With the letters 'PhD' freshly-minted after my name in 1991, I thought that I could go off and discover the cure for some disease. Multiple sclerosis or maybe Alzheimer's were on my list... But the microscopic approach that I was taking on this research as a laboratory scientist made me feel removed from the real world. It was hard for me to believe that by mixing potions in test tubes and looking at cells in a microscope would help people one day. One far, far away day, maybe.
My work was tedious (read -boring). But worse of all, it was lonely. There were days that I might spend 8 hours sitting in a darkroom looking through a microscope measuring tiny vesicles in endothelial cells extracted from rat brains. I was also the only minority faculty in the department, which made for an even lonelier work existence.
To get more contact with actual human people in my everyday work, I decided to start a training program for minority students from the nearby community of East Harlem. Being minority myself, I was keenly aware of the housing projects that I walked by on my way to work, a far contrast from the luxury buildings of the Upper East Side of Manhattan that were closer to Mount Sinai's main entrance. My lab was in a dark, windowless, asbestos-filled, converted garage on the north side of the campus. There were no other people of color in the faculty. I wanted to have colleagues that looked like me, but I soon realized that I would have to "build" them myself. So I got a little money through a grant and created the Short-term Training Program for Minority Students in Environmental and Occupational Medicine. A mouthful, but it would have to do.
With my little team of minority students, I continued doing experiments in my lab. But existential questions about the significance of it all kept plaguing me. Who might it help? One day... maybe.
Then, one day, I asked one of my students to tell me what he thought would be important to investigate in his community. Without hesitation, he said: "asthma". "Why so many people here have asthma." - he said.
Together, Leon Tulton and I, became barefoot epidemiologists. Learning from the many epidemiologists in the department, we analyzed data and put it on maps so WE could understand it. The results brought gasps from the audience every time we presented it. In 1999 we published a scientific paper that included the maps (Claudio et al, Journal of Asthma). We showed two maps. One with asthma hospitalization rates by zip code. The other, of low income zipcodes. The two maps were almost identical. Poor people definitely had more asthma. They were right.
Then it hit the front page of the New York Times. That is when you know you have reached some people. Little did I know how my life and work would change as a result of this. Ideas for more work started flooding in to my team. Grants for new projects and opportunities for collaboration were beginning to get serious. At some point, I had to decide: lab or community-based research. Trying to do both became crazy. So, I closed my lab, donated most of the equipment to local schools and to hospitals in developing countries. The only thing I kept from the lab were some unused beakers that, years later, came in handy for preparing organic baby food for my daughter. But the knowledge of how to think scientifically remains in me, it has now expanded to include the neighborhood right next door, and beyond.
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Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist, mother and consultant, originally from Puerto Rico. She is a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health. Luz recently published her first book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. Dr. Claudio has internship programs and resources for young scientists. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely her own and may not reflect her employer's views.