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Epidemiologist and Program Manager Dr. Faith Selzer on the Importance of Exploring Your Passions

Dr. Faith Selzer lives by the motto “explore your passions and pursue them with zeal.” After studying biology at the University of Virginia, Dr. Selzer (who prefers to be referred to by her first name) traveled to Gabon to support a Fang community’s efforts to fish sustainably. As the Fang people welcomed Faith into their community and taught her about traditional Gabonese medicine, she began to envision her future in population health, eventually leading her toward a Ph.D. in epidemiology. Faith is now a research scientist, program manager, and mentor at OrACORe. In this blog post, she takes readers on a journey from Virginia to Gabon and finally to Boston and shares insightful words about living a curiosity-driven life. 

The Road to Epidemiology and OrACORe

Rosalind Franklin, the chemist whose x-ray images revolutionized our modern understanding of the DNA structure, was Faith’s biggest inspiration, along with her high school biology teacher. “My favorite class in high school was biology because it was an opportunity to study everything around me—from animals to plants and bacteria,” she said. As she began college at the University of Virginia, Faith was led by her passion for exploring her environment to complete a bachelor’s degree in Biology. “At the time, most students who studied biology were interested in a career in lab research or medicine. When I graduated, I didn’t know whether either of those career options was right for me,” reflected Faith. Upon graduation, she sought a shift in her perspective, an experience that would introduce her to new people and places while engaging in biology. This led Faith to apply to be a Peace Corps volunteer. She selected a project in aquaculture because it was something that she never imagined pursuing in the US. The Peace Corps matched Faith to a program in Gabon, Central Africa, where she was responsible for supporting local farmers of the Fang ethnic group in sustainable fish farming. Gabon was unlike Washington, D.C., where Faith grew up: “It was a huge culture shock. I went from a culture focused heavily on individuality to one where everyone thrived on collective community support. I am not Gabonese, yet my village members welcomed me like I was. My adopted mothers took me fishing, shared their food, and tried to teach me their language (apparently ‘my head was hard, like concrete’ when it came to distinguishing tonal sounds) in the year-and-a-half I spent with them,” she recalled. Faith’s most cherished memories of Gabon include sharing her no-bake cookies, which quickly became a neighborhood favorite, and surveying the land with her host mother, who taught her about medicinal herbs and fruits. “I didn’t realize it then, but Gabon was the inflection point in my career aspirations. After supporting our local fish farmers in providing their communities with the possibility of a regular food source while learning about the intersection between society and health, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the health field, but not as a physician or a bench top researcher,” said Faith. Gabon was where she discovered her place in biology with Epidemiology.

After Faith completed her time in the Peace Corps, she enrolled at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and completed her MPH before heading to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue her PhD. During her studies, she immersed herself in biostatistics and epidemiology courses. Faith also began working for one of her professors, Kim Sutton-Tyrrell, whose research investigated subclinical cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) within the context of a variety of cohort studies. CVD includes a range of heart problems typically derived from narrowed arteries filled with atherosclerotic plaque. “We used ultrasound to assess the presence/absence as well as the magnitude of atherosclerosis inside the carotid artery, a surrogate for coronary vessels, in those with non-symptomatic cardiac disease. We also performed a second non-invasive test called pulse wave velocity, which is a measure of central arterial stiffness to a better understanding of vascular aging. At the time, these were incredibly innovative techniques that are still used today.” Faith’s dissertation work focused on women with systemic lupus erythematosus under the direction of Rheumatologist Dr. Susan Manzi. Drs. Manzi and Selzer published several manuscripts together that examined the prevalence and risk factors associated with carotid plaque as well as the relationship between indicators of SLE disease activity and vascular stiffness.

Faith brought 20 years of insight, skill, and passion when she joined OrACORe in 2014 as our program manager and epidemiologist. She plays a vital role in the operations of all our projects and protects some of her time to support the OrACORe research assistants, all of whom are exploring career paths in medicine, research, or population health. “It’s a full circle opportunity for me. I remember a time in my life when I was fresh out of undergrad, eager to find my footing and establish a career. I benefitted greatly from taking a growth year to discover my interests and emerged with a solid understanding of where I wanted to lead my life. I’m always excited to share what I’ve learned from being intentional about discovering the best career decision for me,” Selzer said.

Living a fulfilled life

When she is not viewing the environment through the lens of epidemiology, Faith views it through a camera lens. “I have always had an affinity for capturing images, mainly of the natural landscapes around me. It’s a hobby that I have no formal training in and enjoy learning more about through practice,” she said. Faith is particularly interested in the art of digital effects. “It’s fun to play with color and composition, to highlight the peculiarities of a landscape, but also to convey the natural essence of my subject.” She speaks humbly about her hobby as a photographer. Still, our OrACORe team members and visiting colleagues often remark on the beauty of her pictures, which decorate the halls of our office space. When she isn’t taking photographs, Faith spends time with her husband, Bill, and their two dogs, Digger and Bella. “We [Faith and Bill] love caring for Digger and Bella, especially because they are in their senior years. They have contrasting personalities, with Bella being the more commanding and Digger being more reserved. They complement each other well and are always up to some new antics, so it keeps us on our toes!” she added. 

Words of Wisdom 

Everyone goes on a journey toward self-discovery, and Faith offers this insightful advice informed by her journey—”It’s OK to center yourself in your life journey. Don’t pursue anything that doesn’t align with who you are and what brings you joy. Explore your passions and do so with zeal, and you will always look back at your life, knowing that you have made the best decisions for yourself.”

Explore your passions and do so with zeal, and you will always look back at your life, knowing that you have made the best decisions for yourself

Dr. Faith Selzer

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