A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program
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Bridging Passions for Math and Public Health

As an undergrad at UTEP, Brisa studied math, a subject she loves, and aspired to become a math teacher. However, after visiting high school classes as part of her training, Brisa realized the challenges of teaching math to teenagers go beyond just the math. “Although my admiration for high school teachers increased even more with those classroom visits, I just knew I couldn’t be a good ‘math shepherd’ to teenagers,” she remembers.

Fortunately, shortly afterwards, a new path appeared in her journey. Brisa came across an   announcement advertising a research opportunity for undergraduates in a summer program then at Cornell University – the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI), directed by Professor Carlos Castillo Chavez. For Brisa, this program was a “fork in the road.” Through the research projects, Brisa learned how she could apply her math skills to public health. That summer, Brisa learned about the applications of dynamical systems models to infectious disease epidemiology, and also worked with a team of students to develop a predictive model for prostate cancer.  Later that year, she attended the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference to present her research from the summer program. “Beyond winning a prize for our research presentation, probably the most important part of attending the conference was that, for the first time, I was exposed to research about socio-economic and racial/ethnic disparities in health. I was intrigued by how researchers at the conference discussed applying math and statistical thinking to studying disparities.”

Inspired by what she learned at the SACNAS conference, Brisa began to explore research opportunities and PhD programs that would allow her to combine math and public health, and focused on the field of biostatistics. She enrolled at the Harvard School of Public Health. For Brisa, moving from El Paso to Cambridge, MA was a “culture shock”. While coursework at UTEP and MTBI prepared her to earn top grades in courses like Probability and Inference, nothing had really prepared her to move from sunny El Paso, with a population that is more than 80% Hispanic, to metropolitan, frigid Boston, with its complex transportation system and mix of cultures and neighborhoods.  Nevertheless, she acclimated well and received her PhD in 2006.

One significant reason for her acclimation to Harvard was the mentorship of her PhD advisor, Dr. Louise Ryan. As part of a National Institutes of Health training grant to increase the number of underrepresented minorities entering research careers in Public Health, Dr. Ryan held regular meetings with a group of students. The group provided students with professional and research development opportunities, and importantly, social support. Some of the group meetings involved learning about research opportunities or time management. However, the fact that the group of minority students met regularly provided a feeling of community among the students as well.  “That experience really helped ease my transition to Harvard,” she recalls. “And it spurred my personal and academic growth.”

A Focus on Biostatistics and Health Disparities

After Harvard, Brisa accepted a position as a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, where she is now a tenured Associate Professor. As a Biostatistician, Brisa’s research focuses primarily on developing statistical methods to improve the ways epidemiological and clinical studies are designed and how study data are analyzed. Her most recent methodological research involves new modeling approaches to examine the effects of built environments on obesity (published in Epidemiology, American Journal of Epidemiology, and Statistics in Medicine). More broadly, she conducts research to conceptualize measurements of environmental exposures (e.g., social environments and pollutants in addition to built environment) and assess their health effects.

As environmental exposures are often patterned by socio-economic level and differ among racial and ethnic groups, her methodological research also has applications to disparities. She actively collaborates on projects investigating disparities with several research teams at the University of Michigan, Drexel University, and San Francisco State University. “I've been just very fortunate work with people on these kinds of problems, which have simultaneously enabled me to continue to develop statistical methods and to contribute to solutions to understand and end health disparities,” Brisa says. “The collaborative research environment and wonderful mentors I found at the University of Michigan have fueled my career.”

New Connections and the Power of Collaboration

As a past New Connections grantee, Brisa praises the program as very important to her professional development – offering time to focus on her research and providing external validation of her work from faculty colleagues, university officials, and fellow researchers. She believes this validation was instrumental to her promotion to Associate Professor.

Brisa also points to the opportunities for collaboration provided by New Connections as helpful to her career. “I have been collaborating with a fellow New Connections grantee for many years, and we’ve co-authored publications focusing on the influences of food environments near schools, physical activity, and nutrition policies on childhood obesity,” she says. “Our partnership has advanced both of our areas of research.”