The following is an excerpt from “Enthusiastic Epidemiologist” published in the Spring 2014 edition of Live & Learn, Excelsior College Magazine.
By Dana Yanulavich, Live & Learn
Rena Jones, adjunct faculty member in the School of Health Sciences, is passionate about what she does. An epidemiologist who studies air pollution and its effects on cancer, she keeps the big picture in focus as a motivating factor in her work. “It’s kind of neat to be doing work that has implications for large populations of people,” she says quickly, the words spilling out of her mouth with a torrent of excitement. “Like a physician — who sees a patient, treats a patient, gets that feel-good feeling for treating that one patient — I feel like my work could potentially impact many, many people.”
And many have already benefited from the work of this highly accomplished scientist, who’s worked in the field for barely 10 years. She’s designed, developed, and taught college-level courses and was involved in studies of respiratory health after 9/11. And now, as a part of her prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., Jones is researching the relationship between environmental contamination and cancer risk, while developing methods to inform that type of research, particularly those relating to geospatial approaches to evaluate human exposure to environmental pollution.
“A classic example is outdoor air pollution,” she explains. “We breathe in air all around us, so in order to identify how people are coming into contact with outdoor air pollutants, we can first identify where people spend their time (e.g., at home, at work) and then measure pollutants in the air within a certain distance of those locations. In this way we are classifying individuals based on their level of exposure to pollution, allowing us to compare health risks between people in contact with high levels of pollution and individuals with lower levels.” This is generally done using computing software packages called Geographic Information Systems, which help identify the geographic location of both individuals and pollution measurements, and link them for analysis.
No stranger to long hours and hard work, Jones devotes 60–70 hours a week to her research at the National Cancer Institute. She knows firsthand the balancing act many adult learners practice as they juggle careers while pursuing a college degree, because she’s walked in their shoes. Jones worked full-time out of economic necessity at the New York State Department of Health, Center for Environmental Health while she pursued her master’s and doctoral degrees. “The work experience was a very good supplement to my actual academic training,” she says. “I got hands-on experience in working and doing research way before I did my dissertation.”