From February 22-26, a group of PROTECT trainees from different projects, cores, and institutions took part in the first ever PROTECT trainee trip to Puerto Rico. The trip was organized by the Training (RETCC), Community Engagement (CEC), and Human Subjects and Sampling (HSSC) Cores. Former PROTECT trainee Dr. Nancy Cardona guided the students throughout the week with help from RETCC co-director Dr. Aidsa Santiago Román, CEC leader Dr. Carmen Vélez Vega, and CEC Coordinator Héctor Torres Zayas. Over just a few days, the students saw the different components that make the center possible, formed closer bonds across projects and institutions, and came away with a better understanding of PROTECT’s impact.

The trip was sparked by an idea from Project 1 trainee Savannah Sturla who wanted to learn more about how PROTECT operates, and see the components of environmental and social justice in the project. Several other trainees across PROTECT’s projects and institutions shared this interest. 17 students from University of Michigan, Northeastern, University of Georgia, West Virginia University, University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, and University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez ended up participating in the trip.

The trip gave the students an up close, inside look at how environmental and human samples are collected and analyzed for PROTECT research. When the students visited the PROTECT/ECHO center in Manatí, they saw where moms and kids have evaluations and provide samples. During their time on the UPR Medical Sciences Campus, they toured the PROTECT lab with Lab Coordinator Lilliana González Medina and saw how those biospecimen samples are stored. Director of Research Zaira Rosario Pabón and Data Coordinator Ishwara Ayala Ortiz also took time to teach the trainees about center wide data sharing and quality protocols. Later in the week in Mayagüez, the students got to look at the environmental side of PROTECT sampling in a conversation about ground and tap water samples collection with Project 3 leader Dr. Ingrid Padilla. They then took part in the actual sampling process with help from Project 3 trainee Ricardo Berrios and postdoc Fernando Pantoja. This work with Project 3 gave students working on other projects a much better understanding of what other researchers and students do throughout PROTECT. “I learned so much from our project leaders, and it was wonderful to learn about each of the projects, especially Project 3,” CEC trainee Sofia Contreras said.

Environmental justice and community health were prominent topics throughout the trip. During the first morning of the trip, Drs. Cardona and Santiago-Román walked the students through San Juan and spoke to them about the history of environmental justice in the city and in the island at large. Later in the week in Rincón, the students met with Surfrider Foundation Rincón President Steve Tamar (pictured left), a citizen scientist who has been conducting water quality and community research in the area for over 15 years. His experience as a community scientist gave the students a perspective on science and research they hadn’t heard before.

The trip culminated on the final day when trainees took part in a report-back activity in Manatí. CEC members Héctor Torres Zayas and Nobel Hernández helped the students prepare materials for the activity throughout the week and got them ready to engage with the PROTECT participants who were receiving their study results. Several students assisted the CEC with event organization, and got to see firsthand how participants are presented with the report back app and how they engage with it. Project 1 trainee Jarrod Eaton valued this insight. “We learned up close about the importance of report back and the positive impact this process can have on PROTECT participants,” he said. Since report-backs are family activities, other students worked with CEC Program Coordinator Zulmarie Díaz Reguero on activities for PROTECT kids while parents were getting results. The group created fun educational activities about environmental health, including a puppet show and coloring worksheets. This was a highlight for HSSC trainee Skarlet Velasquez. “It’s hard to choose my favorite moment, but one of the top ones was the report back activity, where I was able to interact with and see the PROTECT mothers and children,” she said.

In just a few days, trainees gained a much deeper understanding of the different interlocking components of PROTECT. “I learned so much more about all the different projects and aspects that make up PROTECT, the amount of work and collaboration across disciplines, and the community engagement for the participants,” Velasquez said. This led to students gaining a greater sense of the importance and impact of PROTECT’s work. “The trip helped me feel more connected to the people and environment from which our data originates, while also addressing the ongoing colonial sociopolitical factors at play when working in Puerto Rico,” Sturla said.

The trip was also an opportunity for students to connect in a way they had not been able to before. These strengthened relationships gave the trainees a better sense of each other’s work, and how their work can enhance and be enhanced by each other. This has inspired them to discuss research and collaboration ideas. “The trip helped build community among trainees, and I hope to work on cross-project collaborations with other trainees in the future,” Sturla said. “We were able to connect with trainees from other projects, share our research ideas, and identify potential collaborations in the future,” Eaton added.

The trip proved to be a major learning experience for the trainees, both personally and professionally. Dr. Cardona, who was with the students through the whole week, noted the impact of the trip on the students, and on PROTECT at large. “The students were given hands on experiences that offered greater meaning to the work they do and an understanding of how it all contributes to environmental and reproductive justice. This trip provided a new perspective for the entire PROTECT community,” she said. Sturla, whose idea set off the trip, knows these experiences will guide her work going forward. “With these lessons, I hope to be a more responsible, justice-oriented researcher and ground my work in PROTECT in supporting communities in Puerto Rico,” she said.

Find more photos from the trip here!