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Arnold School of Public Health

I Am Public Health: Maria Sevoyan

November 1, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, 

The way Maria Sevoyan describes her homeland, it sounds like a hard place to leave. “Armenia is one of the 10 most ancient countries in the world,” she says. “It is mostly known by its history, rich culture and traditions, Armenian Apostolic church, unique alphabet, excellent chess players and delicious food.”

Sevoyan grew up in the land-locked nation with a population of three million, learning to speak Armenian, Russian, and English. After graduating with a medical degree from Yerevan State Medical University, she completed a three-year clinical residency specializing in kidney diseases while also earning a master of public health with the U.S.-accredited American University of Armenia. From 2006 to 2013, she worked for the World Bank’s Health Project Implementation Unit in Armenia as a monitoring and evaluation specialist.    

“The unit implements different projects aiming to modernize the health care system in Armenia,” Sevoyan explains. “I had a wide range of responsibilities, including development of approaches and measurement framework for monitoring and evaluation of the projects, development of benchmarks and evaluation indicators, and formulation of primary health care and hospital performance indicators.”

Toward the end of her tenure at World Bank, Sevoyan began looking into doctoral programs to learn new epidemiology methods, analytical skills and techniques to use in clinical research. She decided to study in the United States due to the abundance of top-ranking universities, diverse culture, and ample research opportunities.

“USC’s epidemiology program provides a balance of theoretical and practical knowledge and gives opportunities to work in real research settings,” Sevoyan says of her decision to attend Carolina. “I wanted to work as a researcher, apply different research methods to improve the quality of the research, and promote evidence-based clinical practice.” The tuition supplement and graduate assistantship were also important factors for Sevoyan’s family, which includes her husband and now five-year-old daughter. 

USC’s epidemiology program provides a balance of theoretical and practical knowledge and gives opportunities to work in real research settings.

-Maria Sevoyan, Ph.D. in epidemiology student

She’s using her program to both develop advanced epidemiological skills and build research expertise in two specific areas of interest: familial Mediterranean fever (FMF) and perinatal epidemiology. Sevoyan’s interest in FMF, a genetic autoimmune disease that affects Armenians along with other Mediterranean populations, began during her residency where she encountered many patients with renal amyloidosis, a dangerous complication of FMF.  

As a component of her master’s thesis, Sevoyan completed a case-control study on the effects of the drug, colchicine, for patients with FMF. “We showed that early and constant use of colchicine slowed the occurrence of amyloidosis,” says Sevoyan, whose findings were published in Medical Principles and Practice. “That is when I realized that my career would be in public health.” 

At the Arnold School, Sevoyan has continued discovering the mystery of this understudied disease. She believes that the advanced epidemiological methods she’s been learning can be successfully implemented to answer important questions related to FMF.

She has already applied her new knowledge to help her describe the features of FMF disease in the Armenian population as well as evaluate the demographic, clinical and genetic predictors of renal amyloidosis in Armenian patients. Under the mentorship of Health Sciences Distinguished Professor James Hébert, she conducted this project using a Support to Promote Advancement of Research and Creativity (SPARC) grant from the USC Office of the Vice President for Research and data from the FMF disease registry. She presented her work at 2017 Discover USC and the 2017 Society of Epidemiologic Research Meeting, where her abstract was selected as a Late Breaker Abstract.

In addition to her FMF research, Sevoyan also developed an interest in perinatal epidemiology through her work with epidemiology and biostatistics (EPID/BIOS) department faculty members Nansi Boghossian and Marco Geraci. Together, they are examining topics such as the effect of interpregnancy interval on the neonatal and maternal outcomes and the association between gestational duration in the first pregnancy and risk of preterm birth in the second pregnancy.

“Dr. Boghossian is very supportive and helpful, always ready to answer to my questions; here I work on real projects,” Sevoyan says. “Dr. Geraci provides biostatistical help. He always has interesting ideas and suggestions related to statistical analyses of the data.”

After her 2018 graduation, Sevoyan, who already has three peer-reviewed publications with five more in preparation, plans to pursue a position at a research university. She’d like to work with other researchers to develop evidence-based interventions to improve maternal and perinatal outcomes. Meanwhile, she is continuing to soak up the rich mentorship environment she has found at the Arnold School.

In addition to Boghossian and Geraci, Sevoyan also found mentors in EPID/BIOS professor Angela Liese and Hébert, who directs the Cancer Prevention and Control Program (CPCP). “Dr. Liese shared her strategies for teaching while I was her teaching assistant, and I learned a lot from our regular discussions about some controversial topics in modern epidemiology,” says Sevoyan.

“I worked with Dr. Hébert for three years at CPCP, gaining lots of experience in a variety of areas, and he is always very supportive,” she says. “I got very extensive data management skills and these are very useful and important skills that every epidemiologist should have. I also had a unique opportunity to be involved in Novel Adenoma Risk Factors study—be involved and participate in every stage of research from protocol development, participant enrollment, data collection, specimen storage, data analysis. This was very interesting and valuable for someone who is coming from a different country and not familiar with all these steps of real clinical research in the U.S. Currently, I continue to work with Dr. Hébert on papers related to diet and social desirability bias.”

For those considering a career in epidemiology, Sevoyan recommends thoroughly researching potential programs, finding graduate assistantships that fit with your interests, and identifying faculty with whom you would like to work. Once you’re admitted, work hard.

“Travel more,” she adds, as this is very helpful to understanding different cultures and values. “And have big goals.”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.