Brilliant Mind, Kinder Heart

An FSPH doctoral student recounts the many ways — both personal and professional — the late Dr. Steve Wallace set her on the path to success.

Dr. Steve Wallace shaking hands with a graduating student
Iris Y. Guzman-Ruiz, MPH ’17, is a PhD student in UCLA Fielding’s Department of Community Health Sciences and a graduate student researcher at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. She is the project coordinator for the center’s RIGHTS project.

I MET PROFESSOR, Steve Wallace when I was a first-year MPH student in the Department of Community Health Sciences — he was my MPH academic adviser, and later became my PhD mentor. We developed important papers and policy briefs on Latino and immigrant health during the six years we worked together, and he was always generous with his time, providing substantive feedback on my writing and ideas. In addition to his mentorship, Steve helped me secure funding for school.

I worked closely with Steve on the Research on ImmiGrant HealTh and State policy (RIGHTS) project. He had a brilliant mind and an even kinder heart. Steve respected and valued every single person at the table, from senior faculty members to graduate and undergraduate students to community health workers. And he was passionate about improving the health of the populations we studied and collaborated with. Often, he’d turn to the quietest member on the project to ask about their opinion, ensuring everyone’s voice was heard and incorporating everyone’s feedback into the project. I miss our daily interactions, especially our serendipitous encounters in the kitchen at FSPH’s UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. 

Steve was more than just my academic adviser; he was my greatest advocate in the PhD program. During my first year, I took a leave of absence to care for my mom after she was diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing intensive treatment. Steve not only gave me the space I needed to care for her, but he did so with empathy. He went out of his way to ensure that I wouldn’t lose my health insurance by going on leave. Steve cared about the well-being of all of his students. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to isolate, he created a virtual social community for all of his advisees to connect and feel a true sense of belonging. He called it “Happy Hour” — we met monthly to share and reflect on our experiences in the program and with COVID-19 in general. 

I talked to Steve the day before he unexpectedly passed away. We discussed my projects and creating an accountability system for writing. He cared deeply about my success and gently guided me along the path from student to independent researcher.

I cannot express how thankful I am for Steve’s mentorship these past six years. I encountered many setbacks, and could not have done as well as I did without his support. While I can’t imagine finishing the PhD program without him, Steve set me up for success. He opened opportunity structures critical for my advancement, including access to networks that would otherwise be inaccessible to me. Steve left a lasting impact on me both personally and professionally, and I am proud to continue his work with the same care and compassion he showed.