Briana Stephenson ‘07 was Course 18 (Mathematics) and a four-year varsity athlete on the women’s volleyball team at MIT, and is currently wrapping up her postdoc in Biostatistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
While her education and subsequent career path has brought her back to Cambridge (this time as an Assistant Professor at Harvard), the lessons she learned as a student-athlete at MIT were with her all the way. Hear more from Briana and what she has in store for the future in our latest conversation with one of our amazing alums!
If you can recall, why did you choose to attend MIT?
When I was applying for colleges, and still aspiring to be a medical doctor, I asked my pediatrician for her advice on where to apply. She told me “go to MIT because they’ll kick your butt, but when you get to grad school, you’ll feel the most prepared.”
What piece of advice would you have for current MIT student-athletes?
Embrace change and be open to new opportunities. When I first got to MIT, on the volleyball team, I started as a middle blocker. In the classroom, I was focused on my pre-med studies and becoming a medical doctor. Half way through my college career, Coach Dill moved me to outside hitter. Even though I had never played that position in a game setting, I embraced the challenge, and was surprised how easily I adapted. At the same time, academically, I was being exposed to other career opportunities under the applied mathematics track (18-2) that piqued my interest. So, if an opportunity presents itself that seems contrary to your “original plan”, don’t dismiss it. You never know what lies ahead. Where I am now is a result of not being afraid to change course and forge through the uncharted.
What is your most fond memory of MIT athletics?
Hosting the NCAA tournament my senior year in Rockwell Cage. It was the largest crowd we had ever seen at home. The school even brought in additional bleachers to accommodate the crowd. We made it all the way to the regional semifinal game (sweet 16). It felt like the culmination of four amazing seasons filled with hard work, sweat, and tears with this team. Even though we didn’t have the outcome we wanted, I was grateful to be able to close out my college career on our home court surrounded by my family, fans, and friends.
Where is your current place of employment?
Currently, I am finishing up my postdoc at UNC Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center. As of July 2019, I will be working at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
What is your current job title and what does that position entail?
Currently, my job title is postdoctoral research associate. I am working on the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, researching Bayesian nonparametric clustering techniques to improve our understanding of dietary behaviors of migrant Hispanic/Latino populations in the United States and its association with cardiovascular disease outcomes. When I start my position at Harvard, I will be teaching, mentoring/advising graduate students, as well as continuing my research on flexible clustering models to accommodate large, diverse populations (like the United States).
How did your athletic involvement aid in the path that you chose following graduation?
Let me start by saying, I still play volleyball competitively in adult leagues. When feeling stressed by deadlines at work, volleyball has been a great outlet for release. It also has been the fastest way for me to meet new people and familiarize myself when relocating to a new city. My work involves a lot of interdisciplinary and collaborative research. The team-building skills that I developed from volleyball were immediately transferrable to my research groups. As the saying goes, “teamwork makes the dream work”.
What would you say were your greatest athletic and academic accomplishments during your time at MIT?
Having the privilege to be a part of an amazing volleyball program that grew immensely in the four years that I was there, while still graduating on schedule was an accomplishment in itself. It was an honor to be surrounded by so many brilliant minds and make connections that I still maintain today. Making the all-tournament team at one of our home invitationals made the journey that much sweeter. Being able to play a sport I love and study a field I am passionate about gave me the most fulfilling college experience I could ever imagine.
What was your favorite non-athletics activity at MIT?
My favorite non-athletic activity was Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated (a national public service organization). This was a city-wide chapter that comprised of college women from 8 Cambridge-area universities. It gave me the opportunity to connect with other students on surrounding area campuses, as well as invest in the greater Boston/Cambridge community through various projects and programs.
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