Special Edition, Trainee-Written Highlight

Protecting Communities from the Inside Out

By: Montserrat Rojo de la Vega

Biomedical scientists work all day with molecules, cells, and mice. Life inside a laboratory can be quite absorbing, and many months—or even years—are frequently devoted to understanding our complex study systems. Time and effort are also directed towards communicating such discoveries to diverse populations, such as the work done in the Community Engagement and Research Translational Cores of the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program (UA SRP). But even with these clinical and translational efforts, do we really understand the dynamics and characteristics of human populations?  

Montserrat Rojo de la Vega, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona Cancer Biology Program and UA SRP trainee, participated in the Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT) Webinar, “Networks in Crisis: Data on Social Capital and Resilience”, presented by Professor Daniel Aldrich. PROTECT is an interdisciplinary, multi-center Superfund program, and this webinar was coordinated by Northeastern University. In his talk, Dr. Aldrich stressed the importance of promoting social capital: the networks built on trust that unite a community and generate a collective force to work together under pressure. Dr. Aldrich discussed Japan's ability to respond quickly and recover so quickly from their tsunami in 2011 because the Japanese have a very strong sense of community. Recently, governments have become interested in the idea of social capital and its potential to be the most effective trait in community response to catastrophes (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc.) and restoring order. In addition to social interactions, physical variables such as the urban planning, which determines the physical layout of a social space, also influence a community’s cohesion.

Finally, Dr. Aldrich commented that a community’s resilience (its ability to recover) depends more on social cohesion, integration, and cooperation than on physical factors (those associated to the catastrophe) or external factors (such as governmental aid). Montserrat observed that Superfund programs work closely with affected communities, and having an understanding of the factors involved in post-disaster recovery are valuable additions to their scientific and community engagement activities. Montserrat reflected on what she learned: “I don’t often interact with the communities benefiting from our research, but that is a skill I am developing through the Superfund Program. However, I had never thought that the structure of the community could have such a huge impact in the way people respond to anything from natural phenomena to environmental crisis, or even to their interaction with the scientific community.” She went on to say, “This experience certainly highlights the need for understanding the requirements and characteristics of each community to better advocate for the strengthening of their social capital”.