This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO18 young scientist Miriam Van Dyke, 27, from the United States is a Ph.D. student in the Epidemiology programme at Emory University in Atlanta.
Her research examines how the distribution of heart disease in a population varies by race, place and/or class. It also aims to identify factors (i.e. psychosocial stress or social policies) that may contribute to differences in the burden of heart disease by race, place and/or class. Enjoy the interview with Miriam and get inspired!
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I wasn’t necessarily inspired — I just followed what I was interested in and passionate about — and that was research. Research intrigues me for many reasons. The most important reason I am drawn to research is that with it you can identify important problems and figure out how your unique perspective can build upon what is already known about a topic in order to find innovative solutions.
Who are your role models?
One of my role models is Michelle Obama. Her eloquence, stature, compassion and strong drive is something I strive to embody every day as an advocate for the health and life opportunities of marginalised populations.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a Bachelor’s degree in nuclear medicine technology. During my time as an undergraduate student, I participated in cancer research which sparked my interest in entering into a Master’s programme in epidemiology (which is a subfield in public health). During my first year of the Master’s in public health programme at Emory University, I continued to research cancer and even did an internship at the National Cancer Institute where I analysed data and wrote a manuscript on occupational radiation exposure trends. During my last year in the master’s programme, I identified that I was passionate about health disparities, and I wrote my master’s thesis on discrimination and sleep quality. Because I knew that I wanted to hold a leadership position in public health later on in my career, I decided to apply and enroll in the PhD program at Emory University in Epidemiology, which is where I am at now! Through my entire school career thus far, I have had amazing mentors that have guided me through career and training decisions, edited personal statements for applications and taught me important life lessons. One particular obstacle that I had to overcome was learning that I was capable of learning difficult material related to quantitative theory and methods. During my first two years in the PhD program I constantly struggled with material and self-confidence. It was the support from other friends in the programme and mentors that helped me push through and gain the momentum I needed to conquer tests, including the most important one — our written qualifying exam. The motto “don’t think about it, just do it” was one my friend in the programme, Veronica, instilled in me, and to this day, I still lean on it in times of doubt and difficulty.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
One of the coolest things I had the opportunity of working on was an analysis examining the relationship between increases in state-level minimum wages and heart disease death rates in the United States. Minimum wage is something that can be relatively easy to change compared to many other “exposures” in public health research. Through this analysis, I was able to add to the growing body of evidence that shows the possible positive health benefits of raising the minimum wage in the United States.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
I wouldn’t say that there has necessarily been a specific time where I felt immense pride in myself/work. However, I will say that every time one of my manuscripts is published, I am overcome with thankfulness as I know the research I have just published is a meaningful contribution to a specific area. Also, every manuscript that is published is worthy of celebration, as the process of publishing in peer reviewed journals is not for the faint of heart and doesn’t happen every day. Thus, we as scientists must celebrate when we are given the opportunity — and publishing a manuscript is definitely one of those times.
What is a “day in the life” of Miriam like?
Most days consist of me answering emails in the morning and then commuting to school where I conduct analysis mostly using SAS and working on manuscripts I’m writing. When school is in session, I serve as a teaching assistant and teach a supplementary course or “lab” once a week for an epidemiology methods course.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I seek to conduct research that will in part lead to public policy changes that positively impact the life opportunities and health of marginalised populations in the United States and across the world. I know that’s quite an accomplishment to fathom, but it is possible. For example, I have published on the relationship between changes in state-level minimum wages and heart disease death rates in the U.S. The study published provides evidence of the possible beneficial relationship between increases in hourly wages and improvements in heart health at the population-level. Although there are more questions still to be answered, this research is a step in the right direction.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I have recently taken up cycling and hiking. Instead of driving to school 1-2 days per week, I have chosen to commute via bicycle, and I also bike during the weekend on hiking trails. I also enjoy volunteering in my free time. Recently, I have been volunteering with an organisation that provides services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Additionally, I am known for my muffin baking! In my free time, I like to bake a variety of muffins. My latest muffin creation was a lemon honey chia seed muffin.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
My advice to other women would be to find a great and invested mentor who will advocate on your behalf for opportunities that will progress your training and career. Having at least one person who has successfully navigated the challenges of the field, (and of even being a woman in the field), can prove invaluable at many junctures during your training and later career.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
I am a large proponent of realizing the valuable scientific evidence that has already accumulated and finding ways to leverage it and create ways to improve its translation into public policy and clinical or public health practice. Thus, I believe the next great breakthrough in science/ physiology and medicine will be the creation of innovative ways to increase access to health prevention and treatment. In this context, access could encompass many things, whether it be physical and financial access or the identification of societal barriers and integration of cultural norms. While scientific inquiry and new research is critically important, we have made advances and have identified points of intervention. Now, it is time to identify ways in which all groups in society can equally benefit from those advances.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
Where I live in the Southeastern part of the United States, a large proportion of researchers and practitioners working in the public health field are actually female. Thus, it is not necessarily a numbers problem, but a power dynamic problem as I have noticed there are a disproportionate number of males in positions of power and leadership in the field. So, the goal where I am currently located would be to provide an equal opportunity environment for females to be actively considered and promoted into leadership roles across the public health field. There are a couple of things that could be done to encourage this culture/practice. One would be to ensure that females are included on committees that interview new applicants and in the final hiring decisions for leadership positions.