Maria Sundaram, Ph.D., MSPH, has joined the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Population Health at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute as an associate research scientist where she will study infectious respiratory diseases such as COVID-19, influenza and RSV.

Dr. Sundaram received her doctorate in Environmental Health-Infectious Diseases from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and her master's in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. As a Wisconsin native hailing from the La Crosse area, she initially became interested in infectious disease epidemiology when previously working for the Center nearly 10 years ago.

“My background was originally in nutritional epidemiology. I was asked to do some analysis of the immunological response to vaccination and it snowballed from there," said Dr. Sundaram. “I was not expecting to become an expert in infectious disease, but because of the help I got here and the excitement I felt – that's what got me interested."

For Dr. Sundaram, her calling as an epidemiologist is to make sure her community is safe from infectious diseases. This is why one area of research that interests her includes better understanding how topics like disease spread, testing and vaccine hesitancy impact different groups.

“COVID-19 is a great example that the type of job you have, your sex, where you live and many other factors matter when it comes to infectious diseases," Dr. Sundaram said. “I worked with the University of California-San Diego on an analysis where we looked at COVID-19 by county across the U.S. We found the counties that had high proportions of people working on farms, migrant workers and workers living in congregate housing had high levels of COVID-19 earlier on during the pandemic."

This finding was contrary to the popular notions that the pandemic was raging hardest in urban areas. In reality, Dr. Sundaram and her research partners found that COVID-19 was also growing in a place where people could not really protect themselves nor find good ways to be tested.

“If we hadn't looked for it, we may not have seen it or recognized that it was a big issue in rural communities as well," Dr. Sundaram said.

In her spare time, Dr. Sundaram enjoys cooking, playing piano and the violin and practicing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art.