Rainier Masa

Rainier Masa is an assistant professor in the UNC School of Social Work. He studies the intersection of socioeconomic precarity, stigma, and HIV in adolescents and young adults.

Rainier Masaphoto by Megan May
October 13th, 2021

Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A: A teacher, then a lawyer, and later a foreign service officer. I also thought it would be awesome to become a travel TV host. As a kid, I was a huge geography geek, so I wanted to do something that involved people and places.

Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

A: People I knew when I was growing up in the Philippines routinely lacked resources — both material and nonmaterial — to prevent disease before it occurs. Families were unable to access or utilize preventive care because they were unable pay for the costs. As a result, some peers contracted or died from preventable, and neglected, tropical and infectious diseases linked to poverty, such as rabies and dengue fever.

Rainier Masa and his mother

In 2016, Masa took his mom to New York City for the first time.

I wanted to help, but I did not know how and which field of study to pursue that. It was not until I learned more about social work, especially its community development practice, that I found what to study. Then in graduate school, I was inspired to learn research by generating and using evidence to improve health and decrease resource deprivation. Since then, I have been given opportunities to be part of a helping profession that allows me to combine my interests in travel, people, places, and research.

Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

A: My work reminds me to practice what I teach and preach. People in low-resource communities have multiple competing needs and priorities. I believe in valuing these priorities, and their expertise, by genuinely and intentionally involving them in different aspects of research. This undertaking takes time, and projects might get delayed. But that partnership ensures the longevity of the project and its impact, and a collaborative relationship with community partners eventually results in more projects and collaborations.

Q: Describe your research in 5 words.

A: Healthy youth are wealthy youth.

Q: What are your passions outside of research?

A: Travel — but I have not been able to do so since the pandemic began. My last non-work-related trip was in 2019, when my partner and I went to Namibia. We drove nearly 1,200 miles across the country in 10 days. It was one of the best trips we have had. I also enjoy collecting fragrances. There are so many things I do not know about them, but through my trial and error, I have learned to appreciate their notes and the ones I enjoy.

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