Pichardo’s Path Leads From UIC to NCI

Unlike some new graduates, Catherine Pichardo knows exactly what she will be doing for at least the next five years.

Pichardo, who received her doctorate in Community Psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago in December 2021, began a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Health (NIH) as part of the National Cancer Institute’s Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award. The T32 grant provides institutions with cancer research training opportunities for pre- and post-doctoral fellows.

Under the tutelage of Lisa Sanchez-Johnsen, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Rush University Medical Center, formerly of UIC; Yamilé Molina, PhD, associate director for community outreach and engagement at the Cancer Center and associate professor in the School of Public Health; and Jesse Plascak, PhD, Ohio State University College of Public Health, Pichardo studied how the health of Latinos could be linked to neighborhood risk factors. For her dissertation, Pichardo examined the role of neighborhood segregation and gentrification on metabolic health.

Growing up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Corona, Queens, New York, Pichardo observed how the environment played a role in a person’s health. Many in the area managed obesity and other health conditions. Poverty, coupled with environmental stressors, affected access to quality resources, such as opportunities for physical activity and culturally sensitive health centers. When she began her studies at St. John’s University, she wanted to learn more about how the two factors – the environment and health – are intertwined.

“My community has high rates of obesity and, in turn, are at an increased risk of obesity-related cancers. I want to change that,” Pichardo said. “My goal is to develop interventions to address negative health outcomes in my community.”

The T32 grant has been continually funded at UIC since it was received in 1992. Under the direction of Cancer Center member Richard Warnecke, PhD, professor emeritus, the grant allowed the Cancer Center to develop a Cancer Education and Career Development Program that integrates education, mentored research training, and career development opportunities in areas such as research methods and biostatistics, population science, and grant development.

The program focused on collaborations among researchers in cancer epidemiology, community-based participatory research, chemoprevention, clinical psychology, economics, health policy, health services research nursing, nutrition science, pathology, pediatrics, and translational research.

“Continued advances in the field of cancer research depend on the development of a diverse, appropriately trained scientific workforce,” said Marian Fitzgibbon, PhD, professor of pediatrics, and health policy and administration. Fitzgibbon, associate director of the Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control program, has led the T32 program since 2009.

“Our goal is to train a diverse cadre of scientists with the skills and experience needed to address the range of  challenges and opportunities in research on cancer-related health disparities and to advance health equity policies at both the local and national levels.

“Enhancing multidisciplinary cancer health equity research will also contribute to the health of our nation by expanding the research talent pool, enhancing innovation, and diversifying our health equity research leadership.”

Pichardo became interested in cancer research from her older sister, a student at Howard University College of Medicine who conducted breast cancer studies while a student in Yale University’s doctorate program. After receiving her master’s degree at UIC, Pichardo began working with Molina on the implementation of an intervention to increase adherence to breast cancer screening guidelines among Latinas.

“I love UIC for its diversity, the excellent research, the advocacy and its great mentors. When I was told I received the position at NIH I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I’m sad about leaving UIC and Chicago, but am really excited about the new opportunity and my future.”

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