Courtesy of Yale Medical Group
Growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Marietta Vazquez' doctor's visits would often turn into long question-and-answer sessions. Vazquez was a serious ballet dancer who had a clubfoot with complications arising from its treatment. The New York surgeon who successfully operated on her foot "really motivated me towards medicine," says Vazquez, while her pediatrician became her role model.
But as Vazquez trained to be a physician herself, such role models were in short supply. "There were no Hispanics whatsoever in the department, [and] there weren't a lot of women who were trying to balance family and career and research," says the mother of 3-year-old twins, now an assistant professor and clinician-researcher at the Yale University School of Medicine. "It's important to see other people do this."
Vazquez is the first in her family to enter science or medicine as a career; her parents, Cuban immigrants to Puerto Rico, did not graduate from high school. When she left her "sheltered life" in Puerto Rico to attend Yale as an undergraduate, Vazquez was pleasantly surprised to see an "extremely diverse" student body. She furthered her interest in medicine by volunteering at the burn unit of the hospital.
Vazquez then returned home for medical school to save money and to be close to her family. As a medical student at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at the cusp of the island's pediatric AIDS epidemic, she was drawn to research on the virus, "to how little we knew and how much was being discovered." With few research opportunities at UPR, she contacted the pediatric HIV/AIDS unit at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and spent the following summer in Atlanta, reviewing prophylactic treatments for HIV-opportunistic diseases in children.
Vazquez returned to Yale for residency in pediatrics. While taking courses in clinical epidemiology, she began her first independent research project, on children with facial nerve palsy. She says she had no funding and nobody to work with, but the research left her "so empowered, energized" that she decided to devote the majority of her time to research. She took on a fellowship to study the clinical effectiveness of pediatric vaccines.
During her fellowship in pedriatric infectious diseases, Vazquez received a competitive grant that made her feel less alone: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Medical Faculty Development Award (now the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development program). Not only did the award provide funding for four years of research, easing an otherwise difficult transition from fellow to faculty in infectious disease, but it also gave her the chance to meet other minority women in medical science. During yearly meetings, these women would get together to discuss everything from grants and promotions to their family lives. "That was a source of support," she says.
Vazquez says she goes through "struggles and trials and tribulations" as a woman, trying to balance work and family. Some days, she has to be on call until 8:00 pm while the nanny leaves at 5:00 pm and her husband, an information technology consultant, is away. Despite such obstacles, Vazquez was "pretty hard-headed [about] academic medicine. I couldn't see myself doing anything else." Her current research focuses on the clinical epidemiology of respiratory viruses in children and their possible link to asthma, which affects Hispanics in the US at the highest rate, she says. Eighty percent of patients at the Yale clinic where she works are minorities, fueling Vazquez' interest in how diseases affect minority populations and highlighting how researchers like herself are critical to fostering "cultural competence and sensitivity."
The diversity she finds in her work is one of the best things about it, Vazquez says. One minute she is "doing research, the next minute seeing a patient with HIV, and the next talking about toilet training at the primary care center," she adds. "It's really the variety that keeps me going. I have the best job in the world."