Merging Mathematical Skills and Public Health Interests through Biostatistics

Headshot of featured student, Alicia Dominguez.

Alicia Dominguez

Master’s Student in Biostatistics

 

Like many small towns across the United States, my hometown in northern New Mexico faces a range of public health issues and is severely under-resourced. For decades, New Mexico has had nutrition-related problems like food deserts; high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease; poor health care access; and substance abuse. To put this into perspective, New Mexico has ranked among the worst states for overall child well-being in terms of health, socioeconomic welfare, and education in assessments done like the KIDS COUNT project organized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Seeing these issues perpetuated not only in my community but around the state motivated me to pursue an education and career where I can conduct research that addresses some of these issues.

Seeing these issues perpetuated not only in my community but around the state motivated me to pursue an education and career where I can conduct research that addresses some of these issues. One of the most interesting parts about public health is the breadth and diversity of research areas and interests. I’ve always been interested in STEM—mostly mathematics—but it wasn’t always clear how I could merge my quantitative skills with issues that are dear to my heart until I found biostatistics.

Finding Biostatistics amid Personal Challenges

Getting to this point in my academic career hasn't been without its challenges. Before the start of my sophomore year of my undergraduate career, my mom passed away following a five-year battle with cancer. My mother’s death has been the most profound event of my educational career, affecting me emotionally, financially, and socially. The first year after her death was especially hard, because I wanted to continue with my academic endeavors—and life in general—at the same pace, but that proved to be difficult as I began caring for my younger brother, worked several part-time jobs, and had to take the time to cope with and mourn my mother's death.

Balancing priorities in my life during this time was difficult. For the first time ever, I struggled with the importance of academics in my life. With time and immense support from family, friends, and mentors, I realized that school was extremely important to me and would be key for me to accomplish many of my future goals. I started taking steps to overcome the negative mindset that I had developed and became determined to redeem myself and my grades and to reprioritize my education.

For the first time since my mom passed away, I felt hopeful—I finally found a career that connected my passions for math and helping people.

It was during this time—my junior year—that I took my first statistics class. As part of the class, we had to attend one seminar by a statistician. I attended a seminar that was given by biostatistician, Dr. Ji-Hyun Lee, about work in process at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Lee’s talk left me in awe and completely shifted my perspective on what I could accomplish with my quantitative capabilities. For the first time since my mom passed away, I felt hopeful—I finally found a career that connected my passions for math and helping people.

Rare Syndromes Bring Rare Opportunities

While getting my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate to participate in several research opportunities with well-known institutions like Los Alamos National Laboratory, Albuquerque Area Southwest Tribal Epidemiology Center (AASTEC), and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that have all helped me cultivate my interests and skill set under the guidance of professional researchers. However, one of the most influential research experiences I had was with the smaller El Puente Research Fellows Program through the University of New Mexico El Centro de la Raza. That was the first opportunity I had to explore my interest in biostatistics.

Through El Puente, I was able to estimate the prevalence of a rare disorder called Williams Syndrome (WS) using electronic health records under the guidance of faculty member, Dr. Fares Qeadan, from the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. WS has always been an interesting topic for me because my older sister was born with this condition. Naturally, I grew up with a lot of questions about her illness. It was incredible that years later, I found an opportunity to contribute to the scientific community’s understanding of this genetic anomaly. 

While doing this work, I started learning more about graduate school, and ultimately I found the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Discovering Michigan Public Health

I chose Michigan Public Health to continue my education because I felt the school could provide me with the most opportunities academically and in terms of research. In the future, I want to develop accurate and dependable methods to aid researchers in conducting substantial, reproducible research in public health. I believe this is a crucial step in the journey to eventually eradicate such disparities everywhere; and I believe Michigan Public Health’s biostatistics training can help me achieve that goal. From a location standpoint, Ann Arbor was a good match with my personality because I wanted to live in a smaller college town where there were good coffee shops to study at and where I could walk around town easily. All of the squirrels running around campus and Nichols Arboretum were an added bonus.

I want to develop accurate and dependable methods to aid researchers in conducting substantial, reproducible research in public health—a crucial step in the journey to eradicate disparities everywhere.

In graduate school, many of my extracurricular interests have revolved around interest groups in public health like the Biostatistics Student Association, La Salud, Public Health Student Assembly, Public Health Action Support Team, Admissions Ambassadors, and the Biostatistics Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee. Outside of the School of Public Health, I really enjoy volunteering with STEM outreach efforts, especially with students from underrepresented backgrounds. In addition, the Girls Who Code and Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapters at the University of Michigan are also groups doing exemplary work in this space. 

As a pre-doctoral trainee on the Genome Science Training Program, I’m interested in conducting research on admixed individuals, or people who are composed of two or more different super ancestries like current-day Latinos and African Americans. The majority of genetics findings have primarily been found in European populations, make their generalizability to different populations unknown. It’s an extraordinary experience to be surrounded by the wealth of resources and knowledge that are present at  Michigan Public Health because there are a lot less constraints in terms of access to large, quality datasets and the ability to find and opportunities to work with leading scholars and professionals in the field. I hope to use my education and personal experiences to further improve statistical methods to improve public health research so that it could be of benefit to individuals from all populations and backgrounds.


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