Discovering Public Health
Dr. Mackenzie first discovered the discipline of public health as a high school student while volunteering at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland. It was here that she began working with children diagnosed with HIV, along with their families. At this point in time, the HIV epidemic was still very young and effective treatments were not readily available or accessible as the combination drug therapies had not yet been discovered. Dr. Mackenzie became completely immersed in working with these pediatric patients and their families. It was from these experiences that Dr. Mackenzie was inspired to continue making a difference in the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS.
As an undergraduate attending UC Berkeley, Dr. Mackenzie studied illness, culture, and social change, becoming immersed in the communities she was working with and trying make the best of the resources available at the time. After completing her undergraduate degree, she took part in a local public policy fellowship before attending Harvard and receiving a Masters of Science in Health and Social Behavior. Later, while conducting research at the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Mackenzie realized she needed to continue her education if she was going to continue her work and so she returned to UC, Berkeley for her Doctorate in Public Health.
Dr. Mackenzie knew she wanted to make a difference in the world and felt public health provided the perfect venue, appreciating how, as a discipline, it looks beyond the study of disease and medicine and questions the upstream factors that contribute to illness. Inspired to change the course of HIV and make a difference in the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS, Dr. Mackenzie views public health as a “vehicle for social change.”
The Power of Mentors
Recognizing the impact a professor can have on a student, we asked Dr. Mackenzie if there was a professor that particularly inspired or influenced her. She recalled Dr. Meredith Minkler as someone who always embodied what she taught as well as being a great model in what it means to be a mentor and was particularly inspired by her during her doctoral program at UC, Berkeley. Dr. Minkler’s work focused on community based participatory research, which Dr. Mackenzie now applied to her own research practices. Dr. Minkler always encouraged her students to never get stuck in a silo, reminding them that there are always opportunities to make the world a better and healthier place. At Dr. Minkler’s retirement, the room was filled with esteemed academics and community members; the presence of so many community members reflected Dr. Minkler’s ability to deeply engage the community, which is a key driver to solutions of public health problems and much of what has inspired Dr. Mackenzie in her work.
The HIV/AIDS Epidemic and Continuing Research
Throughout the course of her work, Dr. Mackenzie has seen major shifts in the HIV epidemic. In the early 1990s, the HIV virus was viewed as a death sentence. Community activism and it’s pressure on the government and it’s agencies for availability and accessibility of effective treatments was instrumental in moving forward. Biomedical advances led to the transformation of HIV/AIDS from certain death to a chronic illness, allowing people to live long and healthy lives. However, Dr. Mackenzie notes, this shift can also lead to a false sense of complacency; people may feel they’re not at risk and omit the use of preventative measures. Although HIV is now part of the world, leaving no part of the globe untouched, HIV is still an epidemic with multiple forms and levels of stigma.
Dr. Mackenzie’s work focuses on bisexual African American men and their women partners. Bisexual African American men have the highest incidence rate in contracting HIV. Her research follows her book, Structural Intimacies: Sexual Stories in the Black AIDS Epidemic, which takes an in depth look at structural inequalities related to the HIV epidemic. Through her 5 year National Institute of Mental Health funded grant, Dr. Mackenzie hopes to unveil the deeper complexities related to sexuality and HIV risk in this population in order to help develop better HIV prevention methods for everyone.
Teaching at Santa Clara University
Dr. Mackenzie says her favorite aspect of teaching is being a part of the learning process with students. She enjoys putting together the different components of a syllabus and thinking about materials that will open up conversations with, and for, the students; there is not just one way of presenting the information she teaches. Her classes are not simply about checking right answers in a box, they are about starting a dialog for students to think critically and understanding key frameworks for understanding. She enjoys the insights students at SCU bring to these dialogues and praises the thoughts her students have brought to the classroom, noting that she has found the insights to be “dynamic”.
It is her hope that all of her students leave her classes with a critical mind that allows them to find new ways to think about the world and public health, along with a sense of passion about the role they can play as agents for social change. To her, public health is not just about acquiring skills; “it’s about harnessing this knowledge for the interest of social justice.”