Q&A: Health Media Innovation director Maya Adam says non-traditional innovators can help solve global health challenges

March 8, 2021, 10:07 p.m.

The Daily sat down with Maya Adam ’04, the director of Stanford’s Health Media Innovation and leader of the Global Child Health Media Initiative. Her background includes a period of being a professional ballerina and a career in medicine, which informs several of her current initiatives at the intersection of art and health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she created videos to raise awareness about mask-wearing and vaccines. One of her animations, “The Great Race: A COVID-19 Story,” has over 2 million views on Youtube. She has also created videos about Kangaroo Mother Care and Health Across the Gender Spectrum.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up?

Maya Adam [MA]: I grew up between Canada and South Africa. My mother is an Indian South-African and my father is originally German. So I grew up with an understanding, right from the beginning, that I was a citizen of the world rather than a citizen of any one country. Because I grew up in other parts of the world, I learned that I couldn’t make assumptions about what people believed or how they might feel. That’s helped me to keep a global perspective when I’m thinking of the right story to convey any given health message.

TSD: How does your background in art and dance influence your work today?

MA: I danced professionally for almost 10 years, in between high school and college. My years as a ballet dancer in a German state theater taught me to think of every communication as a little performance. It has to engage the audience. That’s the first priority, because if the seats are empty,  if nobody’s listening, then it doesn’t matter how reliable your information is. It’s not going to get through. 

TSD: How did you make the transition from dance to medicine?

MA: I was in my late twenties, and a lot of my colleagues who were in their thirties were starting to get injured, retire and do things that didn’t necessarily make them happy. For example, a lot of them became ballet teachers, even though they didn’t really love teaching. I didn’t want to think about it as the end of a happy life, and I remember wondering what would happen if I got the chance to go to a really great university. 

I was on stage when someone came to me with this big envelope. When I opened it, it said, “You’ve been admitted to the Stanford Class of 2004,” and I honestly couldn’t believe that I had gotten in.  In my experience, when you make the decision to pursue something, it always feels better than when that decision is made for you. I think, in some ways, it made it easier to leave ballet because I had something else that I was excited to pursue. 

TSD: Tell me about your journey through medical school. How did you discover which aspects of medicine interested you most?

I started medical school when I was thirty and had two children in medical school, so that was a really busy and stressful time for me. But my own life was very much focused on young children and their health was a huge priority for me, so that drew me to children’s health. My love of media innovation and audience engagement has always been there, so my work today is a combination of those passions.

TSD: Tell me a bit about what you’re involved in right now, particularly with COVID-19. What do you think are the biggest challenges with regards to educating children and families about health right now? Where do you see gaps? 

MA: Right now, I believe that our biggest challenge lies in reaching audiences who are skeptical consumers of science-driven information, or those who just wouldn’t go out of their way to ensure that the information they’re receiving is reliable. Those are the audiences that often fall prey to misinformation, just because it’s presented in a way that is accessible to them. So our communication strategies need to be equally accessible, equally compelling and attractive and easy to consume, while remaining fact-based and science-driven.

TSD: What does your content creation process look like? 

MA: I always start with the human angle of any health message: how will the successful communication of the message positively impact people? Why is it needed? Then, I use that story to inform the communication strategy. I have always believed that if we want to change people’s minds, we need to touch their hearts first, and there’s nothing more powerful than human stories for doing that.

TSD: What do you see as the impact of your work?

MA: Our story-based online content has reached people all over the world. Currently, our Coursera audience consists of more than 500,000 people in more than 70 countries and our COVID animations have reached almost two million people, just counting the ones who have viewed the content on the Stanford Medicine YouTube channel. Those videos are wordless — they’re just brought to life by a compelling soundtrack — so they can go global rapidly via social media, and that’s what we’ve seen happen. We’ve also received hundreds of emails from health authorities, cultural centers and media outlets in different countries, asking if they can repost the content. The answer is always “yes” and “thank you so much for helping us spread this around the world!”

TSD: What are some challenges you’ve faced throughout your career, and what have you learned from them? What advice would you give to undergrads or people who think they might want to go into medicine?

MA: If you think medicine is the right path for you, it’s never too late to start. I was thirty when I started my medical degree and I’m so happy I have that education to inform my current work. Second piece of advice: you don’t have to always choose the beaten path. If you feel like you want to invent a new career — maybe because you have passions that set you up for an interdisciplinary career path — then go for it. We need non-traditional implementers to solve our increasingly non-traditional problems. Don’t ever think that one of your passions is frivolous or has no place in your work life. Everything you spend time mastering can add to your professional capacity for impact in the world.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Sophia Nesamoney is from Atherton, California. She is a STEM Research Reporter who hopes to pursue careers in medicine and creative writing. Contact her at nsophia ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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