DR. FRANCES MUJICA
Assistant Professor -Geography of Health
When was your aha moment?
I played Division I soccer in college. I had finished my Anthropology major and my minor was
Geography. I had an injury and got a medical red shirt, so I had an extra year of scholarship
money. I found a professor, Dr. "Skeeter" Dixon, in the Geography Department at USM and I
really enjoyed being in his classes. He took us on a field trip to Honduras, right after Hurricane
Mitch devastated the country. We looked at how Mitch affected the tourism industry, and also
looked at reconstruction. I was fascinated. That was the deciding factor for me. I came back
and finished my double major in Geography. While I was in Honduras, Dr. Dixon's major
professor, Dr. Bill Davidson (Ethno- and Historical Geographer of Central America), who is
retired out of LSU, was there with a student doing research and I was introduced to him. I
went to do research with him at LSU for my masters. That trip to Honduras "sealed the deal"
for me in terms of becoming a geographer. I got hooked on the field work. The idea that
geography was such a broad, inclusive discipline that I could incorporate the things I learned
in anthropology with the spacial aspect of the surface of the Earth. I could combine them and
look at what I was interested in, in a totally different way. It wasn't so focused on just the
humans or just the physical environment...it gave me that opportunity to look at that human-
environmental interaction, which is what I found to be the most interesting.
What drew you to teaching?
I taught high school geography when I was in grad school to pay the bills after my funding ran
out. I found I really enjoyed teaching. Now, in my fourth year of teaching at USA, I teach four
undergraduate classes a semester. Being the only human geographer in this department, I
teach the gamut...from urban to health geography, to tourism, to writing. When you have
moments where a student comes to you and says, "I never knew that geographers did this."
That's what you live for, is for someone to tell you that you have given them a new perspective
on something. That's gratification in itself for me to have that happen. Once a semester, once
a year, that's what I look forward to. If they become geographers, even better!
What are your current research projects?
There are two fields of interest within health geography that I am working on. The first was the
topic for my dissertation, Chagas disease and the Chagas landscape of a Gulf Region in Mexico.
I worked on documenting landscapes of risk. The physical environment where people live can
put them at higher risk for Chagas disease (a parasitic disease passed by "kissing bugs"). We
have the parasite and the bugs in the U.S., but we don't have the same socio-economic
conditions that you see in Latin America, so we don't have the same infection rates here. House
site construction is a major factor in the sustainability and spreading of this disease. I gave my
data to Latin American health officials and they did free testing for the communities where there
were concerns. This helped to start educating people about the disease. Currently, I have several
students working with me to document the species in Southern Alabama and prove that they are
there. [SEE PHOTOS BELOW] I consulted with some entomologists who recommended some new
collection techniques. We will be using these techniques in the field this summer. My students
are great in the field! My second research interest is landscapes of risk in terms of obesity. In the
South, we have the highest obesity rates in the country. Some factors we are looking at are the
ability to move, pedestrian access and green space, as well as access to healthy food. There are
areas that are sometimes referred to as "Food Deserts". These are pockets within an urban or rural
area where people do not have access, within a certain distance, to a food outlet with healthy foods.
My students and I are currently looking at a few rural communities in Mobile. We utilize GIS
(Geographic Information System) and census data. We also look at what else is available in the food
environment...convenient store fried food counters have blossomed within the past ten years. We are
mapping that environment and hypothesizing that if that is what you have the closest access to, then
that is what you will choose. My students and I will be presenting the findings at the Association of
American Geographers Annual Meeting in San Francisco, March 2016.
Would you consider geography to be a male-dominated field?
Geography is still male-dominated. Interestingly enough, our department of Earth Sciences, which is
made up of Meteorology, Geology, and Geography, is female-dominated. There are five females out
of a staff of seven, which is an unusual situation for a geography department. USA is a wonderful
community. I thoroughly enjoy working at this University. My colleagues are wonderful and supportive.
Did You Have Any Female Influences During Your Career?
Yes, I did. Dr. Helen Regis, an anthropologist at LSU, was an advisor on my dissertation committee. She
was very influential in helping me formulate qualitative interviews and to keep the qualitative aspect of
my interviews at the center, because many times geography can be very quantitative. That is not what I
do. My influences from anthropology and earth sciences/geography are very qualitative. I wanted to
keep that in my dissertation because that tends not to be what's followed in medical geography. We
still keep in touch today when I need advice on projects. Also, Dr. Mimi Fearn, the former chair of the
Earth Sciences Department, saw my teaching abilities as an asset and encouraged me to apply for the
full-time instructor position at USA. She has continued to encourage and support both my teaching and
Advice for ambitious females looking to pursue geography?
Be open to working with anybody. Do what is interesting to you. We often get into graduate school and
are directed toward a project that, ultimately, may not be something we are interested in in the long
term. I found geography and health geography late, but I allowed myself to be broad-minded enough to
say, "Hey, I can do this." You can forge your own path...it's important to know that ANYBODY has that
have you attended Any workshops or conferences recently?
The ADVANCE workshops have been insightful for me. They were helpful in developing a research
agenda, developing a plan for promotion and for revealing things I may be up against in a potentially
gendered environment. I go to the yearly conference for the Association of American Geographers
and also regional conferences. We take students to at least one conference every year to make
contacts and see what other people and students are doing. In April 2015, Dr. Carol Sawyer, Associate
Professor of Mountain Geography, and I presented a poster at the Association of American
Geographers Annual Meeting in Chicago. We examined different geography departments and their
sizes. What kinds of things influence why some departments are huge and why others are not. We
looked at a few variables. Do state requirements in high school affect department size? We found
only seven states require high school geography, so that did not help. Another thing we looked at was
websites. Because students are so digitally oriented today, the flashiness of a school's website was
one of the big factors.
Dr. Mujica (right) collecting bugs with her student, Brandi Stewart, on the Glen Sebastian Nature Trail in
Brandi Stewart's presentation on Chagas disease at the USA 2015 Annual Symposium.
"'WITHOUT GEOGRAPHY, YOU ARE NOWHERE.' DON'T TAKE US FOR GRANTED."
- Dr. frances mujica
Dr. Mujica (standing) with students J.D. Norris and Logan Hants in Olympic National Park,