Erica Ortiz Chaparro’s grandmother did not study past sixth grade, but she taught her granddaughter how to read and write. AAAS Member Chaparro, 24, is now a student at the University of Puerto Rico in her third year studying medicine. For Chaparro, who presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting last month, her grandmother’s story is the still center of her swirling world.
The matriarch learned how to sew, made a little money and took her three children to college.
“She regrets not having continued with school,” Chaparro says—reminiscing about her grandmother. She says her grandmother’s sixth grade education was something she used to remind her granddaughter to study hard. “She always has been very adamant in us studying... She had a lot of agency.”
As Hurricane Maria barreled down on Puerto Rico in 2017, Chaparro herself was two and half hours away from her family and home, studying at the medical school in San Juan. She later made it to the western part of the island where she hunkered down with her family. Since then, life has never been the same for her.
“We spent six months without electricity, four months without water and one year without Internet,” she says. “Puerto Rico had never experienced a lack of water; the taps were dry and we needed to be looking for water from different sources.”
Soon after the hurricane, and as Puerto Ricans picked up the fragments of their lives, Chaparro found out that for all its global reach and power, the World Health Organization (WHO) had not studied post disaster recovery in relation to water treatment at home. “They had done it for places where they are used to not having water, where water resources are limited,” she says.
So, while dealing with her own family’s lack of access to drinkable water, Chaparro pulled a 44-item survey questionnaire from the WHO website, translated it into Spanish, validated the tool and performed a pilot study with 150 participants. She soon found out that most people in urban Puerto Rico did not have water storage facilities and they were ill equipped to survive after a natural disaster. “People had a paint bucket which they used for water storage,” she recalls. “That was it.”
Her survey further revealed that most people did not have basic knowledge of boiling or chlorinating water, and “there was a general perception of chlorine being unsafe,” she says.
The AAAS Caribbean division got wind of her research paper, "KAP on use management and storage of water after a natural disaster in Puerto Rico." She was invited to present her findings at the recently concluded Annual Meeting in Seattle, and after she emerged as the winner in the student category, she immediately joined AAAS.
Attending the Annual Meeting was what Chaparro calls a shocking experience; but in a good way.
“It really gave me a sense of belonging, like I can actually do this, I can be a physician and a scientist, I can succeed in this community,” she says.
Following the meeting, Chaparro was recently accepted for a one-year fellowship at the National Institute of Health (NIH) where she intends to spend one year looking at population health. Her current research interests include looking at the social determinants of health in particular and finding out how food and activities contribute to cardio medical disease in minorities. She will move to Washington, D.C. in July.
Despite her achievements, Chaparro is all too aware of her rising student loan debt and says it is something that is very concerning for her as a young researcher.
“It is about $42,000 a year and I have been in medical school for three years,” she says. “The interest rate now is 6%. It is an incredible amount…It is overwhelming… I feel helpless about it because my parents cannot indefinitely pay for my education.”
She is anxious to know if the private lender will freeze her loan or if they are going to start building interest as she pursues her fellowship at the NIH.
Chaparro is not about to give up her education though.
“My dad tries to calm me down,” she says. “They are trying to save to pay my interest rate once I graduate.”
The nationwide shut down due to the coronavirus COVID-19 has added pressure on Chaparro and her family in Puerto Rico. Still, she sees it as an opportunity to learn more about epidemics. She is currently reading a book that documents the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, “La Epidemia Reinante” or the “Raining Epidemic” by Mayra Rosario Urrutia. She has caught some chilling similarities like government inaction as well as what could happen to those trapped in the poverty cycle.
“People who are living in poverty have less ability to protect themselves which puts them in more poverty because they cannot work.”
It’s something Chaparro knows all too well.