Featured Investigator: Sarah MacCarthy

headshot of Sarah MacCarthy

January 2024: Sarah MacCarthy, ScD  
Magic City LGBTQ Health Studies Endowed Chair 
University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health 

Dr. Sarah MacCarthy is the inaugural holder of the Magic City LGBTQ Health Studies Endowed Chair at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. MacCarthy has more than 15 years experience in applying systematic mixed-methods research to address sexual and gender minority health in the United States and internationally. She grew up in Eswanti and Egypt then completed her undergraduate studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her first job after college was formatting biosketches, which despite the sometimes-intense boredom, gave insight to all the pathways towards becoming a researcher. She went on to complete her master’s and doctoral studies at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and postdoctoral training with the Brown University-affiliated Miriam Hospital. She worked at RAND for 7 years in California before moving her family to Alabama in 2021. Dr. MacCarthy’s research examines individual, programmatic, and policy-related aspects of sexual and gender minority health. She has over 80 peer-reviewed articles and has also published her work in high readership venues such as Scientific American, US News & World Report, and The New Yorker. 

Q: What are your current research interests?  
A: I am really excited to explore how we can operationalize community-led research. The recent COMPASS initiative from NIH signaled an important shift towards recognizing personal and professional experience as expertise. We have incredible local experts in Alabama, including a range of LGBTQ organizations who have navigated one of the most complex legal and policy environments in the country.  Finding ways to ensure that these organizations do not just participate but instead lead innovative research will be fundamental to achieving health equity.

Q: Tell us about your career path – how did you end up where you are now?  
A: On one hand I can tell a very linear story. I was raised in Eswatini and Egypt, so I easily fell in love with global health and went on to pursue my master's and doctorate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I then worked at the RAND for 7 years before being given the opportunity to serve as the inaugural holder of the Magic City LGBTQ Health Studies Endowed Professorship, now Chair. I knew that such a position – at a public university in the Deep South – would be the opportunity of a lifetime. However, the linear story obscures so many other life events (motherhood and balancing a two-career household to name a few) that contributed to where I am now.  In academia, we often act as such factors do not exist. The reality is that these day-to-day considerations, often invisible in the tenure and promotion process, palpably determine what we can do professionally. I think it's important to speak more holistically about the ways in which our life experiences criticallyshape our career paths over time.

Q: What organizational challenges have you faced?  
A:  I am so excited that UAB recently awarded our team a university-wide interdisciplinary research center, pending Board of Trustee approval. Currently we’re fleshing out our strategic vision and collaboratively defining our focus on research, training & education, and community. The stakes are so high. We need to achieve the standard metrics of success (awarded grants, peer-reviewed publications, support of early-stage investigators, etc.) and so much more. We’re working to identify short, medium, and long-term goals to ensure that every center initiative furthers our overarching goal: health equity for SGM communities across the Deep South. It’s a weighty and worthy challenge to take on.

Q: What advice do you have for trainees and researchers who want to work in this area or are interested in applying for NIH funding?   
A: There are two things that have helped me along the way.  Find common ground: Do what you’re passionate about because, if you love doing it, you’ll do it well. Then find the overlap with NIH funding priorities. Read the strategic plans. If your usual go-to institutes aren’t funding what you’re interested in, bend your brain a bit and consider how you might potentially map your work onto the interests of other institutes who are. Find YOUR people: Not just mentors (remember they ‘grew up’ in a different time so your path will likely be different) but colleagues with whom you can be intellectually challenged, argue passionately, and remain friends.

Q: Do you have any specific advice for working with and involving SGM populations in research?  
A: Recognize that authentic and meaningful participation of SGM individuals in all stages of the research is not just a thing you ‘should’ do but in fact produces better science. It’s not easy.  But push yourself – and your institution – to expand beyond partnering with SGM communities as part of a CAB, to instead truly centering SGM communities in the study design, data collection, analysis, and multi-level and multi-layered dissemination strategies. 

Q: Who inspires you?  
A: Three people immediately come to mind. Dr. Sofia Gruskin. She was my mentor in graduate school and now decades later I’m lucky enough to call her my friend. Dr. Lisa Bowleg. I think her Intersectionality Training Institute is visionary, and she’s also insanely funny and fashion-forward. I’m also obsessed with Shonda Rhimes. Don’t judge, just hear me out. She created characters who were so much more than one singular identity, and in so doing she contributed to tectonic shifts in our public perception of diversity. 

Q: Any final words of wisdom?  
A: People are often surprised to learn how much we are doing at UAB to address the health of our SGM communities. Come see for yourself when we host the SGMRO regional workshop this spring! Come train with us through our SGM undergraduate and graduate certificate programs or through our R25 professional training program to launch this fall! Or come work with us: we have an open LGBTQ tenure track position!  I truly believe our work is so much bigger and bolder than most could ever imagine.

This page last reviewed on