Dara HALL Mendez, Ph.D. ’98, Epidemiologist

An Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, Dara HALL Mendez, Ph.D ’98 is a social and perinatal epidemiologist, researcher, and advocate for women’s, maternal, and infant health. With a focus on approaches to achieve health equity, Dara explores the complex intersections between stress, racism, neighborhoods, and contexts to better understand racial and ethnic inequities in pregnancy, birth, and women’s health. Her work has been funded by the Aetna Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. In addition to her research, Dara serves on Pennsylvania’s newly formed Maternal Mortality Review Committee and is an executive member and research lead of the Infant Mortality Collaborative for Allegheny County and Advisory Board Member for Women Engaged. A champion for women’s reproductive health and well-being, Dara shares more about her work, her time in the Upper School, and how The Ellis School influenced her career path.
Years at Ellis:Grade 9 to Grade 12
Occupation:Assistant Professor of Epidemiology
Education:B.A. Sociology and Anthropology, Spelman College; M.P.H. Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology, University of North Carolina; Ph.D. Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology, University of North Carolina

Did your time at The Ellis School influence your decision to go into public health and more specifically focus on women’s health? If no, how did you specialize your research on women’s issues?
Yes, The Ellis School absolutely had an influence. Although I did not have the language at the time to describe my interests in the field of public health, my Ellis biology and chemistry teachers introduced me to several opportunities such as the summer science program in ecology and marine biology at Chatham University and the summer science program in Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University, which all contributed to my development as a researcher and public health scientist. Since my experience at Ellis was focused on the centering the experiences of girls and women, this also helped to influence my interest in the health of women and children.  

How did you get into your line of work?
I first started conducting formal scientific research as a high school student and always had a love for asking questions and trying to solve problems. I was introduced to the field of public health while at Spelman College where I discovered that I wanted to contribute to improving the health of communities through prevention and by changing systems.

How did your Ellis education guide you after graduation?
Ellis set the foundation for me as a researcher and academic writer. We were constantly writing and using various forms of communication in every class we took, which is a skill I use readily in my current profession. We also learned the art of inquiry and questioning, which has been critical in almost every aspect of my life.

Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most meaningful in your career.
A recent accomplishment that I hope will have a tremendous impact on women’s health in Pennsylvania is that I was recently appointed by the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health to serve on the newly formed Maternal Mortality Review Committee.
What is your best memory of Ellis?
One memory is that my friends and I started a step team at Ellis called the E’Tigs. We would go to sporting events, field day, and other school events to step, cheer on the teams, and generate school spirit. I also remember our junior year history project as if it were yesterday: our instructor divided us into two groups where we had to explore key events during either the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Movement and develop a short film. I was in the group focused on the Civil Rights Movement and we focused on school segregation and desegregation in Pittsburgh. I was actually able to interview some of my own family members for the project. It was a tremendous learning experience to see history come to life.

For Ellis students reading this: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
My best advice is to continue to reflect on who you are, what you enjoy, and what makes you excited about life. Be yourself, unapologetically.

What do you think are the advantages of The Ellis School’s all-girls environment?
I believe all-girls environments like Ellis can be a safe space for growth and development without the constant influence of gender-based oppression and inequity. The Ellis School was a space where brilliant girls (and women) excelling in science, math, and technology, was the norm. I also think because of Ellis, I was open to the possibility of attending an all-women college, Spelman College. Spelman is a Historically-Black College/University (HBCU), which allowed me to grow as a woman and specifically a Black woman.

Name an instance or time in your life when you have been brave and bold.
When I was in college, I was part of an organization called the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance. We organized the first “Take Back the Night” march and speak-out, which was focused on awareness of sexual assault and awareness. We marched to the various public safety offices at the nearby campuses to discuss our purpose and to ask the officers to discuss their policy and process for supporting a woman who reports a sexual assault. The responses from the public safety offices were inadequate, to say the least. We were all brave and bold to call attention to the matter not only at our campus but surrounding campuses.

We often talk about girls using their voice at Ellis, what does that mean to you? How do you use your voice? And how did you gain the agency to do so?
Using your voice means knowing yourself, your truth and living in that with whatever you do— in your actions and your speech. I use my voice to speak about racial equity, maternal and infant health, and to create a university environment that is more equitable and inclusive. I think of it less so than “gaining” agency but rather knowing that I have the power to change myself and the environment around me.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Passionate. Personable. Analytical.

What is the last book you read?
I usually read several things at once. I recently finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Kindred by Octavia Butler. I am now reading Just Medicine by Dayna Bowen-Matthew and On the Other Side: African Americans Tell of Healing by Alita Anderson.