Trainee Spotlight – Nancy Cardona

Nancy Cardona is a trainee from University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus who worked under the mentorship of Dr. Carmen Velez-Vega within the Community Engagement Core from August 2015 until February 2019. While she was working with us, Nancy revised translational materials for reporting scientific results back to cohort members, participated in report back meetings, conducted Post Hurricane surveys and data entry for PROTECT and CRECE, conducted data analysis and shared results with the team and broader scientific community via public speaking engagements and conference presentations.

Nancy was originally drawn to PROTECT because of the direction and encouragement of our Co-Director José Cordero. About 5 years ago, Nancy was pursuing her master’s in environmental health and as a student senator in the school of public health where Dr. Cordero was dean at the time, they met and quickly bonded over their common last name. “As Puerto Ricans, we quickly started talking about where his family was from and where my family was from. He quickly began speaking about the work he started doing as a public health leader within our communities who live around 8+ superfund sites. I got involved and already had several questions for him. I believe the first one was ‘Has a health impact assessment been done?  What do you think about doing one?’ After that, he rapidly noted my passion for environmental health and love for our island and invited me become a trainee.”

Later that year, Nancy started her position as trainee and met Dr. Carmen Vélez Vega, who opened her up to the role of different exposures within their communities and encouraged her to develop her leadership skills. She quickly became involved in data entry which helped her understand the interdisciplinary research studied in all the different projects and cores within PROTECT. “I wanted to understand how the extent of contamination in such a small country could affect people differently depending on people’s social and demographic characteristics, but also their choices for food, personal care and home products. This was my very first experience as a solo researcher mentored by Dr. Vélez Vega.”

Nancy Cardona presenting at a recent conference

Later, Nancy was able to travel abroad for the first time to present in the Czech Republic and share her research on a global scale. This was Nancy’s favorite presentation experience because it had a profound effect on her perspective and helped reshape her professional career and personal lifestyle choices. She presented on potential health effects of home and personal care products, and how they affect pregnant women as well as the general population. When reflecting on building her first conference presentation and how it has affected her personal lifestyle decisions, Nancy said, “I have to say that my makeup, lotion, and personal care products choices now includes a dissertation before buying them.” More recently she attended and presented at the 2018 National Environmental Health Association Conference, the Superfund Research Program Annual Meeting, and will be presenting at the upcoming  APHA 2019  Annual Meeting in November. In addition, she was invited to speak at the Center for Minorities and Disparities in February 2019 to present on her case study, “How citizen science projects enhance decision making: ‘Buscando En Tu Ambiente.’“

As her research progressed, Nancy became deeply involved with the Community Engagement Core. “Participating actively within this core was a great opportunity to understand how people see research projects and how grateful they are because they feel like a part of it, and that we as researchers are committed to  giving back the information in a way that is accessible and understandable for them.”

Throughout her experience as a PROTECT Trainee, Nancy’s passion for environmental epidemiology has grown, but thanks to Dr. Vélez Vegas’s direction she now has a focus on engaging communities, sharing research findings, and spreading helpful remediation information in order to advocate for healthier communities. “I don’t see myself as an education professional or someone who teaches, but I do see myself as someone who can promote change through bidirectional learning experiences that include involving communities along the entire research process and for this, I’m extremely grateful to Mili.”

Nancy Cardona at her Doctoral Graduation Ceremony

While working with PROTECT, Nancy developed many relationships with participants but most noteworthy are those with fellow PROTECT Staff. “My favorite part of working with this awesome group of people is that they were and still are my family. We are hardworking researchers and staff that care for each other, that show empathy. Core C and Core F members always find an excuse to eat together or to celebrate anything. These celebrations included any accepted abstracts, conferences or even defending research proposal or dissertation. We always shared our ‘winnings’ and were there when things didn’t go as expected. I definitely learned how to be a team player within this amazing group of people’.” Recently, Nancy completed her Doctorate in Public Health focusing on the Environmental Health Track and is now working as a Population Health Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Rochester in the Clinical and Translation Science Institute. Her current research project titled, “National, Regional and Global analysis in maternal health within MundoComm’s project,” will build upon the knowledge and expertise she gained while working at PROTECT by focusing on the role of perceived social support and decision making in three Latin American countries. Her research aims to understand maternal health social support and how it can affect decision making, racial and ethnic disparities as a determinant of sterilization among Puerto Ricans, as well as getting a clearer view on housing conditions as a possible health risk during pregnancy within the PROTECT cohort. In the future, she hopes to create and lead an interdisciplinary risk communication lab that considers different factors and exposures including the environment. We congratulate Nancy on her recent accomplishments and are excited to see what she will take on in the future!