Meet Those Nerdy Girls – Dr. Malia Jones


In this week’s edition of our “Meet those nerdy girls” series, we are introducing co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at Dear Pandemic, Dr. Malia Jones.

It all started early in the morning on Thursday, March 5th, when Dr. Jones sat down at her computer and wrote a lengthy message to her friends and family about the pandemic.

📮 The email was full of practical advice about canceling travel, the possibility of school closures, washing hands, and more.

The message went–ahem–viral. 🧫 Dr. Jones was soon inundated with media requests and receiving hundreds of personal emails a day–sometimes hundreds per hour. Mostly, emails came from regular people asking for practical advice. She called her longtime collaborator on vaccine hesitancy studies, Dr. Alison Buttenheim. They joked that Dr. Oz would be calling next.

That’s when Dr. Phil called.

At the suggestion of Dr. Buttenheim (whom we profiled last week), Dr. Jones agreed that it would be smart to pool resources, recruit some help, and post information on a public page. That page was Dear Pandemic.
Pre-pandemic, Dr. Jones’ work was already highly interdisciplinary–at the boundary between infectious disease epidemiology, geography, and sociology. She used to say she studied “how the places we spend time affect our health,” especially how people who don’t want to vaccinate can be clustered in some places.

Now, she just says she studies herd immunity. “It’s actually the same thing, but now people know what that means. I didn’t even say ‘I’m an epidemiologist’ before because no one knew what that was. Remember those times?”
Some of her other pre-pandemic work focused on science communications, and she had gained considerable experience writing for the general public through a collaboration with Wiscontext.org, an online news outlet.

We asked her a few questions about her work and her life.

📜 Why did you decide to pursue a PhD?

“I love learning. I could go on taking classes for the rest of my life. I love to ask questions, figure out how to get answers to them, and learn new things–which is what a doctorally trained researcher does for a living. Science is professionalized, structured curiosity.”

🥺 What’s the most frustrating thing about the pandemic, in your opinion?

“The herd immunity ‘debate.’ Herd immunity is a tricky and super important epi concept with all kinds of interesting spatial and temporal and demographic dimensions. It hurts me to see it twisted by people who don’t understand what it is or how it works.”

💪 What’s the proudest moment of your life?

“Well, there are a lot to choose from, but finishing the Los Angeles Marathon in 2012 ranks pretty high.”🏃‍♀️

🦸🏻‍♀️ What’s your superpower?


📆 What’s something you’re really looking forward to doing in 2021?

“Getting vaccinated. 💉 Also, I am really looking forward to eating a hamburger at a bar. 🍔”

⏪ If you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently since March?

“I would have been much more rigid about taking a walk every single day, no matter what. I would have said no to a lot more media requests. And I think my husband and I would have made a decision to homeschool both of our kids for this school year back in August–rather than having a lot of uncertainty and transitions with their education.”

⭐ Who is your hero?

“I really admire Hillary Rodham Clinton. Spending the last 10 months in the public eye even to the small degree that I have done has given me a tremendous appreciation for her fortitude. She has pushed through one glass ceiling after another, all while in the public eye, all while fighting against the current of gender norms and outright misogyny. ♀️ We get some trolls and haters and even threats at Dear Pandemic–and this has given me a new appreciation for just how strong and committed she is. She’s been a working mom in the public service and in the public eye for decades. And is still doing it. I think that is heroic.”

What you miss most from Before Times: Having my friends over for game night. 🎲🎲

What you don’t miss at all: Taking my kids to all the activities and always being busy running around. 🏫 ⚽ 🏊 🥋

What you do to unwind: I mostly get trounced in board games by my children. I knit some 🧶, and I hang out with cats 🐾 and watch TV with my husband. I read history and science fiction. 🪐

Dr. Jones earned her Master of Public Health and Ph.D. in Public Health from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, Department of Community Health Sciences. She’s also an undergraduate alumna of American University, where she majored in anthropology and philosophy. After finishing her doctorate, she completed an NIH-sponsored postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Southern California.

Today, she is an Associate Scientist in Health Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory. She has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Health Affairs, American Journal of Public Health, and Demography. She has also written one book and dozens (and dozens) of posts for Dear Pandemic.

Her research is currently funded by a grant from the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. The focus of this grant is studying how information and misinformation about infectious diseases spread through social networks. She received that grant in 2018… what did she know that we didn’t?? 🧐

Malia’s Curriculum Vitae

Applied Population Lab

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