Our Chief Diversity Officer, Laurent Grosvenor, sat down with newly appointed Assistant Professor Dr. Luisa Flor. Luisa joined IHME as a Postdoctoral Scholar working on the Global Burden of Disease study (GBD) and on HealthRise, an impact evaluation project, and has grown to be a key leader on both GBD risk factor teams and grant-funded research projects.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
LG: Hi Luisa, it’s great to meet you and to dialogue with you today. Before we begin, I’d like to offer to you my congratulations on becoming an Assistant Professor.
LF: Hello Laurent, thank you so much and I am excited to talk with you today.
LG: Luisa, can you tell us about your career path and what led you to this point?
LF: Sure, I’ll try to summarize. I started doing research when I was an undergrad. I went to nursing school in Brazil but decided to proceed to research. I was always interested in inequalities in health, and my undergrad research focused on mortality differences by race and ethnicity in Brazil. Right after undergrad, I proceeded to do my master’s in public health, where I was in the social sciences department. I was studying social mobility and how some aspects can work like roadblocks, such as education, race, ethnicity, and gender. During that time, I learned a little bit about the Global Burden of Disease study because we were having our own Brazil burden of disease study, which was led by one of my professors. Right after my master’s I joined that group of researchers and started doing some burden of disease-related tasks and estimation processes. I was in charge of modeling multiple conditions and risks at that time, still using DisMod 2.0, and I decided to proceed with analyzing the burden of diabetes in Brazil and the fraction attributable to high BMI and low physical activity for my PhD. I was also testing using education as a risk factor because I wanted to bring in my background on inequalities.
LG: How did you connect with IHME?
LF: While I was working with this group and doing my PhD, I learned more about IHME and the Global Burden of Disease study. I received a scholarship from the Ministry of Education in Brazil, where I could choose an institution abroad to study at for a year to do research. So I basically – and this was kind of silly now that I think about it – just emailed IHME's director Chris Murray.
LG: What did your email say?
LF: I said hey, I got this scholarship so can you give me an opportunity? Can I come to IHME to learn how you do things? I didn’t know who Chris was, but he connected me to someone else and it worked out. So I came to IHME in 2015 under Prof. Mohsen Naghavi’s supervision as a PhD student for a year as a trainee. The timing worked pretty well, because when I got to IHME, I ended up involved in the first round of the Brazil subnational analysis for the GBD. This was great for me.
LG: That’s amazing, bold, and I am truly glad that it worked out in this way. What came next?
LF: So after my year at IHME, I went back to Brazil to defend my PhD, and I applied for a postdoctoral position right after that. I stayed from 2017 up to three weeks ago as a postdoc at IHME, and now I have just transitioned to an Assistant Professor role.
LG: Can you talk about the importance of the Global Burden of Disease study?
LF: I think the GBD is a great tool for us, to help people decide on the next steps and influence policy. The GBD allows us to compare conditions, risks, and locations in a systematic way, which allows people from any country in any region to understand what’s going on. It’s a great way to understand priorities and, as I mentioned, decide on next steps and hopefully see progress.
LG: Today is Women’s Equality Day. Is there a woman, either historical, or contemporary, who inspires you?
LF: There are many women that influence me on a daily basis, including people that I work with. I am tremendously motivated and inspired particularly by women who have contributed and continue to contribute to women’s empowerment and education. When I first moved to the US six years ago was when I learned about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has been a key influence on me. I watched all the documentaries and all the interviews I could find. I am inspired by her fight for equal pay and women’s rights broadly. It hurt to lose her last year. And the second name that came to my mind, and this comes from me being a Harry Potter fan, I’m really inspired by Emma Watson and her fight for gender equality, her feminist book club that I follow closely, and her focus on all genders working toward gender equality.
LG: Have you ever had to deal with workplace discrimination because of gender, and if yes, can you tell me a little bit about the steps you took to address it?
LF: I think that it’s almost impossible to not have ever dealt with any discrimination in terms of gender. Especially in academia, discrimination is blatant. There have been times that some of my reactions were seen as vulnerability, or I was questioned about whether or not I was strong enough or tough enough for this area. I have been in environments where it was frowned upon if you cried. One of the hardest things I heard several years ago was hearing my supervisor say “Luisa, you need to be tough. Men would not do this so we should all be as tough as men,” or things like this. At the time, I didn’t know exactly how to overcome this, but I ended up putting more pressure on myself. I felt that I needed to show better work, overachieve, and prove myself. These are also things that I learned from friends whose stories are similar to mine.
LG: Thank you for your honesty here. One of the problems with discrimination is that discrimination is the starting point. The effects linger for the one who has been discriminated against. What advice do you have others for pursuing their career goals?
LF: Being comfortable with your path and your decisions is important. Taking care of yourself and knowing the reasons why you do what you do. Find people who support you along the way. Take advantage of the mentorship opportunities. It’s also important to give back. Finally, life is easier when you work in the area of your passion. To prepare presentations, to model and to understand results of something you’re passionate about is a wonderful thing. Working with the Gender Equality Metrics team, I am over the moon. I get to work in my passion.
LG: Why should someone consider working at IHME?
LF: One of the things that brought me to IHME was the mission. Making a difference in the world really resonates with me. Sometimes academia can be detached from what’s taking place in the world, but not here at IHME. Seeing your work being utilized by others is encouraging. I don’t feel disconnected from decision-makers. When I hear about people in different countries using GBD results to inform decisions, it reminds me that our mission is important. Being able to connect with so many diverse individuals at IHME is part of the reason why I remain committed to IHME. Furthermore, the portfolio of studies is also expanding, which is really good, because when I first joined in 2015, we only talked about the GBD. Now there are so many other areas that we contribute to. There are some great minds at IHME, so it is a great place for people to learn methods, programming, and non-research roles. Consider working at IHME because IHME is both a good starting point, but also a great place to be if you want to develop your career over time with a mission-driven organization.
LG: There are many areas in the world where women are fighting for equality. How can we make a difference at IHME?
LF: In terms of gender equality, I think we are making progress internally and externally. Over the past year I have seen us make space and time for discussions and hearing from others about their needs, their stories, and their goals. So I think that one way that we can make a difference is by keeping that line of communication open. I have seen us move from dialogue to action. Ensuring that we continue to keep that in mind is vital. Producing our results and numbers is who we are, and in addition to that, ensuring that we care for the individuals who make up the various teams regardless of gender is a way that we can make a difference. There’s a lot of people that dedicate a large amount of time to IHME. So many great hearts and minds make up our staff. When we were producing the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality paper that was recently published by The Lancet, it reminded me that we must recognize the different burdens that some groups face that we may not be able to measure. In the paper that we produced, we were restricted to [comparing outcomes for] men and women. However, we know that the impact of COVID-19 was likely even greater in some minorities and probably some other characteristics such as education attainment. We did not have data on that, so we were not able to report. We must continue to recognize different burdens and advise others on what data should be collected. This is a way to guarantee that we continue to achieve our mission. We want nobody to be left behind. Each team can contribute in their own way.
Do you love a mission-driven endeavor, and enjoy teamwork, learning, and a dynamic setting? IHME is hiring!