International Spotlight: Pilar Fernandez, Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellow

Which program/department are you in? 

I am a postdoctoral fellow in the Earth Institute.

What is your primary area of study or research?  

Disease ecology.

Which country (or countries) do you come from? 


How long have you been in the U.S.? 

Almost 2 years.

Is there anything you’d like to share about your research or projects? 

I work in the ecology and epidemiology of vector-borne diseases. My postdoc research focuses on ticks – specifically the diseases they transmit and how people are getting exposed to them.

There is a lack of information of what ecological and social factors drive transmission in urban areas. Staten Island, NY is a great example. I am sampling ticks in properties located next to parks in select high-risk Staten Island neighborhoods. During these visits, my team conducts surveys to understand what people know about ticks and disease and which protective measures they currently undertake or are willing to implement.

I’ve also participated in designing an app to study human behavior related to ticks, called The Tick App. The goal of this app is to collect data on human behavior, tick exposure, and the risk of Lyme disease using a citizen science approach. The Tick App uses a combination of surveys and geolocation technology to uncover how people's day-to-day activities play a role in their risk for tick-borne diseases.

All the data collected during household visits and the Tick App will be combined with data collected in the parks to understand how can we better prevent tick exposure and provide custom-made solutions for Staten Islanders.

What do you like best about living in the U.S.? 

In NYC, I enjoy meeting people from different parts of the world and backgrounds.

What is the hardest thing about living here? 

Being a postdoc is always a challenge because you are transitioning into a new role and gaining more independence, hence more responsibilities! On top of that, moving to a new country sometimes make things more difficult. Some cultural aspects around friendship and family are different from what I was used to in Latin America so I felt a bit isolated at first. Now, I’m trying to overcome this by attending more social events and appreciate them for what they are, not trying to replicate what I had back in my home country.

What do you know now that you wish you knew before coming here? 

I’m still trying to figure out how the system works in the U.S. Things like healthcare, taxes, saving for a pension, etc. are very different from back home. I’m also trying to navigate the academic system and the non-written rules. I have found it useful to ask international people that have been here longer for help. My advice is to do it as soon as possible and build your collaboration network early so you avoid the anxiety of trying to figure it out on your own (not only talking about academia). Most people are willing to help!

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