Maria Perez

Maria Perez went from majoring in theater arts as an undergraduate to pursing a PhD in kinesiology with a focus in exercise psychology. She's now passionate about informing others about the mental health benefits of being active.

Maria Perez plans on helping others understand the psychological benefits of exercise after she graduates. In her free time, she enjoys playing racquetball, taking her dog on walks, reading, cooking, going to farmers' markets, and getting dinner and drinks with friends.

Maria Perez aspires to share benefits of exercise through career

Maria Perez’s academic journey isn’t what most people would consider “traditional.” She didn’t discover her love for exercise and its psychological benefits and decide to dedicate her career to it until after she finished her undergrad with a Bachelor of Arts in Theater Arts.

“I knew that I wanted something different in my life,” Maria said. “I became fascinated by the improvements to physical and mental health that structured exercise provides, and that led me to pursue a master’s degree in kinesiology with a focus in exercise science.”

This fascination with health began when Maria first started exercising and noticed how others view it.

“Anytime I would talk to people about exercise, they would only focus on the effects on the body, especially in my community, which is Mexican-American,” Maria said. “It’s talked about as something you had to do to look good and be healthy, but no one really talked about how good it can make you feel.”

After she earned her master’s, Maria still wanted to learn more about exercise and mental health, which led her to pursue a Ph.D. in kinesiology.

“I am interested in learning more about why physical activity helps alleviate symptoms of depression and how to promote physical activity in this population,” she said. This is reflected in Maria's research. Right now, she’s studying when people with depression are most receptive to therapy in relation to when they work out.

Although Maria is comfortable in her program now, when she first started her master’s program it was nerve-racking due to her limited background in science.

“For me, it was always this feeling of imposter syndrome,” she said. “I felt that specifically then because all these students had taken classes that I hadn’t… It took some time for me [to adjust].”

Despite this, Maria persisted. She credits her professors’ encouragement for helping her stay confident.

Maria is in her fourth year of her Ph.D. program at Iowa State University. She isn’t completely sure of what will come after graduation, but she knows she wants to educate others on all the benefits of physical activity and how to truly enjoy it. She’s also excited to learn more as she continues her research. Though the road ahead isn’t clear-cut, Maria knows that she’ll find her way as long as she follows her passion.

“Over the years I’ve learned the plan doesn’t always go the way you expect it to,” she said. “My attitude has been, ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but I’m going to figure it out.’”