Career Profile: Sonia Arbona

Dr. Sonia Arbona has worked as an epidemiologist with the Texas Department of Health, HIV/STD Epidemiology Division in Austin since 1998. Her degrees in geography include a B.A. from the University of Puerto Rico in her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a masters and Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Sonia has also been member of the Medical Geography and Latin American Specialty Groups. Prior to her work in the public sector, for six years she was an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Shippensburg University (Pennsylvania), and the University of Puerto Rico.

This profile was published in 2003. Sonia is currently a medical geographer with the Texas Department of State Health TB/HIV/STD unit's Information and Projects Group. 

AAG: What does your work as epidemiologist entail?

Sonia: I design and conduct advanced epidemiological research, mostly evaluating populations and their risk factors for HIV/AIDS and other STDs. I also prepare and present research findings on HIV/STD issues in reports, professional journals, national conferences, and state meetings and develop proposals to conduct epidemiological investigations through federal grant funding. For the Texas Department of Health, I serve as a technical expert and consultant on statistical design, epidemiologic methodology and analysis, interpretation of data, and epidemiologic soundness.

AAG: How does geography figure into your work?

Sonia: I use geographical analysis and apply GIS to epidemiological investigations of HIV/AIDS and other STDs. Funds for the GIS come mainly from Centers for Disease Control (CDC) grants. What I’m working on now is an application of GIS to identify core areas of transmission in large metro areas like Dallas and Houston; (I’m) designing a methodology.

AAG: Do you work with other geographers, too?

Sonia: The entire bureau has about eighty people, of which the division of epidemiology has about forty. There are six epidemiologists, most of whom do use spatial analysis, but it’s not a focus. So there are a few other geographers in the Texas Department of Health, but at the place I am, I am the only one… I am the lonely wolf in that sense. [laughs]

AAG: Has this been a challenge?

Sonia: I have learned not to be afraid of the title they give you, you can still apply your geographic perspective and training. The fact that people are becoming more familiar with GIS makes it easier for non-geographers to understand what I do. On the other hand, sometimes you are known as the “map maker” so it takes a little bit of education and showing by example what geographers really do.

AAG: What inspired you to move into the public sector?

Sonia: Working in the public health field had always been of interest to me. Ultimately it was an opportunity that resembled my dream of working in public health. This coincided with other personal changes. My son was born the same week I started the job. Now I have two Texans in my life – my husband is also a geographer, a system analyst at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

AAG: What do you see as the main differences between life in academia and the public sector?

Sonia: The big difference is that geographers usually collect their own data, but here I am using secondary data already collected by the agency, with all the implications and constraints for research that this brings. However, in our work, we get feedback from community planning groups on our research that is valuable. As for publishing, my work goes into journals of public health. I can attend some conferences, but we do have a more restricted budget for travel in the public sector.

AAG: You have been a member of the AAG for quite some time.

Sonia: Yes, I’ve been a member for many years, since I was a student twelve or fifteen years ago.

AAG: Why have you chosen to maintain your membership?

Sonia: Well, I’m a geographer. AAG membership gives me news of what’s happening at the national level and even though I’m no longer participating in the academic world, I gain lots of insights, and it gives me ideas for my research and for potential collaboration.

AAG: What type of collaboration?

Sonia: There is room for collaboration with other states and other countries – particularly Mexico. Right now we’re just talking about potential collaborations but nothing has materialized yet. The idea might be described as targeting migrating populations at risk for HIV in order to do preventative work.

AAG: So how are the prospects for geographers in public health?

Sonia: Individuals like me are working outside the university, outside academia. That means that geographers, in addition to contributing their perspectives and research, are working with serious applications and are welcomed in other environments. Geography is alive and well.

Dr. Patricia Solis, 2003