By Alexandra Benitez-Gonzalez
My story begins in a small island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. They call Puerto Rico Isla Del Encanto ("Island of Enchantment”) because that is exactly what it is: an island filled with beauty, hope, and resilience. Science has always been an integral part of my life. As a child, my version of “make believe” was questioning the existence of everything and following the basic scientific steps of observe, create a hypothesis, and test it. This is the story of how I became a social scientist and aspiring science and risk communication researcher.
Wanting to follow my childhood pull towards the sciences and to please my family by becoming the “Dr. Benitez” of their dreams, I started a pre-medical program while pursuing a bachelor's degree at the University of Puerto Rico. I worked in multiple hospitals, including Centro Medico Hospital in San Juan, where my family dreamed, I would eventually work as a doctor. I shadowed a neonatal doctor and the head director of the NICU center in Auxilio Mutual San Juan Hospital. I worked with medical students treating Zika patients using a mixed-method approach consisting of administering focus groups, conducting surveys, and collecting biospecimens. I had the opportunity to explore different research roles, from surveying pregnant women in the emergency rooms to running nightshifts to collect biospecimens in hospital rooms at odd hours to co-leading focus groups with pregnant woman to inform them about Zika and microcephaly.
Working in a hospital environment and learning about mixed-methods made me want to become a researcher. Instead of spending one semester working in hospitals, I ended up voluntarily working during five semesters. The research allowed me to discover and pursue a bigger interest in helping my community, while also making a difference for the women I met.
I transferred to the interdisciplinary program in the environmental science department, which allowed me to design my own research project. From the local newspaper, I learned that agricultural workers in Puerto Rico were experiencing substantial health effects from to pesticide exposure, so I decided to conduct a social science study. I drove to agricultural communities on the west side of the island to interview the doctor from the newspaper article and get to know the community where the health incidents were mainly reported. After interviewing agricultural workers and listening to their stories about health incidents and worker conditions, I discovered a gap between what government agencies were communicating about pesticides and the limited knowledge of pesticides among agricultural workers. Language was also a barrier because pesticide instructions were in English, while agricultural workers solely read Spanish.
Through that experience, I learned what it means to become a social scientist. It is about discovering and addressing problems while also identifying possible solutions. I also found my passion for health and risk communication. While finishing my degree, I served as a part-time high school teacher, which provided opportunity to translate knowledge and creatively engage with my students. I realized the essential role communication plays in acquiring knowledge.
In 2019, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime with a graduate research assistantship at Michigan State University. I left my island to pursue my master's degree and work for Michigan Sea Grant on improving risk communication about harmful algal blooms (HABs) in coastal and Great Lakes aquatic ecosystems. I focused on vulnerable populations in communities near HAB events.
Although algae has a vital ecological role, it can become a threat to an aquatic ecosystem, causing significant impacts and harming human health. Throughout the last several decades, the occurrence of HABs in the Great Lakes has been increasing and become well-known due to severe public health risks and environmental and socioeconomic effects (Wang et al. 2021; Moore et al. 2020; Walker 2014). There are few studies discussing how society copes with HABs, its social impacts, and how people are being communicated about its effects. Although HABs health effects are mainly communicated through government agencies, people often learn about HABs through direct and personal experiences.
With support from the Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant, Bowling Green State University, and Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health , I developed a master’s project on how to effectively communicate health risks caused by HABs in Belleville Lake, Ford Lake, and Lake Erie, Michigan. I designed a two-phase project to 1) explore how vulnerable populations residing near these lakes learn about HABs-related health effects and 2) evaluate how behavioral beliefs (attitude, subjective norm, and perceived behavior control) could influence risk perception and intentional behavior of avoiding recreational activities when HABs are present using the theory of planned behavior psychological model.
Conducting fieldwork research, I visited local and state parks to explore existing physical signs and messages displayed about HABs and attended local community events, such as lake festivals and fishing tournaments, which gave me a better understanding of local social and cultural aspects. I collected data through interviews and, by listening to people’s stories, I discovered new themes and data that shaped my findings.
I identified a lack of trust toward government agencies and found that community members relied on friends and family for information about lake conditions. Vulnerable populations lacked knowledge regarding HABs and their effects. For example, although nosebleeds, severe skin rash, and symptoms associated with shellfish poisonings were mentioned as lake incidents, community members were unaware that they could be caused by HABs. Additional concerns of community members related to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and ‘Do Not Eat Fish’ advisories.
Using this data from the first phase of the study, a communication product in the form of virtual fact sheets was created using two different communication styles: emotional and cognitive. The fact sheets will serve as a methodological tool to measure the effectiveness of risk communication and how it can influence public’s response and perception in phase two of the study.
I believe that by leveraging multidisciplinary fields of knowledge, we can prevent the occurrence of health incidents. We can start by learning how effectively communicating risks can save lives. By listening to the needs and concerns of community members, understanding their positionality, and understanding how health and risk information can be more accessible and trustworthy, we can truly change the world.
I plan to pursue my Ph.D. in Science and Risk Communication. Although I ended up surprising my family by not becoming the medical doctor of their dreams, I plan to become the “Dr. Benitez” of my own dreams.
- Wang, Y. T., Zhang, T. Q., Zhao, Y. C., Ciborowski, J. J. H., Zhao, Y. M., O’Halloran, I. P., … Tan, C. S. (2021). Characterization of sedimentary phosphorus in Lake Erie and on-site quantification of internal phosphorus loading. Water Research, 188, 116525. doi:10.1016/j.watres.2020.116525. [Abstract]
- Moore, S. K., Dreyer, S. J., Ekstrom, J. A., Moore, K., Norman, K., Klinger, T., Allison, E. H., & Jardine, S. L. (2020). Harmful algal blooms and coastal communities: Socioeconomic impacts and actions taken to cope with the 2015 U.S. West Coast domoic acid event. Harmful algae, 96, 101799. doi:10.1016/j.hal.2020.101799. [Abstract]
- Walker, H.W. (2014). Harmful algae blooms in drinking water: Removal of cyanobacterial cells and toxins (1st ed.). CRC Press. doi:10.1201/b17922. [Full Text]