Surrounding yourself with positive people helps you get through career challenges, with Monica Villarruel

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Monica Villarruel, a research scientist for the state of California. They discuss Monica’s experience working as a research scientist outside of academia and how Monica was able to overcome the various challenges throughout her academic and professional journey. 

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How Monica found her way into the public health field from nutrition
  • Why Monica decided to pursue an MPH and the challenges she faced going back to school
  • How state research differs from research within academia and what a day in the life of a state research scientist looks like
    • Monica’s work with maternal and infant health and what other areas of research or opportunities are available
    • What skills may be beneficial to have for anyone interested in research outside of academia
  • Monica’s struggles with monotony in the workplace and how she was able to pull herself out of a rut
    • How surrounding yourself with mentors and a support network is essential in your career journey
  • What new developments are coming up for Monica

Today’s Guest:

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Monica 0:00
Just keep going like if you feel like you have good momentum, just don’t stop, surround yourself with mentors. And this could be informally as well. Mentors could be colleagues that maybe are in the same age group as you. But they really have a great understanding of public health or the career. Those are really good mentors.

Sujani 0:28
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Hi, Monica, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. So nice to have you here with us. And I’m really excited to hear about your career journey in public health. So a very warm welcome.

Monica 0:57
Hi, thank you for having me today.

Sujani 1:00
Okay, so the first question, and one of my favorite questions is about, you know, how you discovered the field of public health. A lot of folks have told me that it’s been an accidental discovery, especially during, you know, their bachelor’s or or maybe they had done their training and education in a completely different field. And through some different experiences, they discover that this field exists. But for you, it sounds like you entered or are you focused your Bachelor’s education in that general area of health? So I’m assuming that you kind of had some sort of indication or interest in this field of health? So curious to hear, you know, when was it that you came across public health and kind of made that decision to perhaps spend a bit more time and perhaps build a career in that area?

Monica 1:51
Yeah. For me, I kind of stumbled on it in my undergrad, kind of by accident, I didn’t know about the field of public health. So I was actually introduced to community health education, in my undergrad. And I went to California State University Long Beach, I actually discovered it through a nutrition course, and went in to my major, I thought I wanted to do sociology. I really liked it, but I wasn’t passionate about it. And then I took a random intro to nutrition course. And that really opened up my eyes to the world of health. And I remember just learning about all the nutrients in the body. And I was just like, wow, I was simply amazed. I was driven by just wanting to help people be healthy. And so I thought I wanted to do Nutrition and Dietetics.

Yeah, after I discovered the coursework that was involved, I was really intimidated. I thought, No, this is probably a little too much for me, let me see if I can find something a little bit more general a little bit more broader. And I found health science. At my university health science had a couple of specializations. And one of them was community health education. So that’s what I tell people that that was my intro to public health. And since then, I was taking all these community health science courses. And that’s what I graduated with.

Sujani 3:21
Did you ever pursue that area of I guess, nutrition with your public health work? Was that like passion ever? I guess fulfilled through any of your work or during any of your school days?

Monica 3:33
Yeah, you could say I was lucky enough that in my undergrad, I had an internship during nutrition education with pregnant Latina mothers in the city of Long Beach in California. This is a year long program. They trained us how to be community health educators as students. They showed us how to implement the curriculum that was nutrition based. And this is all to reduce obesity in Latino families in California.

Sujani 4:06
And so after you wrapped up your four years of undergraduate studies, what came next for you?

Monica 4:14
So for me, it was a little bit of a non traditional course to my career. But at the time, I was a full time student, I was also working two jobs. It was very hard for me to complete. But I finally graduated. And I decided I wanted to take a break from school. And so I was actually just working full time. And I thought that was going to be a year or two. And that ended up being actually five years. So I was working full time for a nonprofit in healthcare administration. And I was okay, you could say that I got kind of comfortable.

Sujani 4:53

Monica 4:54
And then finally, I decided, you know, I want to advance I want to go back into public health. And I didn’t see that happening with any jobs that I was supplying to in the LA area. It was just time for me to go back to get my masters. And I guess that was my obstacle was how to get back into a career or being a student again after taking such a long break five years.

Sujani 5:21
And was that role that you talk about? Was that with just based on your LinkedIn Partners in Care Foundation? Is that the one that you refer? I noticed because prior to that you were doing some other research work. And I suppose that was throughout your undergrad, you were building this experience in research as well.

Monica 5:41
Yeah, I was, as I mentioned, very fortunate to have been exposed to research, I became a research assistant after I was trained as a community health educator. And I just worked in an office where they just exposed us to different kinds of projects, mostly community based participatory research, I had got the opportunity to attend several conferences, APHA, and it was just wonderful, the kind of mentorship that we had available.

Sujani 6:10
And so that decision to then go back to school was, I guess, a personal one where you were feeling like, perhaps you could gain a bit more like knowledge and skills in the area of public health and perhaps take a different path is that is that kind of like the thinking that you were debating with when you decided to go back to school?

Monica 6:31
Yeah, I decided that I wasn’t going to advance to a level where I was going to be satisfied without going back to get my master’s in public health. I decided I wanted to leave California for a bit. So I applied to a few schools that were out of state. And I got accepted and attended Washington University in St. Louis, that was a wonderful opportunity as well, I got to meet great people and mentors. And they, you know, really took me and mentored me and prepared me for the role that I have now.

Sujani 7:04
I bet that couldn’t have been an easy decision, especially when you’ve been out of school for so many years to then step back into it. I’m sure a lot of things had to be, I guess, like arranged, right? Because you have your life as it is, you’re working full time. And then the decision to go back to school, I know, a lot of people kind of struggle with that. How am I going to balance full time work and my current life as it stands when I do become a full time student as well, I don’t know, if you have any kind of reflections from that period of your life where you did make that decision to go to school, you- you got accepted, and you’re transitioning into this new role of yours.

Monica 7:44
Yeah, at that particular time, I remember it being pretty difficult for me, because I was struggling with a lot of self doubt. I was, in a way not believing in myself enough to even write my personal statement, I had to get a lot of people, you know, helped me not only by like reading, giving me feedback, but just supporting me and telling me that I could do it, that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was to actually reach back out to my professors in undergrad and ask them for a letter of recommendation. I thought that was a really big obstacle. But it turned out that that was just mostly in my head that in my professors did remember me and the work that I did, and as long as I gave them more background information about my work, my classes and my goals, they were able to write me excellent letters of recommendation.

Sujani 8:41
Yeah, a lot of folks, I think, regardless of if it’s whether to go back to school and apply for a master’s program like you did, or even applying to a job where they feel like they may not be a competitive candidate, I often find that these are voices in our head that put a lot of doubt on our abilities and capabilities. And sometimes we just need to take a step back and really reflect on all of the great wins that we’ve had in our careers to date. And then that kind of like gives you the boost of confidence to then take the next step.

Monica 9:13
Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely.

Sujani 9:15
Yeah. Okay, so you go to Washington University for your master’s of public health program. Were you still working at that point? Or did you kind of like make the decision to say, Okay, I’m gonna, I’m gonna go full time into school and not be employed.

Monica 9:31
I was attending full time, but I decided that I could allow to work a little bit. So just part time. I did that because I wanted to still take advantage of the opportunities for research there. I was a research assistant for a professor. And although that professor was teaching in social work, and I was in public health, I still got the experience that I wanted, and I was exposed to several other groups that showed me how to have a well rounded public health career.

Sujani 10:05
And so was the goal always from the start to build a career in research? And kind of that was your goal, even when you started off on your masters journey?

Monica 10:14
Yes, yes, I do love research. And, and I love people too, so he decided to not just have that part time research assistant job, but also part of the public health curriculums to have a practicum. And that practicum allowed me to build those connections for mentorship. Yeah, which is definitely necessary as a student.

Sujani 10:40
Yeah. So I guess you graduate from the Washington University right at the beginning of the pandemic, right. I don’t know what month you you may have graduated. But that’s like, probably, you know, not not a great situation for the world. But a great experience for public health graduates, especially those graduating right around that time to be completely thrown into that environment, whether we were working directly on the COVID response or not just to even peripherally be involved in some of the organizations and institutions that were kind of responding to the pandemic.

Monica 11:18
Luckily, I graduated the spring of 2018. You know, I had gotten this job at the California Department of Public Health before I even graduated. So this job is like, perfectly, you know, waiting there for me. And I was so happy to go back to California to my family, even though I was in Sacramento, and, you know, my family’s in Los Angeles, I got to be acquainted at work, they on boarded me. And yes, the following year, the pandemic happens. And so I was only in the office for a short few months.

Sujani 11:51
And so as a state research scientists moving along with your journey, what does the work entail for someone who gets hired into, you know, a role such as yours as a research scientist? And I’m sure it’s different from state to state, but perhaps, you know, for those of our listeners who may be interested, for doing research outside of the academia world, what does research look like within kind of a Department of Public Health at the state level? Yeah, so

Monica 12:22
at the state level, the position is research scientists, and there’s super research scientists, one, two and three. And then you can advance to like supervisory level, at least within California, there’s different fields, mine focuses on epidemiology. So a lot of us are referred to epidemiologists. I work in maternal child and adolescent health, and I specifically work on the maternal infant health assessment. It’s an annual population based survey women who recently had a life birth. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with other states, they have a what’s called PREMS, the pregnancy risk assessment and monitoring system. It’s run by the CDC, and every state has their own survey. And California is just a little bit different. We didn’t want to follow the exact PREMS procedures. So we are MIHA, the maternal infant in health assessment. So what I do as a research scientist is I work with the survey data, we analyze it, we create reports and briefs, infographics, we not only answer data requests from local external stakeholders, we also are in charge of the reporting for Title Five, and we change the questions every year.

Sujani 13:50
Do you get opportunities to I guess, like, I’m assuming within the state health environment, you probably get more opportunities to take your research and put it out there into real life or at the very least, like collaborate with individuals who are going to use the findings from the research to then kind of like work with populations, right?

Monica 14:14
Yes, yes, it you get a lot of requests from other local health departments throughout the state, as well as other states who are interested in our data that has to do with nutrition, maternal mental health, oral health, anything that has to do with maternal and newborn health, and one of our biggest funders is WIC, so we have a lot of questions that asks about nutrition and WIC benefits.

Sujani 14:40
And just for our listeners, what does that acronym stand for? I’m assuming it’s an acronym.

Monica 14:44
Oh, WIC is the women Infants and Children program.

Sujani 14:48
Okay, gotcha. Then like, what are the opportunities there? Because it sounds like there’s a lot of data analysis work that you do and kind of reporting. I’m curious to hear are there opportunities for say like publishing manuscripts or even thinking about your own research questions and then digging into the data a bit more just based on like personal interests and independent research? Is there flexibility for that?

Monica 15:13
Oh, yeah, definitely. At this stage, we are a small team. But we also have half of the team at the University of California in San Francisco. And they are research and data analysts as well. We work together if we are submitting any abstracts or presentations for APHA. And for manuscripts as well, if we see a need, like a particular research topic that we want to address with the survey data that comes from our survey.

Sujani 15:43
Okay, for anyone listening, who’s kind of like thinking, Okay, I could see myself building a research career, outside of academia, perhaps in like government, what sort of skills have you noticed, based on your three years there that could be really important for any prospective applicants to really have and kind of stand out as a strong applicant for some of these types of positions,

Monica 16:08
Definitely familiarity with research methods, and as well as technical skills like data analysis, being familiar with one or few programs for data analysis. For example, the state of California, predominantly uses SAS, and there are other entities that use our our studio. And now we are moving towards a more interactive way to present our data like Tableau.

Sujani 16:37
That was going to be my other question. Are there skills around knowledge dissemination and translation that you’re also thinking, you know, could be a very valuable skill to have?

Monica 16:49
Yes, yes. As well as presenting, presenting the data, being familiar enough to present it to external and local stakeholders, that is a very valuable skill.

Sujani 17:02
I think just in this general field of public health, that being able to communicate your findings, whether it’s like research that you’re working on, or just health information that you’re working with, to various different populations is such a key key skill, because you know, that that’s the way that you’re going to implement change, that’s where you’re going to have behaviour change with the populations that you work with. So I can imagine in this role, that being also, you know, probably a top skill to work on, if you’re looking for a career in this space.

Monica 17:35

Sujani 17:37
When you look back at your, your journey to date, curious to hear what sort of challenges have come your way, and whether you know, you would have done things differently? Or, yeah, maybe I’ll start with that. What are some of the challenges that you face? And when you think about your journey today, are there things that you would have done differently?

Monica 17:58
Yeah, I think I would have definitely can’t back to school sooner.

Sujani 18:03

Monica 18:04
You know, not letting myself get too comfortable with, I guess, life in general, before I got to that point of monotony, or not growing enough in the position that I had, and just being able to believe in myself that I could do it.

Sujani 18:23
When you say you are comfortable in your role or that season of your life, what advice do you have like for anybody to do a check in with themselves to break out of that, because, you know, I’m kind of just like imagining myself number of years back where we sometimes can get comfortable because everything is going smoothly and thinking about change it kind of like yeah, makes you anxious, you have to think about all the other things that are going to change in your life. What are some things that were holding you back if you don’t mind sharing? And how can someone like break away from that?

Monica 18:59
Yeah, I think a lot of different things are going on in my life. I thought I wanted to move to Washington DC and and start a life there. And for a while I did I took an internship, and I just wanted to live and work there. But I didn’t. I didn’t have luck finding a job. I ran out of money. And so I came back and started working for Partners and Care. And I think just building up my financial stability took some time, as well as not being super motivated to try something new or to expand my skill set. Like I just I think I was just looking for a little bit of security in that moment. After like failing and not making it in Washington DC.

Sujani 19:55
I know you kind of like talked about there was a point in your life where you decided you know, maybe it’s time for me to go back to school to maybe land the job that I want. Was there like something that you remember that was key or pivotal for you to snap into this like, new way of thinking and saying, Okay, let me do this, I believe in myself, because it sounds like you’re much more like confident in your abilities now. And it sounded like when even when you are applying to your masters, you are reaching out to your past professors. And there was a lot of like momentum being built up there. I’m curious to hear, like, what started off that momentum.

Monica 20:34
Right after coming back from, I guess, my failed attempt in Washington, DC, I remember feeling kind of like a low grade depression, like, I just didn’t feel any confidence in myself. And I was just going to work and getting by not feeling excited day to day, doing the things that I just had to do, you know, I was going to the gym and trying to cheer myself up that way, bring up my mood. And that was okay. But in the aspect of like, okay, I still have to go to work, and it’s still monotonous. And I’m not learning anything new. And no one’s really at work that values the skills that I could bring. Because I remember I did ask for opportunities to be promoted or to have different positions, but they just weren’t available. And that’s what kind of led to having a little bit of low confidence in myself at that time. And I think just slowly, just been so tired of feeling that way. I just decided, you know, it’s, I should go back to school.

Sujani 21:44
Yeah, I can imagine so many people nodding their heads as they’re listening to this. Just thinking yeah, either. I’m in that period of my like, career right now, or I have been, and I don’t know if there’s anything more that you’re willing to share in terms of just encouraging people to get out of that rut and, and really, like push through and take a step towards their next goal.

Monica 22:08
You really have to, I would say, surround yourself with positivity and positive people, even when you don’t necessarily feel like that yourself.

Sujani 22:17

Monica 22:18
I think I did attend a few conferences that were focused on, you know, women. And I remember, particularly that time, I founded a group in the LA area called worthy women. And I just started going to a few of their workshops, they were in person, and I would hear their stories. And it was mostly geared towards entrepreneurship.

Sujani 22:44

Monica 22:44
But I think that’s what kind of motivated me to just pick myself up and just do it.

Sujani 22:50
I’m just kind of like thinking back to a period in my life where I was just like, you know, not motivated to do anything. And I think, you know, sometimes you get this like a slight bit of light, and you have to kind of grab it and do something, surround yourself with people. I think, if you kind of like miss that tiny bit of light, you’ll get back into that cycle. And sometimes it can be harder, right? And just being open to saying, Okay, I know, I need help. Let me just like, find people to like, cheer me up and get me going again. And, like, for me, it’s often like podcast or different, like, videos that I’ll watch on YouTube, especially during the pandemic, when we can’t go out to events and such.

Monica 23:32
Yeah, exactly. Just grab on to that bit of light, like you mentioned.

Sujani 23:37
Yeah. No, thanks so much for sharing that, Monica, I think that was such a brave moment for you to really share that with us. I really, really appreciate it. I know a lot of people are going to be nodding their heads, because I know personally, a lot of people kind of in those periods of their careers. And I think we all kind of go through that every once in a while. And it’s just about being able to acknowledge that we’re there and know that we don’t have to go through it alone. And there are people out there willing to kind of support us knowingly or unknowingly, right like the same way like you went to those people pulled you out of that phase for you. So yeah, I really appreciate you and grateful for you for sharing that about your life. Right now, I guess, what are some exciting things that you’re working on at the California Department of Health with your research work?

Monica 24:26
Well, yes, some exciting things is that a lot of our maternal health status moving to Tableau dashboards. For a lot of us, it kind of feels like oh, it’s about time, because for a long time, we’ve just had very static data, you know, reports and long PDF reports of tables. And I think that’s just what we’ve been used to and I don’t know if you are familiar with just how, you know, state government works, but a lot of things are very slow. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and procedures that slow down new development and process. So yeah, we’re moving towards Tableau, the future, we’re gonna have specific dashboards that show and highlight our data from our survey. So that’s exciting. Or at least I think it’s exciting.

Sujani 25:15
Ya know, it is like I, I’ve had some experience working in government myself. So I know the amount of like rich data and just like great information that exists. And I think it’s great that we’re slowly thinking about ways to make that more accessible, and just put it out there into the world for other great public health professionals to make use of it as well. Right, that they think that’s the cycle there. So yeah, when you just reflect on your journey, Monica, and if you had some early career professionals, or public health students come to you and ask you, you know, what’s one advice that you can give me so that I’m on a good path, or I’m on a path to build my own career? What’s something that you would share with them based on your experience?

Monica 26:05
Well, there’s, there’s a lot of advice. But.

Sujani 26:07
Yeah, let’s hear it all.

Monica 26:10
Just keep going. Like, if you feel like you have good momentum, just don’t stop, like, keep going. If you feel like you don’t have enough experience, just volunteer, don’t let that stop you from accomplishing your goals. I think what allowed me to get into this program for my master’s was the experience that I had built, even after graduating, I think the position that I have today was because of the research experience I had in my undergrad.

Sujani 26:41

Monica 26:42
I wish that more young people would be exposed to research, I think that’s what a lot of masters of public health programs really look for. And when they see that you were even a research assistant genuine name is tied to like, even just one publication, that’s really powerful. And so just getting your foot in the door, volunteering your time, as a research assistant, there’s a lot you can do there. My other piece of advice is to just surround yourself with mentors. And this could be informally as well, mentors could be colleagues that maybe are in the same age group as you, but they really have a great understanding of public health are the career and they can just give you advice, or is it someone that you can share drafts of your resume or your personal statement, any job application, like those are really good friends and mentors.

Sujani 27:41
Yeah. If I’ve learned anything from like having these guest interviews on on our podcasts, I must have probably talked to over 50 to 60 different professionals I, I can bet that everyone is going to say, Find a mentor or like find a community or find people to help you through this journey. I think there’s no one that has left session with us on the podcast that hasn’t said something along those lines of like, get some help surround yourself with people. Like you don’t have to do it alone. Pretty much right?

Monica 28:14
Yeah, definitely.

Sujani 28:15
Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Monica. This has been such a great inspiring conversation. And like I said, I know a lot of people are going to hear your story and think like, okay, I can do this too, I can push through. So I really appreciate you coming here to share with us your story and your journey. And I just want to wish you well on your career going forward. And we can’t wait to hear about what other great work you’re going to be doing in public health going forward.

Monica 28:43
Thank you so much, Sujani, it’s great talking to you today.

Sujani 28:50
Hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, and career growth strategy sessions in the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how it this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career club.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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