Trainee Spotlight: Amber Cathey

Amber Cathey is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Environmental Health Sciences department at the University of Michigan who has been working with PROTECT for five years under the mentorship of John Meeker. She earned her Master’s in 2017 and her PhD in 2021. She currently leads several research projects that use advanced statistical methods, gives results from statistical analyses to other trainees to draft manuscripts on, and provides logistical support for the Meeker lab. She has attended the ISEE and SRP conferences since 2018, as well as the Society for Reproductive Investigation conference in 2019.

Amber’s interest in environmental health came after finding out she had familial high cholesterol. She decided to reevaluate her diet, learning about, and cutting out, highly processed foods with additives. Once she made these changes, she noticed issues such as chronic headaches disappearing. Her research didn’t stop there. “I fell down a rabbit hole of research on plasticizers and other chemicals in personal care products,” she said.

Amber came to work for PROTECT through the Meeker lab, starting as a research assistant while pursuing her MPH. Her interest in biomonitoring, endocrine disruption and exposures from consumer products lined up well with the lab work. Amber also found that her working style paired well with John’s leadership style. “I’ve always been an independent worker, and John’s hands-off approach helped me learn when to figure things out on my own and when to ask for help,” she said. This experience solidified her decision to pursue a PhD and encouraged her work with PROTECT. “I was very fortunate to begin a research project to get my feet wet before deciding to apply to the PhD program,” she said.

Being a PROTECT trainee has bettered Amber as a researcher. Working with the large PROTECT cohort, Amber learned that sometimes collaboration is needed over independent work. “It takes a lot of people generating a lot of ideas to come up with the best research questions. I’ve learned to embrace being wrong, and to appreciate being the person in a room who knows the least,” she said. Amber has also learned how to work with large, complicated datasets. When dealing with real-world data, you are dealing with work laced with human error. Researchers must be careful and adamant about addressing issues. “I’ve learned to have patience, to always triple check data, and to notice the signs of errors that inevitably happen when data is processed by multiple people,” she said.

PROTECT has also given Amber the opportunity to pursue projects outside of her specialty. If she becomes interested in something another lab is studying, there are project leaders and investigators willing to guide her through new datasets and ideas. Everybody is willing to help when a trainee wants to work on something new. Likewise, Amber and others in Meeker lab are always ready to work with people interested in learning more about environmental epidemiology.

Out of all the work she has done while a trainee, Amber is most proud of publishing the second aim of her doctoral dissertation. Her analysis explored the relationship between changes in hormone concentrations and birth outcomes, work she has been interested in since undergrad. When it came to submitting her manuscript for publication, a requirement for the dissertation, there were roadblocks. Amber ended up submitting her manuscript eight times before it was published. Each of the seven rejections came with extensive edits, and a bit of a sting. “Every rejection stings a little bit, but seven rejections in a row stung a lot,” she said. In the end, though, her work was accepted for publication, and she received her PhD. Amber took a valuable lesson from the experience. “I’m better prepared to be resilient in the face of rejection, and to persist even when things feel very bleak,” she said.

Amber hopes to stay in the Meeker lab, and to be a faculty member on the Research Scientist track as she remains passionate about her work with PROTECT. She has seen how the Center’s work immediately impacts people, and this makes her work fulfilling as well as interesting. Amber has always been thankful for the opportunity to study Superfund contamination and environmental health, but she remains frustrated that it takes a graduate-level education to understand the risks of exposures from consumer products. That is why she is fulfilled doing work that contributes to the greater public knowledge on risks from chemicals and consumer products. “At the end of the day, our work contributes to something beyond a journal publication,” she said.