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Christina Stanley sees firsthand the results of some of life’s most tragic events. As the chief deputy medical examiner in the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, Stanley performs 300 examinations each year–on infants who die mysteriously in their sleep, victims of domestic violence, and young people whose heart disease went undetected. At times, Stanley’s work shakes her faith in humanity. “There was a set of deaths early in my career,” she says, “in which a woman shot her four boys, ages four, six, nine, and thirteen. I was overwhelmed.”

To balance the grim nature of her work, which she began in 1996, Stanley focuses on her office’s contributions to preventing avoidable deaths. For example, data provided by the office in the 1990s resulted in improved airbag designs for cars. She also collaborates with educational and advocacy groups addressing drug use and infant death. She publishes papers on issues such as risk factors for choking and death due to asphyxia in rollover motor-vehicle crashes. She shares her office’s mountains of data with researchers working to prevent sudden infant death syndrome and other tragedies.

Stanley, who earned her MD in 1990 at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, does make time to relax–through swimming, hiking, and sailing–with her husband, Dave, their 10-year-old son, Spike, and her grown stepdaughter, Tiffany. Dave is a retired telephone lineman who keeps the couple’s San Diego home running smoothly. Spike, a talented singer, performs regularly with local theater and musical groups, including the San Diego Opera. Tiffany, 23, lives nearby and works as an account analyst.

While studying at MIT, Stanley played violin with MIT’s symphony orchestra. Her mentor, conductor David Epstein, who was also a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, “gave me the feeling I could be a leader,” she says.

Today, Stanley helps manage 60 people in the medical examiner’s office. “At times, being a manager stymies me,” she says. “But when that happens, I think, ‘If David thought I could do this, I can.’”

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