Monik Jiménez, ScD, SM, FAHA, is a Brigham epidemiologist, Harvard assistant professor, bilingual Southern California native, primary investigator of INdividuals Speak: Incarcerated During the COVID-19 Epidemic (INSIDE), and dedicated advocate for marginalized communities victimized by systemic racism and associated health disparities. Despite spectacular accomplishments, Jiménez still struggles with self-doubt. She speaks candidly about imposter syndrome — the psychological phenomenon in which a qualified individual feels inadequate or incompetent, despite their successes. It’s a pattern of thought that’s relatable to most of the trainees she mentors, and her ability to give voice to these feelings is just one of the many reasons younger investigators appreciate her mentorship.
“One of the things that’s very dangerous for historically marginalized communities is the pervasive thought that you don’t belong,” said Jiménez. “I think it is important to let people know that even though on paper I look accomplished, I have felt like I don’t belong, but I do belong, and so do you, and not only do you belong, you’re needed.”
Jiménez took an untraditional educational path, from community college in California to a ScD at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her lived experience as a woman of color fostered her passion for fighting for justice on behalf of marginalized communities, especially when it comes to health inequities. Though her path forward was not always clear, today her time is spent doing what she loves: conducting studies, facilitating community initiatives, and engaging young scientists.
A Real Scientist
Entering undergraduate studies, Jiménez was set on becoming a physician. Undergraduate internship experiences exposed her to the field of epidemiology, where she realized research could be more than sitting at a lab bench. Jiménez never expected to leave her childhood home of Southern California, but life-changing encouragement from her research advisor Kaumudi Joshipura, BDS, MS, ScD, led her to apply to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health to pursue epidemiology. When she found out she was accepted, Jiménez could not refuse the offer.
With her biology degree in her back pocket, Jiménez began her studies at Harvard. But she was confronted with the message that researching health inequities and social determinates of health was not an objective field of science, and its low recognition concerned her. While her own experiences said otherwise, Jiménez worried she would not be taken seriously for her lack of prior academic prestige and limited qualifications. “I often felt like I didn’t belong at Harvard, and because of that I didn’t want to do ‘soft science,’” said Jiménez. “I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to do ‘hard science’ — like a real scientist.”
The Lived Experience
While Jiménez feared she would be brushed aside for work in health equity, her advisors said otherwise. Joshipura and post-doc advisor Kathryn Rexrode, MD, MPH, encouraged Jiménez to pursue her passion. As a postdoc, Jiménez homed in on cardiovascular disease inequities in women of color, realizing that the intersection of race, ethnicity, and sex had a lot that had been left unexplored. She found Black women to have twice the risk of stroke than white counterparts, with even larger inequities for younger women. While this evidence of inequity was clear, Jiménez noted critical missing information on the lived experiences of these women.
“From a young age, I noticed there were differences in how certain people access resources,” said Jiménez. “When we are making these comparisons of women of color to the majority, we’re not making apples to apples comparisons. We are not addressing the structural racism that has been impacting these women’s lives since before they were born.”
Jiménez focuses on representing lived experiences of at-risk populations in her role as primary investigator for INdividuals Speak: Incarcerated during the COVID-19 Epidemic (INSIDE). Prior to INSIDE, Jiménez investigated the cardiovascular risks and barriers to health care for populations that have experienced incarceration. Formative to her passion for exposing inhumane conditions and inequities in carceral settings was the incarceration of her father.
Now, Jiménez uses her experience to guide her thoughtful engagement with partners. Rather than colonial science, which conducts research through the exploitation of communities, Jiménez prioritizes lasting and meaningful community relationships. Families for Justice as Healing, The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and Partakers College Behind Bars have been key partnerships for her work with INSIDE and beyond.
“If we want to build trust within our communities, we need to be willing to work outside of our comfort zone and outside of our research questions,” she said.
A Pivotal Moment
Jiménez takes immense joy from helping young scientists and thinking about the future of the field. High school and medical school students alike can be found in her lab, as Jiménez focuses on inclusion and dedication to informing students through honest conversation. Recently, Jiménez took on a leadership position in the Brigham’s Summer Training in Academic Research and Scholarship (STARS program), which recruits students with backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine to participate in rigorous research at the Brigham and Harvard Medical School.
In life beyond COVID-19, Jiménez hopes to center conversations around developing solid public health practices, safely decreasing populations in carceral facilities, and understanding familial effects of incarceration.
“We have reached a pivotal moment in health equity research because of the pandemic, wherein these issues are finally being taken seriously by the wider scientific community,” said Jiménez. Importantly, the American Medical Association recently officially declared racism as a threat to public health.
“I want us to be careful that we move forward in thoughtful ways and with the right thought-leaders in charge of these discussions, so that we can make meaningful change,” said Jiménez. “We have a unique opportunity now to make fundamental changes, and I hope that we are brave enough to do it.”