MSU Sociology welcomes Dr. Maria Isabel Espinoza as new environmental and health sociologist

August 24, 2023 - Karessa Weir

MSU Sociology is pleased to welcome our newest faculty member: Assistant Professor Maria Isabel Espinoza, an environmental and health sociologist.

Dr. Espinoza grew up in Lima, Peru and after college started working with a non-governmental organization (NGO) involved in social entrepreneurship. She conducted social impact studies for a mining consulting company and asked residents how they are impacted by mining. But Espinoza found that the questions she was asking, and the reports she was developing, were far too narrow in her mind.

“It was an amazing experience. I knew I wanted to do more research,” she said. “I wanted to consider all the aspects that we were not allowed to consider.”

She looked in doctoral programs in both environmental and medical sociology and chose Rutgers University where she completed her PhD this spring. 

Her doctoral dissertation focused on the intersections between public health and environmental policies and regulations and was strongly impacted by a visit home to her family over a school break. 

“I came home in 2017 to discover an outbreak of dengue fever,” she said. “It was very strange because we live in the city on the coast. It is a desert. We were not the typical place where you would see a dengue epidemic.”

That August, Peru declared a 90-day sanitary emergency to combat the more than 71,000 cases of dengue and 80 confirmed deaths. 

Dr. Espinoza knew the unusual occurrence likely was connected to climate change. The increase in temperatures expanded the areas where the mosquitoes Aedes aegypti can thrive to include higher altitudes such as in her hometown. Also there was an unusual regional coastal El Niño Effect that affected Northern Peru and Ecuador which had not been predicted. 

“I really became immersed in the public health literature coming out at the time as well as the environmental research,” she said. “Where 10 years ago, everyone was talking about mitigation. I was realizing we cannot wait for mitigation. We needed to also move into adaptation.”

Dr. Espinoza found that many agencies–both governmental and non-governmental–tended to work in silos in either public health or environment and weren’t necessarily working, or even communicating, together. The groups weren’t lacking information but rather their solutions tended to be narrow and short term, she said. 

“For example, they wanted to fumigate houses to get rid of the mosquitos,” she said. “But they weren’t addressing the problems of water scarcity which was leading to people to accumulate water in pots and providing mosquito breeding grounds.” 

She noticed that similar problems could be found throughout the United States as different environmental groups and public health officials lacked political support and struggled to work together effectively. 

“When it comes to climate change and public health, the fragmentation of health and environment is a huge problem,” she said. “We need to integrate them.”

She is also interested in researching the mismatches between public concerns and political actions and how to make individual actions amount to change in organizations and cultures. 

Dr. Espinoza was attracted to Michigan State University Department of Sociology after meeting several faculty members at a conference and learning more about our ongoing research at the intersection of health and environment. She also was impressed with the department’s strength in community-based research.

“This was my dream job - my top priority,” she said.

At the same time, Department Chairperson Aaron M. McCright conveyed just how impressed the department is with Dr. Espinoza herself. “She’s a brilliant intellectual with great potential, and we’re excited that she is joining our scholarly community. Since our inception in 1924 to today, MSU Sociology has addressed societal challenges dealing with the environment, health, and migration. Adding Dr. Espinoza to our faculty significantly strengthens our capacity to address these challenges.”

Dr. Espinoza moves to Michigan with her husband, who is a post-doctoral researcher in number theory in the MSU Department of Mathematics, and their baby girl. 

“I am looking forward to contributing to this already amazing department in areas of environmental and health sociology,” she said.