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Paying it Forward: Alumni Spotlight Lesley Park

November 10, 2020
by Colin Poitras

Applying for a federally-funded research grant can be a daunting experience for any early career scientist.

Having an experienced instructor or mentor to guide you through the process is invaluable. So, it is no wonder perhaps, that Yale School of Public Health alumna Lesley Park, M.P.H. ’10, Ph.D. ’15, fondly recalls the support she received from her instructors at YSPH when she applied for her first grant from the National Institutes of Health as a Yale doctoral student.

“I still remember talking to Dr. (Robert) Dubrow, M.D., Ph.D., and wondering aloud if I was capable of completing an NIH grant application,” said Park, who is now associate director of Stanford’s Center for Population Health Sciences (PHS) and an instructor of epidemiology and population health at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “It was with Rob’s encouragement and thanks to Yale’s CIRA (Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS) peer review process that I grew confident to complete and submit my application and obtain funding from the National Cancer Institute to conduct my dissertation research.”

That kind of personal attention and interaction became a defining experience for Park, who also serves as director of the Center for Population Health Sciences’ postdoctoral fellowship program and education initiatives.

“I think one of the training components that sets YSPH graduates apart from other institutions is the experience in writing grant applications,” said Park. “When I meet with the postdoctoral fellows at Stanford today, I see how my classmates and I were at an advantage when we entered the workforce because we had the experience that plays such a large role in academic research.”

Today, Park spends about half her time conducting research into HIV and cancer risk and applying epidemiologic methods to the quickly evolving world of electronic health records and “big data.” She serves as the Cancer Core Co-Director of the Veterans Aging Cohort Study (VACS, vacohort.org) and teaches classes on population health in medicine, research methods, and statistical programming. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Park is investigating SARS CoV-2 positivity and COVID-19 outcomes in persons with HIV.

She also spends a substantial amount of time in “service” activities for Stanford University. As the former lead of the PHS Data Core, Park worked to create a central hub where researchers can efficiently access, link, visualize, and analyze data from a wide variety of sources to ultimately facilitate transdisciplinary population health science research.

As an educator, and perhaps because of her experiences at YSPH, Park always makes sure to give her students the personal attention and support they need.

“One of YSPH’s biggest strengths is its people. I was so fortunate to have had brilliant and supportive mentors in Rob Dubrow and Amy Justice,” said Park. “I have been told that it is extremely rare to have advisors who have time to meet with you on a weekly basis. But that dedication from Rob and Amy, and the ability to problem solve, think critically together, and to communicate regularly was the best type of training for a researcher, scientist, and future teacher. And it wasn’t just the science, they taught me that great science actually isn’t enough, if we are unable to effectively communicate and to convince the public why our research is important.”

A self-described introvert whose research requires her to spend many hours sitting in front of a computer, Park says one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is also being an educator and hearing students say “Thank you” when she assists them in her day-to-day work.

“I love having the opportunity to interact with people and with students and to represent women and persons of diverse backgrounds in STEM in my research and classroom teaching,” said Park.

When asked what advice she has for others pursing degrees in public health, Park said “find what you love, and the work will follow.” She credits a summer career development group she participated in with other students across Yale during her time at YSPH with helping her focus her future career aspirations as a doctoral student.

“It’s easy to communicate your research and work if you’re interested and love what you do,” Park said. It’s also easy to uncover more questions to research and investigate when you’re passionate about what you do.”

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on November 10, 2020