Introducing Microbiologist + Infectious Disease Epidemiologist, Jessica Malaty Rivera, to the FRĒDA WOMEN series
Looking back, can you identify where your passion for science originated?
My love for science started at home. My parents immigrated to the United States in the early 80s from Egypt. My mom got her degree in agricultural engineering, a field that was not very welcoming to women. She was always very vocal about prioritizing education over everything. She jokes that I was “pre-med” since the first grade. I have vivid memories of her staying up late with me while I was studying, memorizing, researching. I cherish those memories.
Tell us about your work with the COVID Tracking project. Especially in regard to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.
I got involved with The COVID Tracking Project in April. It was launched from The Atlantic and started with a handful of journalists and a spreadsheet. It has since evolved into a network of hundreds of volunteer doctors, students, epidemiologists, and data scientists. They are some of the most inspiring and intelligent people I’ve ever worked with.
Every day, we collect data on COVID-19 testing and patient outcomes from all U.S. states and territories. Our data is public and widely used by news organizations and research groups around the world. In mid-April, we launched the COVID Racial Data Tracker in partnership with the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. We geared this initiative specifically toward collecting and analyzing race and ethnicity data related to COVID-19 in the U.S. The data show that COVID-19 is affecting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color the most. Nationwide, Black people are dying at 2.3 times the rate that white people are dying, which is a devastating statistic and yet not entirely surprising considering the cycles of systemic racism that have led to BIPOC communities facing worse health outcomes in general. What’s more concerning is that this is all based on incomplete demographic data; several metrics are not available to us that we need to fully assess racial disparities and protect communities who are being disproportionately affected by this pandemic.
How have you been handling work life and home life during the pandemic while raising two young children?
It’s really hard! Before COVID-19, I worked from home full-time, but my daughter was in part-time preschool, and my son was an infant. Our kids are 4 and 2, and now all of us are at home 24/7. Without question, this is the busiest work season of my life. My husband is a wonderful partner, and we’ve worked together to find a balance, albeit imperfect, between time doing work, time with the kids, and time with each other. Since the kids are not in preschool at the moment, we read a LOT of books with them every day, which we all love!
A couple of things we’ve done to make quarantine more manageable is: spending at least an hour outside each day with the kids and planning one takeout meal picnic a week as a treat and a way I can get a break from the kitchen.
We are hearing the words overwhelmed, anxiety, stress a lot in conversations right now. How are you finding joy and making sure you are taking care of yourself?
I am an Enneagram 3, and being an "Achiever" can be rewarding and also detrimental to my mental health. My job requires me to “doom scroll," so I understand feelings of anxiety and stress because it’s a LOT of bad news to take in every single day. It's so easy to despair when you look at the headlines. Even I need breaks from the news and the data. The only way I can do that is to physically remove myself from my devices, like being in a different room from my computer and phone. Sometimes that looks like sitting outside in the sun and closing my eyes for a few minutes. Sometimes it’s blowing bubbles on the roof with the kids.
Do you have a daily practice that helps you stay grounded?
Every day usually starts with morning cuddles from the kids. It’s a 5-minute oxytocin rush that always fills me with a tremendous amount of gratefulness for our health and this intimate time together that we won’t have again.
What’s one small thing we can all do on a daily basis to find joy?
Practice thankfulness. We are all grieving and experiencing loss in different ways right now. I think we should hold space for those who are especially suffering due to COVID-19. I also think we can try to remember the things, big and small, for which we are grateful. Each sunrise and each sunset can be a source of joy.
What’s one small thing we can all do on a daily basis to share or give joy?
Physical distancing and mask-wearing have made interactions with others (strangers and friends) quite sterile. The new reflex when you come into contact with others is to stop and take a few steps back, a reaction that is not normal for my extroverted toddlers! I’ve encouraged them to wave and say ‘hi’ to everyone, which is such a small thing, but it’s led to some sweet moments of human connection that we are missing.
I try to remind the kids that all of this is kindness. We are doing things like wearing masks and keeping our distance because we care for and love our neighbors. Even saying those words help make these efforts less burdensome.
How does your community help support you and vice versa?
The silver lining during the pandemic has been the friendships that have emerged from my infectious disease research community, particularly among fellow women in science. We collaborate. We ask for help from each other. We amplify each other’s work. It’s been so great to have these genuine relationships emerge out of a public health crisis.
Do you actively volunteer or how do stay involved or give back?
We try to give back as much as possible. We’ve donated resources and supplies to provide masks to those experiencing homelessness and participated in a “love our neighbor” campaign through our church in San Francisco to support people in our district who needed financial support due to COVID-19.
What does Women Supporting Women mean to you? What can we do to help each other more?
Women Supporting Women means inclusivity and demanding representation and opportunities for BIPOC women. It’s stopping patriarchal norms that suppress women’s voices in places like science and politics. It’s listening more and responding with true allyship.