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Symbol of HOPE Award

As an epidemiologist and advocate for poor and underserved populations, Dr. Marilyn Winkleby stands out in her contributions to two sustained endeavors that address the roots of poverty. The first is her scientific work addressing health disparities that negatively impact low-income and ethnic minority populations; the second is her public service work that reaches out to low-income and ethnic minority high school students. In her public service work she has mentored hundreds of students through a program she helped found 20 years ago, the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program (SMYSP). Her ability to integrate and synthesize her scientific work with her public service activities is the key to her contributions. The breadth of her scientific and public service efforts has had a national impact on improving the health of disadvantaged populations, and on reaching high school students who are often overlooked but who can succeed in college and become leaders in health professions, thus breaking the cycle of poverty and disease.


Dr. Winkleby credits her personal background for creating an awareness of health disparities and the need for activism. She was raised in a rural California community where she worked on her family’s five-acre farm and her classmates included children from agricultural labor camps. After graduation from high school, she attended California State University at Sacramento and went on to work as a bank teller. She then earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology and began working on community-based epidemiologic studies. At UCLA she set up clinics in Watts, Compton, and East LA to screen women for cervical cancer—there she met women who were diagnosed with treatable cancer but were unable to pay for treatment. At UC Davis she directed a statewide study on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and counseled women whose infants had died—some were from San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, some were from Central California’s isolated towns, and almost all were poor.


By the time she entered U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health for her doctoral degree, her experience in “barefoot epidemiology” laid the foundation for her independent work. Following graduation she took a position at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in the School of Medicine where she is currently a Professor of Medicine. During the last 20 years, her research and teaching have combined epidemiologic study with intervention research to further the understanding of the social determinants of health. She has been principal investigator on numerous NIH and other governmental studies, and has published over 100 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals.


Dr. Winkleby’s initial studies focused on the health of homeless children and adults. Subsequent studies helped identify Americans who have disproportionate rates of illness and death. The high risk groups she has helped identify include low-income African-American adults who have among the highest rates of hypertension, obesity and diabetes in America; low-income white, non-Hispanic adolescents and adults who are targeted by tobacco companies and have the highest smoking rates of all ethnic groups; and Latino agricultural labor workers who have few opportunities for cancer screening and treatment. Her current research is focused on elucidating the influence of neighborhoods on health. She is a co-investigator on a 5-year intervention study with her long-term partner, the Monterey County Health Department, who was awarded one of the CDC “Steps to a Healthier U.S.” grants for implementing policy and organizational change to address obesity, diabetes, and asthma. She is also an active collaborator with researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, known for their work on improving the health of immigrant and impoverished populations.


Dr. Winkleby is equally well known as the co-founder and faculty director of the highly successful Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, a program that is a national model for pre-college science education. SMYSP is an intensive five-week summer residential program that gives priority to students who are the first in their families to attend college, have faced personal hardship (e.g., death or imprisonment of a parent, foster care), and are from under-resourced schools and communities (e.g., rural and inner-city schools, agricultural labor camps.) Each summer 24 students are selected to live on campus where they are exposed to the field of medicine through science instruction, anatomy and pathology practicums, hospital field-placements, in addition to receiving college admissions preparation and, most importantly, long-term mentoring by an array of staff, Stanford students, and professors. SMYSP has been evaluated since its creation in 1988 and shows outstanding results. All but three of the 428 alumni have attended college, with the majority majoring in the biological or physical sciences. Eighty-one percent have graduated from four-year colleges compared to 15% of comparable low-income youth in California, and 52% of these graduates have continued on to graduate and medical schools.


Dr. Winkleby has continued to broaden the vision of SMYSP. She oversees a school outreach program that partners with low-income high schools that serve Native American, African American, and Latino students. UC San Diego School of Medicine has replicated SMYSP and other Schools of Medicine and Public Health are working to do the same. Her book, Healing Journeys: Teaching Medicine, Nurturing Hope, co-authored with Julia Steele with a foreword by Dr. David Satcher, and a documentary film, Opportunity of a Lifetime, demonstrate the transformations that happen at SMYSP (see http://smysp.stanford.edu/news/opportunity.html).


Last year Dr. Winkleby was appointed by the Dean of the School of Medicine to be the first Faculty Director of the new Office of Community Health whose mission is to foster and support community-responsive scholarship, advocacy, and public service aimed at improving the health of underserved populations. Dr. Winkleby recently won the Stanford teaching award for exceptional contributions to education at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and the Miriam Roland Volunteer Service Prize, which recognizes the Stanford faculty member who most involves students in integrating academic scholarship with significant service to society. She is a Fellow of the American Heart Association Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, and a Fellow of the American College on Epidemiology.