Apiece Apart Woman: Jessica Malaty Rivera
Photos by Ericka McConnell
Story by Leigh Patterson
If 2020 has taught us anything so far, it’s that life laughs at our plans. Yet for Jessica Malaty Rivera, this year feels like both the uncertain holding pattern we’re all experiencing…and the culmination of her entire career. As a senior science communication strategist, Jessica has dedicated the last 15 years of her career to infectious disease epidemiology, public health policy, and vaccine advocacy. Currently she is Science Communication Lead for The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched from The Atlantic and dedicated to collecting and publishing the data required to understand the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Every day, the group collects data on testing and patient outcomes, with findings shared around the world and informing global decision-making, research, and analysis.
When she’s not working around the clock during the busiest, most “surreal” year of her life — Jessica is a mother to two kids under the age of five in San Francisco, working and Zoom-ing from home, trying to finish 1,000-piece puzzles and make dinner like the rest of us. We spent an afternoon with Jessica to discuss all of the above: how she’s showing up for others and herself right now, which data findings feel most urgent right now, and how she fights futility with compassion.
Looking back, can you identify where your passion for science originated?
The short answer is: my mom. My parents immigrated to the United States in the early 80s from Egypt. My mom got her degree in agricultural engineering, a field that was not very welcoming to women. She was the last of her friends to get married because of her desire to work. When she got pregnant with me, she paused her career - a decision I have come to know was deeply loving and deeply emotional.
I grew up in Los Angeles and went to college at USC. Most of my professors were women whose careers thrilled me. I remember the moment in college when I decided to deviate from “the plan” of going to medical school: I was taking a health and human rights class, and it rocked my world. To my parents’ dismay, I took an unpaid internship in Washington, DC with a human rights firm. Eventually it turned into a job that took me to 15 countries over three years. It was the education I didn’t know I needed, and it shaped the rest of my life.
While in that job, I was recruited to join a team of research analysts at Georgetown University Medical Center to help track infectious disease outbreaks around the world. It was there when all the dots fully connected - my love for science, the world, and public health all in one place. I even had the chance to consult on the movie Contagion while I was in graduate school at Georgetown. I now look back with immense gratitude for my mom’s example of bravery and sacrifice. It brought me to where I am today.
Tell us about your work with The COVID Tracking Project, especially in regards to the COVID Racial Data Tracker. How are racial disparities in public health at play during this pandemic, and what can we do for our communities of color to rectify those disparities moving forward?
I got involved with The COVID Tracking Project in April. It was launched from The Atlantic and started with a handful of people and a spreadsheet. It has since evolved into a network of hundreds of volunteer journalists, doctors, students, epidemiologists, and data scientists. They are some of the most inspiring and intelligent people I’ve ever worked with.
Every day, we collect data on COVID-19 testing and patient outcomes from all U.S. states and territories. Our data is public and widely used by news organizations and research groups around the world. In mid-April, we launched the COVID Racial Data Tracker in partnership with the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. This initiative is specifically geared toward collecting and analyzing race and ethnicity data related to COVID-19 in the U.S. The data show that COVID-19 is affecting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color the most. Nationwide, Black people are dying at 2.5 times the rate that white people are dying,which is a devastating statistic and yet not entirely surprising considering the cycles of systemic racism that have led to BIPOC communities facing worse health outcomes. What’s more concerning is that this is all based on incomplete demographic data; there are several metrics that are not available to us that we need in order to better assess these racial disparities and protect communities who are being disproportionately affected by this pandemic.
How have you been separating work and home life during the pandemic while raising two young children, especially since your work directly relates to COVID-19? How can parents remain sane?
Before COVID-19, I worked from home full-time, but my daughter was in part-time preschool and my son was an infant. Now, all four of us are at home 24/7. Without question, this is the busiest work season of my life. To have studied and become an expert on emerging infectious diseases and then actually live through a global pandemic is surreal.
My husband is a wonderful partner, and we’ve worked together to find a balance - albeit imperfect - between time doing work, time with the kids, and time with each other. I’m an Enneagram 3, so being an “achiever” can be rewarding and also detrimental to my mental health. Personally, I need to physically remove myself from my devices - like be in a different room from my computer and phone - in order to really unplug. Sometimes that looks like sitting outside in the sun and closing my eyes for a few minutes. Sometimes it’s reading a half dozen books and having a “pretend picnic” with the kids.
We’re fortunate that our children are young; they don’t fully understand what’s going on. Our oldest, who is a major extrovert, is aware that things are different. Our youngest is absolutely delighted that we’re all home together all the time. One way we try to stay sane is to join our kids in the simplicity of their worlds. One of the most unexpected blessings of COVID-19 has been the validation of how hard it is to be a working parent. Employers and colleagues are being forced to exercise radical empathy for folks with families. Thankfully, I’m working with so many wonderful people who graciously welcome the inevitable Zoom kid-cameos and background noise.
As someone who studies emerging infectious diseases, how do you deal with Americans’ skepticism toward science? What do you think individuals can do to not fall for misinformation, especially about complex concepts such as viruses, vaccines, and public health?
I think about this a lot. Before COVID-19, most of my work was focused on vaccine science and advocacy. It’s a space that is riddled with science denialism and skepticism. What’s particularly discouraging is how American individualism really fuels these sentiments, particularly on issues related to public health. Many public health behaviors require individuals to think of themselves as part of a public community. We’ve seen that recently with mitigation efforts like physical distancing and mask wearing. These things presume a sense of altruism, selflessness, and thinking of others before yourself. Vaccines are a perfect example of this, because vulnerable populations rely on healthy individuals to do something they themselves cannot do.
What I’ve learned is that fighting against those who resist this is often futile without compassion and empathy. I have to remember that the spread of disinformation and misinformation during infectious disease outbreaks has been a pattern since the beginning of time. “Infodemics” in the middle of pandemics is a dangerous combo. Today, it’s exacerbated through social media and armchair epidemiologists who add more confusion and chaos to the conversation. I also have to recognize the fact that my expertise is not shared by the majority of the population. That is why I use my platform to close the barrier that many people have to science by translating it, adding nuance and a human voice to it.
These are a few tips I regularly share with my followers as they read headlines and articles: First, check your sources. A quick search can give you some information about the bias behind the source. Second, avoid sharing anonymous content. In fact, try to validate the accuracy of content before you share anything at all. Finally, be weary of hot takes and claims of “silver bullets” for treatments and solutions. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
What are some methods you have for finding pleasure or joy within an intensely stressful time?
Admittedly, the data rarely leaves my mind because I live and breathe it seven days a week. There are no days off. But a few things have helped me stay emotionally balanced: prayer, music (especially if I can sing and dance to it), baking bread (a new skill I forced myself to learn in quarantine), 1,000 piece puzzles (I’m on my 5th), watercolor painting, and drinking fancy craft cocktails at home made by my husband. I try to remind myself that we’ll never have all this time together at home again and to choose joy as often as possible.
Books I love deeply and/or have given often as gifts:
Inferior by Angela Saini
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
Current required reading is The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
And since I read several children’s books a day, my current favorite to read with my kids is: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The Poetry of Mister Rogers
Oh, and a cookbook. :) I love The Food Lab by J. Kenji López-Alt. It’s science and cooking. My actual love language.
My go-to, easy dinner / meal I make for myself…
Most nights it’s a protein and some sauteed veggies, usually kale with lemon and red chili flakes. I’ve loved making Samin Nosrat’s buttermilk-marinated roasted chicken. It’s 3 ingredients and by far the juiciest roast chicken I’ve made.
Something that is absurd or stupid that I love anyway:
Reality TV. It’s my ultimate guilty pleasure. I think because my line of work is so serious and technical - watching an episode of Real Housewives feels like the perfect escape from my reality. My friends tease me that I can talk at length about microbiology and pop culture with equal passion and precision.