On January 26th and 27th, more than 80 PROTECT investigators, staff, trainees, collaborators, and Advisory Committee members participated in PROTECT’s Annual Retreat in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The event marked the first time since 2022 that the entire PROTECT community was able to meet in person.

The two-day meeting gave each project and core leader the chance to provide updates on their research and progress, as well as discuss ideas for future research. Project 2 Leader Sean Harris spoke about using a single-nuclei transcriptomics method for his labs’ experiments, and how this model could provide findings that clarify the significance of stress biomarkers in tissues of interest for Project 1. Principal Investigator and Project 4 Leader Akram Alshawabkeh talked about working with the CEC to provide participants with point-of-use water filters that could provide data to inform the development of filters in his lab. CEC Leader Carmen Vélez-Vega highlighted the importance of minimizing burdens on participants, and further discussed how mental health and wellness of participants has become a greater focus point of research and data collection in the last year.

PROTECT Director Akram Alshawabkeh gave a center overview

Project 2 Leader Sean Harris presented on research findings

CEC postdoc Nobel Hernández Otero discussed his KC Donnelly externship experience

In addition to discussing internal research, multiple investigators and collaborators spoke about projects that leverage PROTECT and provide opportunities to share PROTECT data to explore research questions outside of PROTECT’s scope. Several of these projects look at questions on child and maternal health. Project 1 Lead John Meeker discussed the PROTECT MOMS project he is leading to look at mothers’ health after pregnancy and how it may be affected by exposures during pregnancy. HSSC Lead Zaira Rosario-Pabón talked about the RECOVER project looking into post-COVID recovery in children and highlighted the impressive work being done by Communications Specialist Chrystal Galán Rivera and study nurses to reach 101% recruitment. Project 1 researcher Deb Watkins spoke about investigating climate change and extreme events as factors that affect the health of PROTECT participants. This led to discussions about how these same factors may affect water systems on the island, which could be a future research focus for Project 3.

Other researchers presented about projects focused on data science and machine learning. University College Dublin collaborators Patricia Maguire and Brian Mac Namee spoke about working with the DMAC to utilize PROTECT’s comprehensive data and samples repository to train their machine learning algorithm that aims to predict and diagnose preeclampsia in pregnant people. DMAC researcher Jennifer Dy spoke about how she could use PROTECT data with her NSF proposal to make AI safer and more accurate. Northeastern collaborators Emily Zimmerman and Sarah Ostadabbas discussed how they analyze Non-Nutritive suck in babies born to the PROTECT cohort to understand how babies’ neurodevelopment is affected by environmental factors, and how they may be able to use AI facial landmark tracking to more easily attain these variables.

University College Dublin researcher Patricia Maguire spoke about her project to predict preeclampsia

HSSC Lead Zaira Rosario-Pabón gave the group an update about the RECOVER project

Multiple university leaders were in attendance of this year’s retreat, including Carmen Sceppa, Dean of Northeastern’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Bienvenido Vélez, Dean of Engineering at UPR – Mayagüez, and Edgardo Ruiz Cora, Dean of UPR – Medical Sciences Campus School of Public Health. The retreat gave them the opportunity to see how their support of PROTECT’s work at each individual institution contributes to the center’s success, and how the center in turn contributes to each institution. They also took time to meet with project and core leaders and investigators to discuss how they can further develop relationships with PROTECT researchers and staff outside of their own institutions and support more opportunities for collaboration.

Beyond discussions about research and collaborative opportunities, this year’s retreat also provided time for the PROTECT team to connect with and celebrate our community partners in San Juan. After the first day of meetings, the PROTECT team joined family members, community partners, and participants for a group dinner during which multiple individuals and organizations were recognized and honored. PROTECT leaders celebrated important partners representing organizations including La Asociación de Salud Primaria de Puerto Rico, Manatí Medical Center, March of Dimes, Hospital Pavia Arecibo, and Ciudadanos Del Karso. The dinner was a great opportunity for PROTECT to formally recognize all the amazing community partners and collaborators who make the center’s work possible.

A group dinner was held to celebrate PROTECT researchers, staff, and community partners

Thank you to everyone who attended and was part of this year’s meeting! You can find all photos from the event here.