Maria Oquendo, M.D.: "I think perhaps the most important thing
I've been able to achieve is the establishment of a very close collaboration
with research groups in other countries."
Photo courtesy of Maria Oquendo, M.D.
Maria Oquendo, M.D., is pursuing a vibrant psychiatric career at Columbia
University. As a professor of clinical psychiatry, she conducts full-time
research and teaches courses in cross-cultural psychiatry and affective
disorders. As vice chair of education, she oversees all programs for medical
students, residents, and clinical and research fellows pursuing psychiatric
She is also making some valuable research contributions, psychiatrists who
know her attest.
She is a leading authority on cross-cultural psychiatry in the United
States, Deborah Cabaniss, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry
at Columbia, said in an interview.
Charles Nemeroff, M.D., chair of psychiatry at Emory University, told
Psychiatric News that her major research contributions have been"
identification of neurobiological markers in suicide and translational
research in suicide and depression that spans the bench and the
"Her work on the basic neurobiology of bipolar disorder and the
clinical implications of suicidality in mood disorders has been an important
contribution to the field," Madhukar Trivedi, M.D., a professor of
psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, noted.
In Oquendo's opinion, one of the most important discoveries that she and
her research colleagues have made is the discrepancy between the high rates of
depression in Hispanics, especially Puerto Ricans, and their low rates of
"This finding presents an opportunity for us to learn about what
kinds of things—cultural, genetic, or otherwise—protect some
groups from suicide," she said.
Oquendo's achievements are the culmination of a life's journey that started
in Spain. She was born there in 1960 to a Spanish mother and a Puerto Rican
father, grew up in Puerto Rico, went to college at Tufts University in
Massachusetts, attended medical school at Columbia University, did her
psychiatry residency at Cornell University, and became a full-fledged
psychiatrist in 1988. After that, she joined the faculty of Columbia
Colleagues attribute her various achievements to a number of
"She is very articulate, diligent, innovative, and a superb clinical
researcher addressing some of the most important, clinically relevant topics
in mood disorders," Trivedi said.
"She is persistent to the point of doggedness, able to remain calm
under stress, and able to make decisions quickly," Robert
LewisFernandez, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia
"She is excellent with group dynamics," Cabaniss pointed out."
Her savvy in that area really helps her as an administrator, I think.
Also, she has a hearty laugh that is infectious and wonderful. I think people
really gravitate to her because of that."
Oquendo is also a risk taker in the best sense of the term. At age 35, she
had what she describes as "a very interesting, comfortable, and secure
job"—heading up the psychiatric community service unit at
Columbia, where most of the patients were Hispanic. At this point, according
to Cabaniss, she was also considered one of the leading experts on
cross-cultural psychiatry in the United States. Yet Oquendo approached a
psychiatric researcher at Columbia, John Mann, M.D., and said that she would
like to study depression in the Hispanic population. Mann said that it was
difficult to do psychiatric research only part time, but if she was willing to
make a full-time commitment, she could join his research team. So she thought
about it for several days; talked it over with her husband, Dana Cazzulino,
Ph.D., a biochemical engineer; and then decided to take the risk.
"This was not going to be an easy path, but I decided that it was
time for a change and that I was ready to take it on," she said.
In her career, Oquendo has likewise managed to meld a number of
For instance, during college she majored in math and was thinking about
becoming a mathematician. Now, as a psychiatric scientist, she works closely
with biostatisticians and other math types and is able to use her math skills
in a very tangible way, where, she said, "I can bring about very
concrete improvements in treatments and interventions for people."
Certainly, her career has had its challenges, Oquendo admitted. Probably
the greatest has been balancing work and family, she said. She and her husband
have two adolescent sons. "I think it is something that we female
psychiatrists don't talk about enough. It's not that easy to do. It takes a
lot of planning and effort."
But her career is bringing her rich dividends as well, she avowed. "I
think that learning how to address scientific questions, developing mentoring
relationships, and teaching are the most rewarding parts. I also get a great
amount of pleasure from writing. I find it gratifying that my writing is well
regarded." (Indeed, according to Cabaniss, Oquendo is "hugely
prolific," having published some 160 papers in the 13 years that she has
worked as a psychiatric researcher.)
Finally, where does Oquendo want to go next in her career? She would like
to establish a network of collaborative psychiatric research centers around
the world, she said. In fact, she is already moving in that direction.
"I have established a very close collaboration with psychiatric
researchers at a University in Brazil, at a University in Austria, and at
several universities in Spain," said Oquendo. "I am mentoring
young investigators who come to work with me, learn how to be investigators,
and then return to their own countries to start research projects. I am
planning to start an international training fellowship here at Columbia,
targeting psychiatric researchers in developing countries. I have been talking
with potential donors and collaborators. There are many universities around
this country with terrific resources and internationally oriented faculties,
and we could work together to foment this type of project." ▪