College/School/Department: School of Medicine, Department of Public Health Sciences
Additional Appointments: Chief of Epidemiology
What made you choose Davis?
My research program leverages population science and epidemiology to inform cognitive and brain aging in diverse populations that historically have been excluded from research. UC Davis offers the perfect amalgamation of cutting-edge research science, multiple graduate programs, an undergraduate minor encompassing public health, a large array of brain and neuroscience research, an excellent medical school, an Alzheimer’s disease center and top-notch undergraduates. These are the ingredients I was looking for in the next step of my career. I started at UC Davis in May of this year and am proud to report that I was the first female Target of Excellence hire to the School of Medicine. The changes that have occurred at Davis in the last 18 years, since I was here as a graduate student, are immense and expansive. UC Davis is one of the most innovative places to be for science today.
UC Davis is a family affair for Rachel. She obtained her Ph.D. here, and her husband, Ralf Holdenried, also attended UC Davis, obtaining his bachelor’s in enology and his MBA here. He was the inaugural UC Davis Flossfeder scholar, a fellowship program specifically set up to fund German exchange students from Geisenheim, a winemaking school in Germany. This fellowship has since funded more than 20 students from Germany, and each year students from Geisenheim University come to UC Davis to study.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by the excitement right now in the field around dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. We are at a crossroads where we know we have a tall order, and there is an impending dementia epidemic, but at the same time, there is rapidly evolving information on how to measure brain health in vivo and understand early life risk factors.
I’m also inspired by my mentees: students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty who are making an impact in dementia and brain health research. Team science is the best science and mentoring is bidirectional. My mentees continually inspire me and help me directly evolve in our science.
What research are you currently working on? What makes it unique?
The goal of our lab (@Prof_R_Whitmer) is to utilize population science and epidemiology to understand why some individuals get dementia and others do not. The lab focuses on ethno-racial and social disparities in cognitive aging and dementia, life-course contributions to brain health, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and metabolic and vascular influences on brain aging. We focus on populations that have traditionally not been included in brain-aging research, including racial/ethnic minorities and those with chronic disease such as diabetes mellitus. Most of what we know today about dementia and brain health is based on studies of highly educated white people – we are changing that. We currently have four NIH-funded cohort studies in diverse communities, evaluating brain health in more than 4,000 individuals. In early 2019, we will launch the U.S. POINTER here in Davis and Sacramento. U.S. POINTER is a multidomain behavioral clinical trial to prevent cognitive decline funded by the Alzheimer’s Association. U.S. POINTER is the first randomized trial of behavior change to prevent cognitive decline in the United States.
If you could impart one piece of advice to our undergraduates seeking a course of study/career path, what would it be?
Students today are under an enormous amount of pressure, and I worry that there isn’t enough risk taking. My advise is: take risks, take that class that seems interesting but you don’t know much about, seek opportunities that inspire you but are challenging and interesting. If possible, work with faculty and get your hands-on work experience. This will guide you in your journey of seeking what you enjoy. If you already have a passion, follow it and don’t let competitive statistics daunt you. College should be a time of discovery – it’s impossible to have been exposed to every subject in high school. I had no idea what epidemiology was in high school, and if someone had told my 17-year-old self I would end up as a scientist and professor, I likely would have laughed. I also want to put in a plug for science in general. We need more women and individuals from diverse backgrounds represented in science now more than ever.
When not in the classroom or conducting research, what do you like to do?
Spend time hiking with my family and our dog, or spending time on a soccer field watching one of my son’s games.
Have you found your favorite spot on campus yet?
I love the arboretum and the botanical gardens.