Summer Research Program alumni blog – Maria Ruiz

Written by Maria Ruiz,  Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program alumna

During the summer of January 2014, just after my first year of college, I had the opportunity to participate in the Institute of Public Health’s Summer Research Program. I conducted women’s reproductive health research in a molecular microbiology laboratory at Washington University School of Medicine.

In the lab, I would spend hours examining and characterizing anaerobic vaginal bacterial strains associated with bacterial vaginosis. I distinctly remember one day in lab when I isolated a pathological strain of bacteria that is linked to preterm birth. I quickly had the bitter realization that the sample I was handling came from pregnant woman in her third trimester who had a vaginal infection that could result in adverse birth outcomes. This triggered a visceral reaction that wanted me to find the humanity in the string of numbers of this de-identified sample. Beyond the microbiology, I felt invested in understanding the political economy of bacterial vaginosis…why does it go undiagnosed? Why are women of color at higher odds of having bacterial vaginosis?

One question led to the other, and suddenly I generated one of my college mantras: “research surpasses the walls of the laboratory.”  It was based on this mantra that I spent the next three years of college trying to develop a critical analytic framework to come to understand the social disparity of disease. As a young college student, the Institute of Public Health’s Summer Research Program gave me the ability to consider a multidisciplinary approach, and it launched me into the career in global health that I am now pursuing as a Princeton in Latin América Fellow at Hospitalito Atitlán in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

In Santiago Atitlán, I no longer work at the bench exclusively with de-identified samples. Instead, I have the privilege to interact face to face with patients like Nicolasa, a Tzutujil indigenous woman who came to Hospitalito Atitlán’s community health outreach event in search of contraceptive methods. My co-workers and I focus specifically on designing and implementing comprehensive community health programs that address diabetes, anemia, sexual health, and maternal & infant health. As a team, we fundraise for these programs and design evaluation methods so that our resources strategically align with community needs.

In my involvement with the community outreach health programs in Santiago Atitlán, I often return to my college mantra: “research surpasses the walls of the laboratory.” For our team to create effective solutions, we must have accurate and precise research, constant evaluations, and creative design. We must also consider the context of the indigenous community that we serve: one that has been historically oppressed by its own government and that was left with a post-war healthcare system that is severely underfunded and medically, culturally, and linguistically inadequate.

I am really thankful for the nuanced perspectives that I first developed during the summer program and can apply to my work now. I am most thankful for the mentors I gained during that summer, as they continue to support me and coach me. I am excited to see how the program continues to expand and how the program’s alumni contribute and reshape our field.