Senior Maria Emilia Mazzolenis, a native of Argentina, uses her skills in behavioral economics and data science to help others.
Maria Emilia Mazzolenis says the weekly chemistry experiments her mother exposed her to as a child ignited her curiosity for research.
Mazzolenis moved to North Carolina when she was 17, after graduating from high school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She completed an associate’s degree at Wake Technical Community College before transferring to UNC-Chapel Hill, a university she was drawn to because of “its strong emphasis on research.”
She will graduate in December with double majors in economics and psychology and a minor in statistics and analytics. She has served as a research consultant in the department of economics and as a research assistant at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
When the pandemic hit, Mazzolenis had an opportunity to work with Jane Fruehwirth, an associate professor of economics and a fellow at the Carolina Population Center, on a project examining the early effects of COVID-19 on students’ mental health.
Fruehwirth and her team found that first-year college students were reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety more often than they were before the pandemic; the study was published this spring in the journal PLOS ONE. Mazzolenis was a member of the research team.
“Not only did we study mental illness prevalence and help-seeking behaviors among students, but we also evaluated the disparities across gender, race and ethnicity, sexual or gender identity and first-generation college students,” said Mazzolenis, who is interested in behavioral economics. “It’s important to understand what is happening here at Carolina. Resources are limited, so we need to be strategic in how we allocate them.”
Adapting to new ways of learning and collaborating with others during a pandemic was not easy, but Mazzolenis said the experience taught her to be thankful for the support system that she has.
“My family and I were healthy and living in the United States allowed me to have access to vaccines more quickly than most people in my home country,” she said. “I tried to stay connected to my family back home because they are an important part of my life.”
Mazzolenis also works in the lab of Bharathi Zvara, an associate professor of maternal and child health at Gillings. And she is co-authoring a paper with Fruehwirth on the effects of different types of stress on important health behaviors during the transition to college.
Conducting research alongside professors has been an amazing experience, she said.
“It is extremely exciting to see how the focus changes as we conduct research,” she said. “You start with one question, and then, as you continue studying and analyzing data, one question grows into so many more.”
An introduction to statistics class led Mazzolenis to pursue a minor in statistics and to discover a love for data science.
“I have interests in many different fields, and I love how interdisciplinary data science can be,” she said. “I see the potential of helping people by analyzing data and communicating the findings in a way that inspires people to make a change.”
Mazzolenis has had internships at Lenovo and IBM; after graduation she will intern at General Electric. She also plans to apply to a data science graduate program.
As she looks ahead to Winter Commencement, Mazzolenis said it’s the Carolina people whom she is thankful for, and the connections she developed with both professors and peers.
“Most of my close friends are from different continents — Asia, the Americas, Europe. We come from different paths, but we’re all together here at UNC,” she said. “Just hanging out together or studying together — it’s all about who you are with. That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”
By Kim Spurr, College of Arts & Sciences