By Samantha Beaulieu ‘23

Epidemiology alumna Mary V. Díaz Santana '18PhD is making her mark on women's lives as an Independent Research Scholar at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. After getting her start in the NIH Intramural Research Training Award program, she now leads her own research group focusing on breast cancer risk prediction among Hispanic women. We had the opportunity to sit down with Mary and discuss her work. 

Question: Start by telling us about yourself, and how you got into this career?

I am originally from Puerto Rico. I grew up there and received my bachelor's and master's degrees there. I knew that I wanted to pursue a PhD in Epidemiology, but unfortunately that doctoral program was not offered in Puerto Rico. I had learned about UMass for the first time at an APHA (American Public Health Association) event. Ultimately, I made my decision to pursue a PhD in Epidemiology at UMass after a phone interaction I had with someone who later turned out to be my mentor, Dr. Katherine Reeves. When she received my application, Dr. Reeves reached out and asked to interview me informally, in order to get to know me and answer any questions I may have. It was this kind of interaction that really showed me UMass was the school for me. At that moment I thought “if the professors at this institution are as thoughtful as she is at this stage, this is the institution at which I want to pursue my PhD.” As far as how I ended up in my particular area of study, I first started working on breast cancer while pursuing my master’s degree in Puerto Rico. At the time, there was no data on the prevalence of breast cancer subtypes among Puerto Rican women, and I reviewed patient health records and built a dataset, with which I was able to estimate this prevalence and address the specific aims of my master’s thesis.

Q: Why breast cancer?

There is still a lot to be done. Even though it is a cancer that people would say is very well researched, there are still several areas to be improved upon. Specifically, regarding health disparities or disadvantaged populations, we still have a lot that we need to understand better. 

Q: What does the work you do now look like?

After I finished my PhD, I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in North Carolina. It’s hard to believe that I have now been at the NIEHS for about four years. While I was in my 4th year as a postdoctoral fellow, I applied for an Independent Research Scholar position at NIEHS, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the position. As of August 2002, I transitioned from postdoctoral fellow to an Independent Research Scholar and started my research group. The long-term goal of my research group is to lessen the burden of breast cancer among racial/ethnic minorities and minority women, especially in the Hispanic community. I plan to use precision prevention to do this. We plan to include socioeconomical determinants of health to improve upon current risk prediction models developed for Hispanic women, as well as utilize multi-ethnic polygenic risk scores to improve our risk prediction tool for breast cancer in this population.

Q: If there was one fact or piece of advice you would give the public about breast cancer awareness, what would you say?

We all think it is not going to be us, that we are not going to be that ‘one in seven women.’ Although it would be ideal to cure breast cancer, this is not likely to happen in the near future. What I do think is that there are several modifiable risk factors that we can raise awareness about and better inform the population at large in order to reduce breast cancer risk. If we try to the best of our ability, I believe that we could affect real change and diminish breast cancer risk. Although there are genetic factors that play a role, there are also many modifiable risk factors like environmental exposures and lifestyle factors, that if intervened upon could help to reduce breast cancer risk. From a health policy perspective, there are socioeconomic disparities that we need to address as a society to improve health in general, but also to lower the risk of breast cancer in underserved populations. Paying attention to those modifiable risk factors can reduce the burden of breast cancer at a population level.

It is easy to get discouraged in a field like cancer research, but it is also important to recognize all the technology that we have now that can better help us predict risk. Breast cancer research has come such a long way, and there is so much we know today that we did not know even 10 years ago. Improving understanding of modifiable risk factors is vital in our effort to further diminish breast cancer risk.

Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job and the research you do?

It goes beyond breast cancer, but I think in epidemiology, the research that you do daily can be used to improve health policy, which in turn can affect an entire population. While the effects of that research might not be and immediate change in policy, it can certainly affect meaningful change in years to come. In this case, the long-term goal is to reduce breast cancer incidence and mortality. So, the fact that epidemiology gives you the tools to do that is very rewarding. I also think the possibility that your research could impact the health of not just one individual, but a large number of people over multiple generations to come, is the most rewarding part of my job.

Q: How did your education at UMass help to prepare you for what you do now?

There are several things. [Getting an] opportunity to present at conferences and to network and learn more about what is being done on the topic, but also having formed connections with other passionate people in the field for potential future collaborations. Our professors are knowledgeable, prepared, and give us a solid foundation to succeed wherever we go, and that was an important part of the program for me. It gave me the tools to improve my already acquired epidemiological skills, but also gave me the means to be able to fund my research. Finally, it gave me that solid mentor that I can go and ask about anything, not just epidemiology, but also life advice that I have needed at critical stages of my career.

Q: Do you have anything else you would like to say about your research or about your career in general, or about any advice to anybody who is trying to follow the same path that you are on?

As a Hispanic woman, I was a student of a group that is underrepresented in research and science in this country. Sometimes, racial and ethnic minority students may think that because we don’t see a great deal of representation, with professors or others in positions of authority, that that level of success is not attainable for us. What I would tell anyone, racial and ethnic minorities, is that if you work hard for what you want and are tenacious about it, it is achievable. Also, a dedicated mentor makes a huge difference in your graduate life. Once you find that mentor, like I did in Dr. Reeves, it will help to guide you throughout your research career as a graduate student, as an independent researcher, and beyond. Keep working hard to achieve your dreams!