High school assignment begins path to pioneering research
Mildred M. Maldonado-Molina
The assignment was simple: a research project in high school chemistry. The problem? Mildred Maldonado-Molina wasn’t all that interested in the world of atoms, elements and reactions.
So she proposed a different idea to her teacher, a behavioral study using statistical techniques she had read about in one of her math textbooks. The resulting paper, which explored self-esteem and shyness among adolescents, may not have broken new ground in chemistry, but it led Maldonado-Molina to the international science fair that year and sparked her interest in science.
More than 15 years later, Maldonado-Molina is still employing innovative statistical methods to find ways to improve the lives of adolescents. Her work focuses primarily on alcohol and drug use and related behaviors in adolescent populations. The goal of Maldonado-Molina’s research is to reduce these behaviors, guide policies and prevention strategies, and ultimately, help children.
“These are behaviors that kids initiate that can put them in a different path,” said Maldonado-Molina, an associate professor of health outcomes and policy in the UF College of Medicine and a member of the UF Institute for Child Health Policy. “If we can do something when they are still young, maybe we can get them on a healthier path.”
She’s particularly interested in issues related to alcohol and drug use among Hispanic teens, her curiosity influenced by the environment in which she grew up. Maldonado-Molina was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where violence has become an increasing problem. In 2010, there were almost twice as many murders on the island as in New York City, which has almost double the population, according to reports in The New York Times.
“Alcohol use is very prevalent, violence is very prevalent as well. These are communities that you see how they evolve … and wonder what happened? How can we prevent these behaviors?” she said.
One of her recently published studies, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, showed that teens whose parents drink are more likely to drive under the influence as young adults. She’s also recently studied drinking and driving among Hispanic young adults and the role alcohol plays in physical aggression among youth.
Aside from her research, Maldonado-Molina is devoted to helping graduate students and fellows the way her own mentors did. She still keeps in touch with her undergraduate mentor, whom she found by, literally, knocking on doors at the University of Puerto Rico.
“It was that one professor who opened the door and allowed me to be a research assistant and learn how you answer questions about health through a scientific lens,” she said. “He opened that door for me. I try to pay that forward.”