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Co-op in Puerto Rico expands student’s interest in environmental health

Earlier this year, behavioral neuroscience major Alejandro Rovira returned home to his native Puerto Rico for a transformative co-op experience. He performed extensive hands-on research to understand environmental health factors that affect pregnant women and their infants after birth. The co-op reinforced his desire to pursue a career in the medical field.

“It catalyzed my interest in going back to Puerto Rico as a medical professional and helping out the people on the ground,” said Rovira, a fourth-year student in the Honors Program. “My wish has always been to go back. Now it’s even more so.”

Rovira, S’19, worked on several projects involving two closely-linked Northeastern research centers focused on Puerto Rico: the Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats, or PROTECT Center; and the Center for Research on Early Childhood Exposure and Development, or CRECE.

He secured the co-op through a university program called Research Opportunities for Undergraduates: Training in Environmental Health Sciences, or ROUTES. In fact, he was Northeastern’s first student to work on a ROUTES co-op in a research lab beyond campus.

He said the experience opened his eyes to how vast and interdisciplinary the field of environmental health is while expanding his understanding of the impact of going green. “In our society we have an awareness for the importance of sustainability,” he said. “But I don’t think we realize how much this also impacts our own health.”

Rovira’s research covered a lot of ground in Puerto Rico, in more ways than one. Once a week, he’d crisscross the island, driving between three different sites to swap out filters that measure air quality. On other days, he’d help perform biopsies on placentas following childbirth, work that was part of a larger effort to study the effects of environmental contaminants—as well as the Zika virus—on new mothers and their babies.

Rovira also surveyed local residents asking a range of questions related to environmental health—from household products they use, to where they get their water, to their medical history. He also surveyed doctors, nurses, and other professionals at area health facilities about their knowledge of the potential health effects of various products. The goal, Rovira explained, was to develop an online education module for educating these health professionals.

And in yet another project, he worked with a pediatrician as she performed cognitive testing on infants.

Much of Rovira’s work on co-op was spent at the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health—which is a partner of the PROTECT and CRECE centers.

Rovira noted that Puerto Rico’s population has declined in recent years, with more and more young professionals leaving for the U.S. mainland and elsewhere. The devastation from Hurricane Maria—which landed after his co-op concluded—has exacerbated this situation. These factors, he said, have inspired him even further to return.

“It was both a humbling experience and a learning experience,” Rovira said of his co-op. “I recognize that I was afforded so much from my time on the island that I want to give back. But at the same time, it made me aware that I made the right decision to come to Puerto Rico and prepare myself to go back to Puerto Rico and give them the best that I can.”

Originally posted on News@Northeastern on December 12, 2017. 

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