Faculty Q & A: Dr. Maegan Dirac, Assistant Professor
Published March 8, 2023
Dr. Maegan Ashworth Dirac became Assistant Professor as of December 1, 2022. Mae first joined IHME in 2017 after having completed residency training in Family Medicine at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. Mae started as a researcher on the Global Burden of Disease team. She advanced quickly to become an invaluable member of the overall IHME research enterprise. She was promoted quickly to Research Scientist, began supervising more junior researchers, and successfully managed a number of complex GBD modeling assignments including inflammatory bowel disease, sexually transmitted infections, GERD, viral hepatidities, and chronic liver diseases. Our Chief Diversity Office, Laurent Grosvenor, interviewed Mae recently.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Laurent Grosvenor: Hi Mae, I am delighted that you were able to find some time to participate in this interview today, and a huge congratulations on your new role. Tell us a little bit about it.
Mae Dirac: Thank you for having me. So, I have been appointed as an assistant professor. Truthfully, on a day-to-day basis, it will resemble what I have been doing previously. I will have teaching responsibilities, some grants, a lot of GBD work, mentoring students, supervising staff, and much collaboration. What is different is that this role is the beginning of an expected long-term working relationship.
LG: That is exciting, and I know this is a role that you’ll thrive in and consequently make tremendous impact. Reading your resumé, you have contributed to so many spaces, but could you tell me what led you to this moment?
MD: I got my bachelor’s degree at UW in Biochemistry and Spanish, with an eye to doing something in public health. I thought about ways I could use science in various spaces. I spent a year in a full-time service position through a faith-based program, where I split my time between program development and program evaluation, and a direct service position working with families and children. They were both pretty entry-level, but they balanced the parts of my brain well – between big picture and working with people. That inspired me and gave me more confidence to apply for the MD-PhD program and my desire to balance clinical medicine with something more analytic. That was in Los Angeles, but I came back to the University of Washington for medical school and to do a PhD in epidemiology. I did a case-control study for my dissertation that built off some work on mycobacterial diseases. It meant a lot of primary data collection, selecting samples, interviewing people. It was an interesting project and process but focused on what factors caused this infection in this setting. I had in mind that I would like to step back and look at something bigger-picture when I finished. I wanted to go from, for example, studying one kind of lung disease to thinking about whole-person health. I had a valuable experience with my primary care provider when I was pregnant with my child, which inspired me to apply to family medicine residency, and I had a wonderful experience there. It was unclear what was a good way to come back to research, however, as the path for family medicine doctors in academic research is not quite as well laid out as for some other specialties. There were some post-doc positions posted on the IHME website that I saw while looking for opportunities, and that really fit my big-picture vision of whole person health, so I applied.
LG: This sounds like a beautifully eventful and meandering journey. So, what was the aha moment for you when you knew you wanted to be here at IHME?
MD: IHME was founded when I was working on my dissertation, and I went home to visit my parents. My mom had a box of mail and asked me to go through it to see if I needed anything. In it, there was an issue of Columns magazine, which is a UW alumni magazine. It had a picture of Chris and Emm on the cover and an announcement about the founding of IHME. I read what we do here, and I said to myself, this is what I meant when I said I wanted to study epidemiology.
LG: I always enjoy hearing how people hear about IHME and what resonates with them, and I have heard some marvelous stories through the past year and a half. This is certainly up there with the best of them. What a wonderful discovery! In your estimation, what makes the GBD valuable?
MD: The fact that it is comprehensive, or the most comprehensive thing available. As a primary care provider and a population health scientist, I think about the world’s people and institutions as having finite time and money, and they desire to produce the best possible outcomes for themselves, their community, their patients, and the populations that they represent in government. If we try to do everything that could be useful for every potential health problem, and try to work equally as hard at it, you are not going to reap the same results as if you try to understand where you would get the most benefit with the resources invested. Now, there are many steps to that analysis, but you must start with a complete epidemiological profile, and you must have a good understanding of the impact on people’s lives from different diseases: the YLDs, the loss of life, the knock-on effects, how one disease acts as a risk factor to another and another. Finally, how intervention can improve people’s life, not their kidneys, their hearts, or their brains, but the whole picture of their life.
LG: When you think of DEI, what comes to mind from your perspective?
MD: To me, the picture of good DEI is that people with a lot of diverse backgrounds are all participating actively in making decisions and discoveries and shaping the world around them. I think about what that means, practically. Hiring and recruitment are important. Training and resources to teach and help us continually do better are important to me. Some guidance on best practices is always helpful, such as how we convey job descriptions, how we ask questions. Even how we pause to reflect before we enter an interview encounter with someone who may be from a different country, have a different gender, or have a different skin color. So, I think about how we can implement those things and how we can find more ways to extend that after that moment. I think about who is being promoted and is everyone being listened to. I realize it is not about listening to everyone the same way. I realize there are people on my team who do not want me to ask them questions and sit there watching and waiting for them to answer – they would prefer to answer in an email.
LG: Everyone can be included because we must do whatever it takes to ensure that needs are met. Institutionally stretching ourselves to be accommodating is an often-overlooked motif of DEI.
LG: Who are some individuals that inspire you?
MD: I have a lengthy list, but I want to share with you that my mother is the most inspiring person that I know, and I did not realize how much so until later in life because a lot of the ways in which she inspired me were expressed in the ordinary day-to-day life, and I took that for granted. She was a community college chemistry professor, in contrast to my father, who was an attorney. So, I grew up with a norm that the person in the house who was best at math and science was the woman. So, I was quite a bit older when I noticed that there were certain stereotypes that could work against me in terms of people’s assumptions about me in terms of math and science. I already had great traction with people recognizing my abilities by the time I was aware of that stereotype. Also, the way that she used her skills was very much in service. She had a lot of students who had bad experiences in high school, or were great students but didn’t have a lot of money, or they had married and had children and then been divorced or widowed and their world got turned upside down so they wanted to go back to school to become a dental hygienist, a nurse, or a radiology technician and provide for their families. Often, they saw math and science as potential barriers to that transition, and my mother was extremely dedicated to both their education and providing the necessary support and advocacy with administrative elements to ensure their progress. An example would be her ensuring courses were taken with the right timing and application requirements were not missed. For individuals who are living paycheck to paycheck and need financial aid, getting one of those things wrong can be the difference between financial stability or a career, and never making it. So, she worked hard to help with their lives’ context too.
LG: There is something incredible about mothers and mother figures – thank you for taking the time to share that.
LG: Do you have career advice for those pursuing their goals in health metrics?
MD: Yes, particularly in this field, do two things: First, dig into a subset of topics within the field of health metrics and get to be the person people go to with questions about that. Simultaneously, accept that you won’t be the person who knows all the things about everything because our field is so diverse and broad. Then you can enjoy knowing what you know and enjoy the journey of going to other people to learn about what they know about a different topic in the same field and enjoy that exchange. See that as a partnership and opportunity rather than a sign of your own shortcoming.
LG: Finally, why should someone consider working at IHME?
MD: One of the main reasons is that it is fun to be in a place where people come from so many diverse backgrounds and have different, yet complimentary skillsets and get to work together. It is fun, and we are all putting that together into something valuable – we can create knowledge that helps people make decisions that impact the populations they serve.