Maja Pedersen

Maja Pedersen

Maja Pedersen

Where is your hometown?

Fairbanks, Alaska

What is your education background?

Pacific Lutheran University

  • B.S. Physical Education (Health and Fitness Management emphasis)
  • B.A. Scandinavian Studies

The University of Montana

  • M.S. Health and Human Performance (Community Health emphasis)

What program are you enrolled in at UM?

PhD in Public Health

What brought you to Missoula?

I had always heard positive rumors about this town and I knew good people who had really enjoyed living here. When I was looking for a graduate degree in a place where I could also get engaged in the local community and spend time in the woods, it seemed like the obvious choice.

As a Ph.D. student, what is your role within the SPCHS Department? (TA/RA?)

I have a Research Assistantship with Kari Harris for the American Indian / Alaska Native Clinical Translational Research (AI/AN CTR) project. I feel thankful that I get to be engaged in ongoing, multi-institutional collaborative research; I learn something new with each task I am assigned for this project, and have enjoyed getting to know the faculty and staff involved.

How long have you been attending the University of Montana and the SPCHS?

I started in January 2017.

Have you been involved with any research projects associated with UM or surrounding communities?

I am currently involved with four research projects across departments at UM:

  • (1)American Indian / Alaska Native Clinical Translational Research, this program is funded in cooperation with NIH to explore health disparities in Native communities in Alaska and Montana, I am involved in the Pilot Core with Dr. Kari Harris.
  • (2) Growing Strong Generations, a USDA NIFA project to reduce childhood obesity of the Flathead Indian Reservation through teaching kids about growing and eating fresh foods with Dr. Blakely Brown.
  • (3) Partnerships to Prevent Childhood Obesity on the Flathead Indian Reservation, an NIH R13 study to develop partnerships between the University of Montana and community organizations and residents on the Flathead Indian Reservation to implement interventions that decrease risk of obesity in children living on the Flathead Reservation with Dr. Blakely Brown.
  • (4) The Willow Project, an NSF AGEP project is an alliance between The University of Montana, Salish Kootenai College (MT), and Sitting Bull College (ND), to advance the success of Native faculty in STEM sciences, working with Dr. Blakely Brown.

What has your previous educational background done to prepare you for your current degree?

I study chronic disease risk and health behavior, and am interested specifically in lifestyle behaviors (nutrition, physical activity) among rural populations. My previous education has provided a strong foundation of human physiology, lifespan psychology, program development, and health behavior theory. This foundation of content in my specific interest areas allows me to now focus on cultivating and strengthening my skills in research methods, idea synthesis, and the scientific process.

Did you always know you wanted to pursue this degree?

It was really a combination of things, with no exact ‘AHA’ moment, but instead a steady layering of experiences that eventually laid a clear path for me.

My father is a biologist with an inquisitive and thoughtful approach to life and the natural world, while my mother studied communication and observes the human experience in an imaginative and hopeful way. Collectively they taught me enthusiastic yet pragmatic ways of thinking about humans, culture, the environment, and health, and fostered a thirst for knowledge and exploration. This foundation carried me through my degrees, international scholarship opportunities and travel, and clinical experiences working with diverse groups.

It has always seemed a natural fit for me to dedicate my time and energy to sciences and research, but I would not feel as confident about my decision to do a PhD were it not for the range of professional experiences that have provided me with the “real world” motivation for studying health behavior and health promotion throughout the lifespan.

As an exercise physiologist in cardiac rehabilitation across two hospitals and a diabetes educator across three distinct platforms (a large hospital diabetes care program, a community-based Diabetes Prevention Program, and a Federally Qualified Health Center diabetes care program), I learned how behavior is shaped directly from the narratives of patients in primary or secondary disease prevention programs. I felt privileged to hear life stories and gain insight about chronic disease development/management from demographically diverse groups.

After gaining this rich experience in clinical care and education, and based on my early interest in science and ecological influences of human behavior, I was confident that my next step was to learn the evidence behind culturally and contextually meaningful health behavior change interventions through a PhD.

If you give your 18-year-old-self one piece of advice about pursuing a college degree, what would it be?

Start doing internships and job shadowing as soon as possible, and complete these experiences across a range of professions you think you might be interested in. Being interested in a field is one thing, while applying that knowledge and skill in the workforce is another. It is important to have insight into job possibilities and what the day-to-day activities may look like for professions available within your field of study.

Also, search your “dream job” position announcements and look at the required and preferred credentials. This way, you have a general “map” of what education you need to accomplish and experience to gain to make yourself an excellent candidate.

What’s your favorite aspect of your involvement as a student (and researcher) at University of Montana?

I am thankful that I had a faculty member reach-out to me after I had applied for a Master’s degree here. I have since developed a strong mentor relationship with this faculty member and several others; my favorite aspect of my involvement as a student and researcher here is the mentorship I have received from inspiring and thoughtful social scientists across campus. We do regular walking meetings outside, go on road trips to communities across the state for field work together, and know one another’s families and past-times. These relationships have helped guide my evolution as a scientist-in-training; I have great role models for creativity, integrity, authenticity, and scientific rigor.

Lastly, one benefit students at UM enjoy is the natural beauty surrounding the campus community; I am awestruck daily by the proximity and accessibility of our rivers, forests, and mountains. Missoula is a healthy and exhilarating place to learn and live.

MT Public Health Conference

MT Public Health Conference

What is the most challenging aspect of your degree program and how do you find the positives in it?

The most challenging aspect of the degree program is also one of the most wonderful aspects of the program; the freedom! As someone working toward the goal of becoming an independent researcher, I am glad to be learning how to create my own structure and discipline, and ask for help when I need it.

This freedom can be intimidating, and the motivation to progress must come from within - there is no one telling me what to do or how to create my ideal career. Through this freedom, I have also deepened my understanding of humility; I have a natural tendency toward independence, so recognizing a need and asking for help, advice, or feedback is a significant (and necessary) learning process.

Since starting this degree program at UM, what has surprised you the most?

I have been surprised by the variety of interests across my fellow Public Health PhD students; we are a group with diverse passions, and it is always enlightening to hear what others get excited about.

What is the “ultimate goal” after receiving your Ph.D. from UM?

I appreciate the spirit of academia, and the energy accompanying scientific inquiry and education. I hope to attain a tenure-track faculty position at an academic institution where I can dedicate time and energy to a research program in health behavior and aging, while also providing quality education to the next generations of health professionals.

When you’re not doing field work, researching, or attending classes what’s your favorite activity/hobby?

Playing soccer, baking (and eating!) cookies, hiking, listening to “This American Life” and “On-Being” podcasts, drinking coffee, cross-country skiing, or soaking in backcountry hot springs.

 pedersen jumping

How have the faculty at UM, specifically SPCHS helped/supported you with your degree program?

SPCHS program faculty have asked me important questions to get to know me and my interests and have proven to be available and responsive when I have questions about the program or need guidance on research ideas. One specific element about our program that I enjoy is the sense of humor and conviviality among the faculty and staff in our program; meetings usually include smiles and laughs, and especially when we are deep into the semester and all of us are busy and tired, it is nice to have that ability to laugh and smile together.

If a prospective student asked you about your time thus far at UM, what would you say?

I would tell prospective students that my experience has been positive; I chose this program carefully and after cultivating relationships based on shared interests and values with potential advisors within the Public Health I would tell prospective students that my experience has been positive; I chose this program carefully and after cultivating relationships based on shared interests and values with potential advisors within the Public Health core and program faculty.  In my time here, my choice has been reaffirmed as I find the program and this institution rich with opportunity for diverse research and educational experiences, the quality of life high, and the Missoula community warm and engaging.   

One piece of advice to students thinking about getting applying to a Ph.D. program?

I might be starting to sound like a broken record, but my advice would be to look through the department faculty research interests, find a few that might align with your basic interests, and schedule meetings or phone conversations with those faculty.

The relationships we build with faculty members are of the utmost importance for guidance and support throughout the lengthy degree process. Working with a mentor with whom you share interests and values means that you are more likely to get involved in her/his research projects, and that she/he is going to be more invested in your research development and able to provide wise advice in your area.