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Meet our graduates | Andrea Banuet Gonzalez, MS '21

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July 6, 2021. Interviewed by Linda Esquivel. Edited for length and clarity.

As part of MS&E's 2021 graduates podcast series, we chatted with Andrea Banuet Gonzalez, a graduating master’s student with a focus in health systems modeling and health policy in MS&E.

Andrea shares how at an early age she became fascinated with the way things worked—inspecting leaves under a telescope or taking apart and rebuilding a household fan. Her parents were supportive of her curiosity, which allowed her to excel in math and science.  She also discusses her time at Stanford, what drew her to the MS&E program, and how the pandemic affected her remaining year off-campus.

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My name is Andrea and I just graduated from the coterm master’s program in MS&E and my area of concentration is health systems modeling and health policy.

Can you tell me a bit about your background? Where did you grow up?

I was born in Mexico City, and I lived there until I was 12 years old. Then my family and I moved to Texas in 2009. The transition from Mexico to Texas was challenging at first, mainly because all my family was still in Mexico. I was born and raised there, and everything I had ever known was in Mexico. To this day, I still have quite a bit of family and friends who live in Mexico.

The idea of leaving everything behind, such as my family, my friends—everything I'd ever known—and coming to this whole new place was terrifying at first because I had no idea what it would be like in the U.S. I didn't know anyone here, and everything seemed very different from what I’m used to. I was terrified about moving at first, but I knew it was for my dad's job, and my parents explained that it was an excellent opportunity for our family.

After we moved here and after having some time to adjust and get used to what my new life here would be like, it was great. I’m glad that we moved, because I've had so many more opportunities here that I would not have had back in Mexico. I've been able to meet so many different people from so many other places. Overall, I'm pleased that we moved and I’m fortunate that I’m still able to go back to Mexico often and see my family and my friends there. And now, I have a whole other place that I can call home. I’m thankful for that.

How did you become interested in engineering? Were there experiences growing up that you can draw upon?

I've always been curious about random things. Growing up, math and science were my favorite subjects. And I'm also fortunate that my parents encouraged many of the random interests that I had as a child. They encouraged a lot of creativity and problem solving in my brother, sister, and me. And if we were curious about something, however random it was, they would go out of their way to make sure we had resources or chances to explore those interests. For instance, one time when I was very interested in science-related stuff and we were learning about cells, my mom got us a little microscope kit, and we went out and collected different plants to look at them under the microscope. It was very cool to see as a kid.

As I got older and more interested in engineering and building things, I had a lot of chances to explore that as well. We had a close family friend who was a mechanic, and we worked on many different projects such as a metal detector and a lot of other neat things. It was inspiring to have those types of experiences growing up as a kid and seeing what I could do with engineering. At the time, I didn’t know that it was engineering, but looking back, those were fundamental experiences that exposed me to the field of engineering, and I'm grateful for them. Then, in high school, I was fortunate to have computer science classes, and I took an introductory program that allowed me to explore that space and see how I could problem-solve with computers. It was really cool to get a little glimpse of that before I was accepted to Stanford.

Can you tell us a bit about your area of concentration? How did you decide on it?

My concentration in MS&E is Health Systems Modeling and Health Policy. I've pivoted a lot with what I wanted to do with my career during my time at Stanford. I came into Stanford thinking that I would major in bioengineering, and then I switched into the pre-med track and became a human biology major. But I always really liked the problem-solving disciplines. And actually, in that regard, I don't think human biology was the best fit for me. But I was pre-med, and for that, it was a great major for me.

After undergrad, I still wanted to explore more of the problem-solving spaces within healthcare, particularly through a policy lens, and MS&E was the perfect fit for that because they have this very specific track that explores a lot of those things in health policy. So, I was super excited when I got into the coterm because I could take more classes to explore those interests. This concentration deals a lot with understanding and knowing how to make the best possible decisions about different healthcare problems, whether that's a specific policy topic, such as the opioid epidemic, or how we allocate vaccines across the country for COVID-19. Those are the kind of problems that I learned to deal with through this area of concentration. And I found that incredibly fascinating.

Was there a course or instructor that stood out during your studies?

I've honestly, truthfully enjoyed most of the classes that I took in MS&E. I learned a lot from every single one, but one of my favorites from recent memory was MS&E 292. It was about health policy and health modeling with Professor Margaret Brandeau. In that class, we read and discussed various papers each week on different policy topics and different methods that one could use to address these different types of problems. Many of them dealt with how we can model different strategies or policies to determine which one was the absolute best for a given situation. So if you want it to solve the opioid crisis, what process could we use to ensure that most people were actually helped? And we did this for so many different topics, ranging from the HIV epidemic to cancer, all the way to the health effects of climate change which is now becoming super important. It was super interesting to see the various types of evidence you can generate from these modeling studies to actually support your policy decisions. And it's obviously not the case that policies currently are always based on evidence, but it's really cool to see that there are many tools that you can use to make the most informed decisions.

Can you share a bit about your involvement in the MS&E Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) committee?

This past year, I was very involved with the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion committee in MS&E. The committee was formed around the same time the pandemic started, which happened in tandem with many of the social injustices that we saw around the nation at that time.

The pandemic affected many communities in various ways, but it was particularly hard on ethnic minority communities. We also saw many situations happening with police brutality, particularly with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Because of all of those events, MS&E created the department DE&I committee. And as soon as I saw that email, I immediately knew that I wanted to be a part of this and help in whatever way I could.

So I worked with the committee this past year, and for me, it was really a central fundamental experience during my time at MS&E. And I wholeheartedly believe in the work we did. Even though it was pretty frustrating at times because progress in that space can be relatively slow, I'm overall delighted and proud of the progress we were able to make this year as a brand new part of MS&E. I was also pleased to know that our department was committed to creating, staffing, and funding this committee so that we could actually do something meaningful.

On a personal level, I also really appreciated being part of the committee because I identify as part of the marginalized groups we focused on. To know that there's a place for me in MS&E where my perspective and experiences were valued and helpful was terrific. So I'm really happy with the progress we have made so far, and I'm super confident and excited that in the next few years, many of these efforts will continue. We will see a real change towards making MS&E and Stanford more diverse, inclusive, and equitable for every student and faculty, and staff.

How has the pandemic affected your last year at Stanford?

I was a senior when the pandemic hit, so my last quarter of Stanford was fully remote. And I think that was especially tough because throughout my whole undergrad, there was this notion that people are looking forward to their last quarter, their senior spring quarter. And it's the last quarter where you get to relax a little bit more than you have over the past four years and take some time to have fun with the friends that you've been making over the past four years. So it was really tough to slowly come to the realization that we weren't going to have that.

But I think I was really fortunate that I had a place that I could go home to with my family and spend those first few months of the pandemic living again with my parents and both of my siblings, living under the same roof. In hindsight, that was special to me because I love my family; they mean everything to me. This period gave me a lot of time and a really comfortable space to deal with and process a lot of the things that were happening in the world.

Seeing how unprepared our public healthcare systems were for dealing with something like COVID-19 renewed why I wanted to do the Health System Modeling coterm that I was starting. That experience made it obvious to choose this field in order to improve the outcomes of the healthcare system. I hope to contribute in a meaningful way. So there was a silver lining, and it reinforced my purpose.

A lot of my classes over that year had some sort of focus on not just the COVID situation with our public health systems, but also on reshaping the way that courses were taught, or the focus that was in each class, to also include social inequities and racial and ethnic disparities that we saw, which was critical. It's crucial to get that perspective when you're learning about these really big systems that encompass the whole nation. As horrible as the pandemic was, I'm glad that there was some change that came out of it, and I'm excited to see it continue.

What are your career plans after Stanford?

I'm currently working as an intern for a biotech company and I'm also pursuing research that I started doing in a class for MS&E this past spring. It's a research project that I'm working on in tandem with this biotech company that I'm working with. In the long-term, I really want to do more health policy-related work. This summer, I'm working remotely from Washington, DC, which has been really cool because a lot of the health policy work that I'm really interested in is based in DC. I'm really excited to explore more of the health policy sphere.

What most excites you about your future?

I'm really excited about seeing my friends again. I am also really excited about my future career as everything starts opening up again, but as the world comes closer to what our normal was pre-pandemic, I’m excited about being able to see people we love without worrying about getting sick or getting someone else sick. And thankfully I'm vaccinated, my immediate family is vaccinated, and a lot of my friends are vaccinated. But there are still a lot of family members back in Mexico that aren't yet vaccinated. And even though they are starting to increase the vaccination rate there, I think it's going to take a while.

I'm also really excited to see my cousins, my aunts, my uncles, and everyone, and really just enjoy the little things that I miss most from pre-pandemic times, like being able to randomly get a coffee with someone, run into someone, just small things that I really took for granted before this. I'm also excited to explore DC and for what I can contribute in my professional career. And also being able to travel again. Overall, I think it's given me a lot of appreciation for the little things.

What advice do you have for future or current students? How can they make the best use of their time while at MS&E and Stanford?

I would say my experience with both my undergrad and my grad career is very different. As an undergrad, particularly freshman and sophomore year, I was overwhelmed with everything going on, and I just thought there were millions of things that I had to be doing in order to be successful here. Especially at a place like Stanford, everyone around you is doing a million amazing things. It was hard for me to separate myself from that and focus on my own path. And then in grad school, after it took me four years to be able to process that experience, I finally got to a place where I was really focusing on the things that made me happy and not comparing myself to others as much. So I think that's a product of grad school, being more focused, but it also comes with age, learning how to deal with that.

My advice would be to not compare yourself to others as much as possible, and try to find those few things that you're really passionate about, even if it's not what you think you should be doing to be successful, because success is not really linear. It doesn't have to follow the traditional path that everyone seems to be on, and you can still get to where you want to be without feeling like you have to start where everyone else seems to have started.

I would also definitely recommend making use of the resources that Stanford has. I think a lot of professors and staff are really willing to help students, but students just have to know to ask for it. And I think we don't always know to ask for it or who to go to for advice. That's something I wish I had learned sooner in my Stanford career. I think it's something that can be beneficial, or at least it was very beneficial for me when I actually started reaching out for help.

What will you miss most about your Stanford experience?

I think what I'll miss most about Stanford is the people that I've met. I met some of my favorite people in the world at Stanford, and I'm very thankful for all the relationships that I've formed and everyone that I've met over the past five years that has had a huge impact on me. What's best about the relationships that started at Stanford is that they won’t end there, and they will continue my whole life.

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