PROTECT Holds Annual Retreat in Puerto Rico for the First Time Since the COVID-19 Outbreak

On June 3rd and 4th, PROTECT held its annual retreat in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic over two years ago. More than 70 PROTECT investigators, staff, and trainees gathered with PROTECT’s external advisory committee at San Juan’s Caribe Hilton Hotel for two days of discussion about PROTECT’s progress, challenges, and plans.

The retreat marked the first in-person gathering for PROTECT since February 2020’s retreat. Because PROTECT’s projects span across the country, institutions, and disciplines, the retreat offers PROTECT researchers the opportunity to meet their colleagues and hear updates from center leadership.

The retreat included a presentation on PROTECT’s overall progress by center directors Akram Alshawabkeh and José Cordero. They spoke about the challenges that researchers and participants have faced and overcome throughout PROTECT’s last cycle, from Hurricane Maria to the COVID-19 pandemic. They highlighted PROTECT’s work with the community following crises, specifically pointing out how communication with participants has evolved throughout the pandemic. Project and core leaders then presented on their progress, discussed cross-project collaboration, and received feedback from the advisory committee. Project 2 lead Sean Harris spoke about his teams’ work with data mining and how these data techniques could be used by Project 1 researchers with their epidemiology data. Project 3 leader Ingrid Padilla talked about better understanding the transport of contaminants in Puerto Rico’s water, and how this understanding affects Project 4’s remediation device development and placement. Community Engagement Core leader Carmen Vélez-Vega spoke about the campaigns and tools her team has implemented regarding environmental health and the COVID-19 pandemic. Human Subjects and Data Core leader José Cordero and Research Director Zaira Rosario Pabón highlighted the continued increase in participant numbers as well as the strong relationship and trust that PROTECT shares with participants.

The retreat also included further discussions between investigators and advisory committee members. They discussed the importance of project integration throughout the center. The environmental and biomedical groups then had the chance to split up and discuss research questions and methods with more specificity. The event wrapped up with a discussion led by Northeastern Dean of Engineering Gregory Abowd and University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez Dean of Engineering Bienvenido Vélez about supporting and leveraging PROTECT across all participating institutions. Researchers and trainees talked with the Deans and each other about the possibilities of visiting the different schools involved with PROTECT, spending time in the Puerto Rico labs and clinics, and how to better get to know PROTECT researchers and students outside of their own institutions.

A highlight throughout the retreat was the opportunity for team members from across the country to be together in the same room. The newest members of the team met colleagues from other institutions, projects, and cores for the first time. Students across different institutions got to connect with each other. There was also time dedicated to celebrating the team’s accomplishments, both professional and personal. Members of the Puerto Rico team who received the Outstanding Staff Teamwork Award from Northeastern this year were lauded throughout the retreat with several moments of recognition and applause. Team members took time to share and celebrate personal milestones, such as pregnancies, marriages, and graduations. The retreat was an opportunity for bonding and celebration as much as it was a time for scientific discussion.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this year’s retreat and contributed to the valuable discussions about PROTECT!