career as a journalist. I loved being a journalist but newspapers (outside of the few major ones in the US) aren’t read as much today as they were 50 years ago, which means there aren’t many journalism jobs out there. While I wouldn’t trade my journalism experience for anything (it has been immensely helpful in my research career), when I decided to leave the field because of the poor job opportunities, it really was a pivotal moment because that’s when I found research and started on the path that has led me to where I am today. I didn’t take the traditional path to academia but as I get older and further along in my career I realize how much this unique path actually helps me!”
On her future goals:
“My goals are to become a successful researcher but also to become a bridge between researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. I think each has their own perspectives and expertise but we still operate in silos when, in fact, we need to all work together if we are going to improve healthcare. I think because I have seen all three positions I can help bridge those silos.”
I didn’t take the traditional path to academia but as I get older and further along in my career I realize how much this unique path actually helps me!
Name: Crystal Grant Job: Genetics Researcher and Science Advocate Country: United States and the Netherlands Age: 27
Crystal Grant was recently awarded a PhD in Genetics at Emory University. As an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, she used bioinformatics tools to characterize the molecular changes in humans with age. Originally from New York City, Dr. Grant completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell University, where she earned a BA in Biological Sciences with a minor in Anthropology. Throughout her graduate studies, she advocated for graduate students as President of Emory’s Graduate Student Council, volunteered with K-12 science outreach and education initiatives around Atlanta, and mentored underrepresented students. Dr. Grant enjoys practicing yoga, exploring museums, and traveling. In her future career, Dr. Grant she aims to combine her interest in crafting evidence-based science and technology policies with her doctoral experience working with big data. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and her website.
On why she chose to the biology of aging:
“My decision to study aging was a result of the lab I chose at Emory University. PhD students enter the university before choosing a lab and then do three 3-month rotations through different labs before choosing one. I had just come from working in a mouse lab on a leukemia-like disease as part of my gap year. While I liked getting to work on a human disease, I disliked having to sacrifice mice, so I went into graduate school hoping to find a lab that studied a human condition using bioinformatics tools–meaning I’d just be working on the computer, not with any animal models. And I found just that in the Conneely Lab!
I spoke early in my first year to Dr. Karen Conneely (my now advisor) so she could tell me more about her lab. She studied epigenetics (which is the field that looks at how the environment interacts with our genetics) and had a student in her lab who was using this approach to study evolutionary theories of aging. It was a fascinating conversation that got me excited about her research and the prospect of joining her lab. She then told me more about what would become my first paper—that the environment around our DNA changes in a way that is so predictable and linear that these changes can be used to predict the age of the person with very high accuracy across several different tissues! Because of this accuracy and the correlation of someone’s predicted age based on their DNA marks with their actual time to mortality, it was suggested that looking at this mark on DNA (called DNA methylation) could be a biomarker of aging–essentially meaning that it was a better predictor of someone’s health than their actual chronological age. I was sold and luckily, she let me join her lab.
Since joining Karen’s lab, I’ve learned a lot more about this field and I’m always excited to see the new things we’re able to learn about the process of aging. Before I began studying aging, I thought, like many people, that we understood it well–but the more I learn about it, the more I realize how little we understand this process that we are all going through! But I think the promise of biomarkers of aging could help revolutionize medical treatment. It has the potential to allow us to know exactly what environmental factors and behaviors age us faster in addition to who is more at risk of disease development and early mortality.
On her yearlong research fellowship in the Netherlands:
“It was a cool experience. I was able to go because I am an NSF Graduate Research Fellow; fellows can apply for this additional program, Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW). The goal of GROW is to get more American scientists collaborating internationally. I’m super grateful to have been given that opportunity by the NSF. And finding my lab in the Netherlands resulted from me attending an international conference and having dinner with Dr. Eline Slagboom who put me in touch with Dr. Bas Heijmans. Through GROW, I worked in the Heijmans Lab in Leiden for a year on an interesting aging project. Others in the field seemed to agree, I attended an aging conference and many people at my poster were excited about our approach to developing a new biomarker of aging. However, the marker I developed in my 12 months of work did not appear an improvement over existing ones, but I’m hopeful that, once another graduate student picks up the project, they may make more headway on this project given more time.
Something else I learned was just how similar the process of doing science is in Europe compared to the US–the main differences were work life balance (which I think they are much better at there) and that graduate students are recognized and employees and treated as such. I thought it was amazing that everyone was entitled to 5 weeks of vacation each year and that grads were given a raise every few years to acknowledge how much more proficient they had gotten at their craft. However, I was surprised to learn that many of their contracts run out before they are finished writing their thesis, so they end up having to write it while at their new job–something that seemed very stressful to me. Another difference seemed to be the scale of biobanks (these are tissue samples from people volunteering to be part of research projects) in Europe compared to the US. Because of historical factors and mistreatment by US scientists of minorities in research studies of the past, it’s much harder to get Americans to participate in research in the US compared to Europeans, which is unfortunate and something scientists and policy makers in the US need to address.”
On becoming a science activist in graduate school:
“In graduate school, I’ve been very active both at Emory and on a larger scale at Capitol Hill in DC. More locally, I’ve been passionate about empowering graduate students at Emory. Especially now that I’ve seen how the PhD is so different in other parts of the world, I’m more well versed in ways American universities could improve the graduate experience. At Emory, I’m on a task force with the goal of improving the graduate experience for biology PhD students. Additionally, I’ve been part of a graduate organization that works to educate students on how they can have an impact on policy-makers, specifically in communicating the importance of the federal government funding for science research. This organization, the Emory Science Advocacy Network (EScAN), has given me experience in science policy and knowledge of careers that marry my interests in science research with my desire to maintain my civic engagement.
Through the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other professional societies, I’ve gotten to travel to DC to talk to Georgia legislators about the importance of funding science research at the federal level—which was a great experience. I think more scientists need to work on being advocates for what we do and practice talking about it with non-scientists. If the public and law-makers can better understand why what we do is so important, they’ll feel more comfortable trusting both us as researchers and the scientific findings that we publish.”
On her future goals:
“This January, I’ll be starting a 3-month science policy fellowship at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine through the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. I’m SUPER excited about this opportunity since working in policy has been a goal of mine since starting my PhD. I’m also really interested in careers in Data Science since this is essentially what I’ve done these last 5 years in my PhD. I find I really enjoyed working with data to uncover trends and draw conclusions and then communicating these findings, especially to non-technical audiences.
For now, my main goal is to finish my PhD sometime in early 2020 and find a job that I really love. My ideal career would allow me to combine my interests in analyzing data and contributing to crafting evidence-based policies (and hopefully let me still travel).”
On her love of travel and favorite places:
“I love to travel, I get stir crazy if I’m in one place too long. My year of research in the Netherlands was a great experience in part because Europe is so easy to travel on a budget–I went to as many places as I could staying in cheap hostels and bargain hunting for cheap flights. I went to: Dublin, Ireland for St Patrick’s Day; Munich, Germany for Oktoberfest; Paris, France for AfroPunk; London, England for the Notting Hill Carnival; and many more. While, I still think Amsterdam is the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, I found the sights in Vietnam (specially Ha Long Bay and the rice fields of Sa Pa) to be the most beautiful to visit. But my hands down favorite place to visit is Venice, Italy.”
Before I began studying aging, I thought, like many people, that we understood it well–but the more I learn about it, the more I realize how little we understand this process that we are all going through!
Name: Rory McGill Job: Public Health Specialty Registrar Country: Ireland and England Age: 33
Rory McGill is currently training as a Public Health Specialty Registrar in the North West of England. He is a health and social psychologist by background and worked as a Postdoc in academia upon completing his PhD in psychology from Queen’s University Belfast. Dr. McGill was born and raised in Derry, Ireland but is currently based in Liverpool, England. His research interests include the wider determinants of health and the practical application of the social sciences. His hobbies include all things horror and video game related, which can be explained partly by being a Derry native which is the global capital of Halloween! He is passionate about using his platform to engage with wide audiences about the causes of health and the importance of well being and connecting with others that goes beyond academic journal articles. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.
On his training as a public health consultant:
“Training to be a Public Health consultant is a very exciting opportunity! The training programme began specifically for clinicians to develop their specialty in public health and become consultants. However, this was then opened to health professionals with non-medical backgrounds as public health is more than just the treatment of illness or management of communicable diseases. It includes everything that can impact upon health, which if you think about it is almost everything from the food we eat to where we spend our time and how we feel. Having such a diverse curriculum means two days are never the same, which I love! I completed my PhD in psychology back in 2011 and had no idea what public health was. I worked as a postdoc within the field of psychology before taking an academic position in public health as it dovetailed nicely with my own research on eating behaviours. This experience made me certain that this was the field I wanted to be a part of. Being able to apply the academic theory in practice and see population health improve is so fulfilling!”
On one surprising fact about older LGB in your research:
“I am passionate about the health of our ageing population, particularly our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) elders. I am a gay man who is very grateful for the work our older LGBT generation have done in fighting for our rights to live as normalised and accepted members of society. However, there is a disproportionate focus on youth culture when considering the LGBT community. While this is a vital consideration, older generations can become forgotten about. My research examined the care experiences of older LGB people in Merseyside (UK) and their thoughts on the future. There is a lack of academic research and UK policy consideration involving older LGB people. The Office for National Statistics estimate that 2 percent of the UK population identify as LGB. Older LGB people experience multiple disadvantage living in a hetero-normative society, with poorer health outcomes than their heterosexual counterparts. This is worsened by a long-standing oppression which has shaped the interactions of older LGB people with informal (care from family and friends/social interactions) and formal care (medical care from a professional). The implication of this is widened health inequalities arising from sub-optimum care, yet little research focusses specifically on older LGB health. My research found that older people did not want to be defined by their sexual orientation. They wanted to be valued as a whole person when receiving any form of care or support, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it! What was surprising for me was the differences in viewpoint by gender. The older women I spoke to were not as accepted as gay men into the “gay scene” of the 1960’s and 1970’s, forcing them to develop their own close support networks. This resulted in a preference for care exclusively from female carers and in contexts predominantly female. This highlights that older LGB people are not a homogenous group and should not be considered as such!”
On making health systems inclusive for older LGBT:
“It is important to note that I did not include older trans people in my research as there are very important biological considerations necessary when serving our trans elders, such as training for healthcare professionals to carry out the appropriate screening checks, e.g. carrying out prostate examinations in older trans women. This is an area which needs to be explored more in depth! From my research, it was shocking to hear some of the care experiences had by older LGB people. Some older gay men were tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) despite not having had a sexual partner in decades, and older women having had pregnancy tests despite never having had sexual contact with a man. Their clinicians failed to hear them and tested them based on stereotypical assumptions which made them feel isolated, stigmatised and alone. This is completely avoidable and does not require huge investment for our overstretched healthcare services. Front line staff should treat anyone coming through the door as an individual and not with preconceived and outdated assumptions. Older people are vulnerable, and when you add any other minority status to ageing, it makes them doubly vulnerable and this should be a consideration within induction training for care staff, no matter what minority group it may be.”
On whether or not older LGBT care homes are needed:
“The idea of older LGBT care homes is a very interesting and contested concept. It has come about due the examples of older LGBT people having very negative experiences while being cared for. I read one case study about an older lady who was with her female partner for decades and who since passed away. She then wasn’t well enough to live independently and needed to move into a care facility. Her carer was reportedly homophobic and as a result, the older lady hid all evidence of her lifetime spent with her partner until she herself passed away. She essentially went back into the closet in the twilight of her life. It really stuck with me and got me involved in this research in the beginning. I was initially surprised to hear from my participants that a strong majority were very much averse to the idea of an older LGBT exclusive carer home. They wanted to be cared for alongside members of their local community and not “ghettoised” and isolated among only other LGBT people. They reported this would only magnify the “othering” they have felt throughout their lives. Considerable more research needs to be carried out exploring this before large financial investment is provided in establishing such facilities. In my own opinion, having a more inclusive care home environment with a kitemark signifying the space being a safe one for LGBT people, coupled with more sensitivity training would be an ideal scenario.”
On his future goals:
“My current goal for the future is to complete my training and qualify as a public health consultant. I then would love to be able to influence policy at a national level to help shape how we consider LGBT ageing in terms of both prevention of ill health and the inclusive treatment of illness. I would also like to highlight and showcase the diversity in STEM by being an openly gay man who can hopefully inspire others like me to pursue their own goals!”
Having a more inclusive care home environment with a kitemark signifying the space being a safe one for LGBT people, coupled with more sensitivity training would be an ideal scenario.
Aisha Bassett is a Senior Post-Doctoral Research Fellow working in clinical research in Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She was born and raised on the island of Bermuda. She obtained a BSc. Psychology at McGill University in Canada and her medical degree from Norwich Medical School in England. Her research interests include maternal-infant immunity, vaccine efficacy and the maternal-infant microbiome. Her hobbies include singing, song-writing, composing on the piano and art. Dr. Bassett has had a vegan diet for over three years. She enjoys cooking and curating new plant-based recipes which combine her knowledge of nutrition and its role in disease prevention and health. She is passionate about using her knowledge and experience to help people live healthy and full lives by incorporating tasty and nutritional recipes into their diets. Find her on Instagram, and LinkedIn.
On why she chose to study medicine:
“I remember being fascinated at a young age by this magical place called the hospital where my mom, who was a nurse, would disappear and then emerge with interesting stories about the people she met. After loosing my grandfather to a preventable disease, I became interested in how diseases develop, their complications and how they could be prevented. At age 13, I started volunteering at a hospital in Bermuda and did so until I graduated high school. I enjoyed getting to know the patients and felt natural compassion towards them, several of whom had become resident in the hospital due to chronic diseases. The stories they would tell me made each patient and their condition memorable and fueled my desire to understand the underlying mechanisms of the diseases I was seeing.
Seeing first-hand preventative disease such as diabetes, that particularly affected Blacks and minorities, and the plethora of complications that developed further fueled my desire to study medicine. As a medical student, I began to learn that most deaths in the western world were due to preventable diseases. I became interested not only in how to treat the disease but how to stop or reverse the disease process and how we develop protection from diseases starting in infancy, the topic of my current research.
The research I am performing in the Pannaraj Lab at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is investigating how to make vaccines work better. One such vaccine that we are researching is the Rotavirus vaccine. Rotavirus is a leading cause of diarrhea in children and results in roughly 130,000 deaths in children worldwide every year. While the vaccine is very effective in high-income countries, it is much less effective in low- and middle-income countries. We are looking at the role of breast milk and the infant microbiome, the trillions of organisms that live in us, in how the vaccine works in different parts of the world.”
On her experience in medicine across countries:
“The clinical experience I have has come from working in various healthcare settings, namely in Bermuda, Canada, Belize, England and the US. Each healthcare system had similarities in terms of leading causes of mortality and morbidity that were preventable through diet and lifestyle factors such as Type II Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, strokes and certain cancers. Across all countries, differences in access to the resources, socioeconomic status, and patient education play a role in access to health resources. In some countries, the cost of healthcare is a deterrent to seeking medical attention, in others, the understanding of when and where to seek healthcare impacts utilization of resources. Working in various settings has taught me the importance of the cultural and socioeconomic factors involved in the health of individuals and communities. These experiences solidified my desire to work to reduce global health outcome disparities.”
On the role our diet plays in disease prevention:
“When thinking of disease prevention, I adopt a holistic approach. There are several factors that play a role in prevention including diet, daily exercise, dental hygiene and attending regular checkups with your doctor. Many of the top causes of deaths such as heart disease, stroke and cancers are due to lifestyle factors including diet, that include consumption of processed food, refined sugars, and animal products such as meat and dairy as a main source of nutrition.”
Scientists are discovering more about the role of the microbiome in disease prevention and development. The hygiene hypothesis explains the role of the microbiome in eczema and allergies and explains why there has been an increase over the last few decades in allergic diseases, such as respiratory, skin, and food allergy. It explains that modern living conditions are very clean and so there is less microbe exposure early in life. This results in the immune system not being taught to be able to recognize and fight foreign organisms. In addition, an imbalance of the microbiome is known to affect the skins immune response in a way that predisposes to immune conditions, such as eczema. On the other hand, a healthy microbiome is reported to have a protective influence on the immune system. The development of the infant microbiome has been found to be influenced by early life exposure such as delivery method, breast milk ingestion, infant nutrition, and antibiotic use.
On the science behind the benefits of plant-based meals:
“Plant-based meals focus on foods primarily from plants. It means proportionally choosing more foods from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, beans and more. Plant-based meals are beneficial for many reasons. Some vegetables and fruits can reduce inflammation in our bodies. This is important for our health because inflammation, when it goes on for a long time, can lead to certain diseases. Eating foods that reduce inflammation or avoiding foods that cause inflammation, can promote health in the body. There are also substances in fruits and vegetables called phytonutrients. These phytonutrients have different roles. Some can actually ‘turn off’ gene that lead to cancer, which is simply an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. Other phytonutrients can repair damage in our cells that would usually lead to disease states.
I have met so many people who have said to me, “I want to eat healthier, but I don’t know where to start.” People who want to make that change can often have a lot of information to sort through before they feel comfortable adding new foods to their diet. I started curating plant-based meals on Instagram to help people make food choices that would help them live a healthy life. As a doctor and researcher who has had a plant-based diet for over 2 decades, I enjoy sharing the meals I have created while also sharing nutritional facts about the foods I eat.
Regarding meal prepping and recipe development, the foundation of each meal is first ensuring it is balanced – that it has good portion of protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fat as well as vitamins and minerals. Then I consider what flavors, spices and textures would complement the meal. Next, I create something new or put a healthy spin on a well-known recipe by replacing certain ingredients with healthier ones. Lastly, I also consider how to make the meal colorful and appealing. This is important because so much of what we choose to eat is influenced by our senses, that is, how food is presented and how it tastes. Making nutritional meals that people want to eat is my goal, so that their bodies can have the fuel it needs for them to function at their best.”
On her best advice to new mothers:
“Motherhood can be an exciting time, but it can also come with navigating all the surprises that come with being a new mother. Many moms have concerns about what is normal for their baby from how much their baby is feeding to the changing colors of their stool. The best advice I have given to new moms is that I encourage them to use the resources around them to navigate challenges as they come so that concerns don’t build up. This includes talking with breastfeeding consultants, doctors, more experienced mothers as well as making use of their support systems so that they can engage in self-care while caring for their baby. Some moms just need to be reminded that every mother’s journey is different because every baby is unique and has its own special personality. I remind them that they are doing a good job even when they hit speed bumps on the road of motherhood.
For example, it is especially helpful for mothers to learn how breastfeeding and the microbiome are linked to health and longevity. Breast milk is a specialized secretion that provides many nutrients, antibodies, and microbes. Breast milk helps establish the gut microbiome. This microbiome plays a role in our metabolism, that is how well we can get the nutrients we need from the food we eat. It is also vital to educating the body’s natural defense system, the immune system. Breastfeeding also provides protection against respiratory and gastrointestinal infections and is associated with a reduced risk of diseases such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity. Having a healthy gut microbiome and immune system is a key part of health and longevity.”
I started curating plant-based meals on Instagram to help people make food choices that would help them live a healthy life.
Name: Kayse Lee Maass Job: Industrial Engineer Country: United States Age: 29
Kayse Lee Maass is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and leads the Operations Research and Social Justice lab at Northeastern University. She also currently holds a research appointment with the Information and Decision Engineering Program at Mayo Clinic. Dr. Maass’s research focuses on the application of operations research methodology to social justice, access, and equity issues within human trafficking, mental health, housing, and supply chain contexts. Her work is supported by multiple National Science Foundation grants, centers interdisciplinary survivor-informed expertise, and has been used to inform policy and operational decisions at the local, national, and international levels. A recipient of multiple awards, she currently serves as the INFORMS Section on Location Analysis Secretary and is a member of the H.E.A.L. Trafficking Research Committee. Find her onTwitter, LinkedIn, and her website.
On why she chose to study engineering:
“When I was growing up, I was interested in a lot of social justice types of topics, but I also really loved math. I knew I wanted to do something with applied math. In college, I studied math and physics [I had some physics in high school and liked it], but it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I wanted to tie in social justice with math, but I didn’t know how to do that until I took an operations research course in my senior year. That’s when I learned about the field that I’m in, which is industrial engineering.
I like to explain Industrial Engineering as the mathematics of decision making where we can look at things from a systems perspective. It’s nice because anything—any application or any topic that you think of—involves decision making. However, it wasn’t until I was pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE) from the University of Michigan that my mentors provided me with space and encouragement to explore how industrial engineering and social justice applications, like human trafficking, intertwined.”
On her self-care practices for a healthy lifestyle:
“I’ve been thinking about this [self-care] a lot lately. I read somewhere that when we talk about self-care, what we often need is community care. There are things I personally need to do for self-care, but we also need to make sure we design our systems and communities around making sure people have space to have healthy lifestyles.
As a professor, I work with a lot of students interested in pursuing a PhD or a career as a professor. I know that academia gives this idea that everyone’s always working, rarely has time for fun, and it’s very intense [which it is]. But, that’s not true for everyone in academia, and the assumption that it is true is one of the major barriers to creating an inclusive, diverse academy. I want students interested in academia to know that the field can be welcoming to people with diverse family needs or diverse health needs with different accessibility levels – but to do this I have to help create an academic environment where people know that flexibility and accessibility are the norm. For example, I try to be intentional about encouraging students to step away from their work to take time for their own self-care and relaxation, to be with family, and to generally just not work when they need to not work. This involves setting boundaries between work and other areas of your life and creating an environment where stepping away and having other interests is normal. The workplace can do a better job at normalizing healthy living. In fact, stepping away from your work to focus on other parts of your life is healthy and can lead to you being more engaged and productive once you are back at work!
In my personal life, I try to exercise as much as I can with realistic expectations. If I don’t reach my goal on a day, then self-care for me means I have to avoid being hard on myself for missing the goal. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to listen to my body a lot more, including understanding when I’m starting to get stressed or anxious, and when what my body really needs is to rest rather than move.
On how engineers can help fix healthcare:
“A lot of people in our field also look at healthcare applications. Sometimes it’s looking at telehealth options for people who either cannot drive anymore or live in rural populations. Industrial engineering can help answer questions such as: How can these populations have better access to a healthy lifestyle and check-ins? There are also people in our field who use industrial engineering to determine how often people should get screened for different conditions as they get older. If people were screened all the time, that would put a lot of time and financial burden on patients and they probably would not go to their screening. But if patients are not screened frequently enough, then they might have an undetected medical condition that can progress or get worse over time with limited treatment options available in the future.”
On how she uses data to fight human trafficking:
“There are researchers in other fields that use quantitative data to get insights into what human trafficking. Statisticians are working on better ways to determine the prevalence of human trafficking; economists create economic models to understand ways to reduce the profitability of exploiting people by using trafficked labor; there are quantitative social scientists researching, among other things, ways in which systems of poverty, racism, and homelessness intersect with human trafficking. But, in industrial engineering, there really hasn’t been much prior work focused on data and mathematical, systems-based models to provide decision support to anti-human trafficking stakeholders. For example, there’s often not enough of a budget for anti-human trafficking agencies or non-profits to adequately address the needs of trafficking victims and survivors. They don’t have enough resources. They already have a lot of things they need to do. Industrial engineering is great for those kinds of applications because we can help figure out, “How do I make the most efficient use of my resources?” For example, in some of our current work, we focus on how to increase access to shelters and other services for human trafficking survivors. After people come out of their trafficking experience, they need safe and stable housing options, they need access to food and medical care and many additional things, but those supports currently are not adequately available throughout the world, including the United States.
Some of our work is focusing on determining how to best increase access to shelter and other services if an organization/government has a limited budget to spend. We work with human trafficking survivors to determine what they want and need after they leave their trafficking experience. From this we can answer questions such as: Where should you build these additional shelters? What types of services should each shelter offer? How can the shelters best coordinate with other community support partners? In short, one of the things we as industrial engineers can do is help determine how to most efficiently use your resources to meet your goals.
This a similar problem to something like what any other company would do when they are going to create a new warehouse or storefront. They use these kinds of models to say, “Where am I going to open my next warehouse?” or “Where am I going to open my new store?” And we’re just doing it in a different application while also considering things that aren’t focused primarily on demand and profit. Instead we incorporate more human components as well.”
On her tips for combining engineering and social justice passions:
“It’s important to understand both the technical aspects of industrial engineering and the nuances of social justice issues. Sometimes what can happen is a prospective engineer who has a math/engineering background can get so excited about a social justice topic that they just jump into it without understanding all the nuances and all the complexities of that social justice topic. And while it’s good to have interest and passion in all these topics, it can also be harmful if we don’t understand how there are many different complexities and overlapping systems involved. For example, creating a new decision model that looks at stopping trafficking within a city might just push the traffickers outside of the city and into the suburbs or rural areas, causing problems for other populations or marginalized groups.
So, I think it’s important that industrial engineers come with a passion, and start working on these topics, but also come with the willingness to really get connected with people that have expertise in human trafficking.
It’s important that if you’re making decisions about trafficking-whether through industrial engineering models or policy-, you need to have trafficking victims and trafficking survivors centered at the decision table with you; they understand what the complexities of the system are, and are crucial to making sure that we aren’t having any unintended consequences.” There’s that saying, “Nothing for us without us” that is particularly helpful for us as industrial engineers to remember as we work on problems that have very real impacts on people’s lives.
I read somewhere that when we talk about self-care, what we often need is community care.
Name: Sachi Shah Job: International Development Practitioner Country: Malawi and India Age: 28
Sachi Shah serves as founder/director of Truss Group, a multi-faceted social enterprise that works towards environmental sustainability and human health improvement in low-income urban areas in Malawi. She has worked as a Global Health Corps fellow and Communications and Programs Associate at the Boys & Girls Club of Newark. Previously, Sachi wrote and edited for Global Health Aging and has interned with The Rockefeller Foundation among other organizations. Find Shah on LinkedIn and Truss Group on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
On her job description: “I run a social enterprise in Blantyre, Malawi that focuses on waste management, and plastic recycling. We create cement substitutes from recycled plastic and focus on high-impact building projects such as disaster-resistant housing and pit latrines.
We are aiming to come up with a model for disaster resistant housing before the end of the year. We are also looking at how we can move into exploring other infrastructure that can support better health and environments beyond waste management. Outside of work, I like to watch spend time in nature and with friends, watch movies, and read.”
On why she started the Truss Group “Truss is an extension of a project I started with high-school students four years ago in Blantyre. I believe that if spaces are freed of waste, and more sustainable construction is encouraged in urban areas, then human and environmental health will benefit exponentially. I wanted to return to do more than just volunteer work for a couple of months.”
On how environmental sustainability affects human health: “Mismanaged waste is known to breed diseases and negatively affect both human and environmental health and productivity. A healthy environment benefits everyone, especially children and vulnerable older adults who live at risk in the community.
On her experience as a fellow with Global Health Corps: “I did communications, monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and health program development for the Boys & Girls Club of Newark in the USA during my fellowship year. Global Health Corps is a wonderful world-wide community of dedicated professionals working to develop better health care for all. It is also a very supportive community invested in peer learning.”
On her proudest moment(s): “I think my ability to be resilient and resourceful. Entrepreneurship requires you to learn this and quickly. I serve on the board of Renew’N’Able Malawi (RENAMA), a Malawian non-governmental organization (NGO) for sustainable energy and manages the Blantyre Farmer’s Market. I have also pursued research and fieldwork in various subjects including, water, sanitation, and hygiene 9(WASH), sustainable energy, child development, urban design 10 and policy, environmental policy, and movement building.”
Better health infrastructure, decreased corruption, and waste management are top three needs in Malawi.
Name: Vanessa Rissetto Job: Dietitian Entrepreneur Country: United States Age: 40
Vanessa Rissetto is on a mission to promote healthy eating. She is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist who specializes in Weight Loss, Weight Management, and Medical Nutrition Therapy as it relates to Diabetes, Cardiac Disease, and Gastrointestinal Issues. Her media appearances include Hallmark Channel, Refinery29, Men’s Health, and Chicago Tribune, among others. A chocolate lover, Rissetto lives in the USA with her husband, daughter, son, and four-legged friend Marley! Find her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and her website.
On why she chose to study nutrition:
“I was always interested in science, medicine, nutrition, so I decided to take a few classes at New York University to see if it would be something I would want to pursue – it was!”
On what she has learned about the science behind nutrition:
“That it is science-based, and not just all these gimmicks that people are putting out there. Just because you hear of one study doesn’t mean it’s gospel. We have to find the reasons why and do a deeper dive.”
On how to make healthy eating affordable:
“It can be with proper planning. Just going to the supermarket without anything in mind can cause you to overspend. Having a handle on your schedule and the things you like to eat will ensure you don’t waste.”
On her favorite meal to make:
“I like to roast a chicken at the beginning of the week and use the remainder for a chicken salad or fajitas. It’s pretty versatile and easy to do.”
On her future goals:
“Honestly, I think if I can help people understand the science behind nutrition and get them to have a better relationship with food, then I can consider myself successful.”
It isn’t just about losing weight. It’s about feeling great, re-energizing, and finding a new lust for life.