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LISTEN: Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne's trailblazing journey in environmental health

LISTEN: Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne's trailblazing journey in environmental health

"What's all this education for if you're not going to help?"

21 min read

Dr. Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss breaking down barriers in receiving her Ph.D. and the importance of centering research on the health of communities.

Ornelas Van Horne, a postdoctoral research associate at USC, talks about growing up bicultural and bilingual, being the first Latina to receive a Ph.D. from her environmental health sciences department at the University of Arizona, and keeping communities' well-being and best interests at the forefront of her research.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Ornelas Van Horne, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.


Brian Bienkowski

All right, today I am talking to Dr. Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne, a postdoctoral research associate at USC. Yoshi is a brilliant researcher and talks about the importance of representation in the environmental health field, in conducting her research on pollution to actual solutions for affected communities. Enjoy.

Alright, I'm super happy to be joined by Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne, who also goes by Yoshi. Yoshi, how are you doing today?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

I'm doing well. Thank you so much for asking.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, thanks for being here today. So I wanted to start at the beginning. You are the daughter of Mexican immigrants and grew up in Phoenix, both bicultural and bilingual. I was wonder if you could tell me a little bit about that experience. And some of the challenges with having a foot kind of in both worlds of both Mexican heritage and American?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

Of course, um, well, yeah, so it's one of those things where I don't really get to talk to it about it often, especially in, you know, the science research and academic world. So, you know, very happy to kick off this podcast with that. And, you know, it's, it's one of those identity, like one of those identity things that as you grow, as you become an adult, or grow older and become more comfortable with it, you really do start to embrace it, right. And it's kind of this – you don't necessarily growing up, you don't necessarily know where you fit in. It's your part of two worlds, and the best explanation that I've ever found. And I know a lot of other people like me reference, it is the Selena Quintanilla movie, starring JLo, where the dad during the event and he's like, you know, we have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, but at the same time, and it's exhausted. And that is still true all these decades later. But it does become this power thing. And so you know, that empowerment and that gaining that confidence is what allows us to live in both worlds. And that's not necessarily something that as a child, you understand, right? Because you're getting ridiculed, from both ends. You know, your, your Mexican family of you, you kind of, you know, your accent or your words, you're not pronouncing them, right. You also get that at school, with people criticizing your writing. The way you're speaking even those words later on when they're like people are like, Oh, well, you don't really sound like you have an accent. And they stick with you, right. And I think there comes a point, especially as I've gotten older, where you really embrace that and you're like, you know what, this is me, this is both, and you learn to live with it, and you learn to embrace it, and really take that as a power that it makes you, you.

Brian Bienkowski

And you were the first in your family to graduate college, and then went on to become the first Latina to receive a PhD in the Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Arizona. So first of all, congratulations, that is awesome. It's enough to get a PhD. But to be a trailblazer is a lot on top of that. I'm just curious what these accomplishments meant to you.

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

Right. So, I mean, first of all, for college, you know, I definitely always credit that to my mom. And, and my, both my parents, especially my mom, because she's always like college, you're gonna get a scholarship, you know, do good in school, you know, you're, it's gonna happen. And that expectation.

You know, I like I knew that that was always embedded in me. And so school was something I was good at. And for the college road, it really was, what I like to call like a collective effort from communities and different organizations that had those early academic outreach programs involving families, really paving the way for you to know okay, how do I apply for college? pay for college? And, you know, I did it. One of the stories like to tell is that, um, I did I, the reason I picked Tucson, especially universe, Arizona is because it was so far away from my family to kind of get away from those expectations, but it was so close to where if I need if they needed me, I could be there, or they could come see me. And then as you know, faith what habit or just the world playing crow Joke's on me, oh, my sister's decided that he also wanted to come to the University of Arizona. And so it went from, you know, spending a couple of years there really enjoying the thing myself to having other than join me. And I do love that experience. But it's also one of those, you know, here, I was thinking I was going to be alone, but the Oh, join me and it's one of those experiences that I really do love and I'm glad I got to experience because there was, you know, kind of our own little pod helping each other out and supporting it, you know, your daughter, my sisters, of course, I'm going to support them, they're there for me.

And in terms of the PhD, you know, and I've heard some other fellows also talk about this. It was one of those actually thought I was going to go to medical doctor, because that's always often, especially for first generation, the career paths that are kind of put in your purview are lawyer engineered a medical doctor, and you don't really get exposed to all these other different fields that are potentially out there. And it wasn't until I was doing a non grata undergraduate research program, that I ended up finding what public health was, and particularly environmental health. And it just so happened that the faculty I had met with also was Latina. And I had never, I think, until that point, had a Latina professor, much less someone that, you know, was also a PhD was in a field that I found fascinating. And that really, you know, when we talk about how representation matters, that really was what kind of started thinking, Okay, well, she did it, and I can do it. And I can learn from her to how to actually navigate this world. And so it really was, you know, combination, a lot of things that kind of led me to that.

Brian Bienkowski

Other than having the representation that allowed you to see yourself maybe going into this profession, is there anything about environmental health, the field, you said it was something you're passionate about, what what is it about the field that drew you into it?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

So for environmental health, I like to think of it as is, you know, it's a very broad field, you have people either setting effects of air pollution, water quality, it really just, it's broad, and the best ways that I can put it, that it's at its core, it's trying to identify how contaminants in our world affect our health affect people. And specific to that, how different how exposures vary through different people, either the way they were they're living, their activities that they're doing. And that really attracted me because I wanted to know, okay, who is being exposed to these contaminants? Are there disparities? And to that, what can we actually do to reduce them, because it's not enough knowing, right? We have years, decades of knowing all these things are harmful for you. But especially I think, in the past few years, it's become more evident that we really need solutions to combat that. And that's something that really attracted to me because it was a way to mix all these different things I was passionate about, you know, environmental health, environmental issues, policy, people's health, particularly those of my community. And that, and that was really the key to that.

Brian Bienkowski

You mentioned early on thinking about environmental health and pollution and the potential for disparities in different communities. And I think this is something that certainly you and I and I think most people are aware of now, but it I'll admit, in the beginning, you know, when you first learn about air pollution, when I was when at 20, or maybe a late teen, it was just thinking about smog or vehicles and not thinking about kind of the social dynamics. And I'm wondering if that was early on something you were thinking about the environmental injustice part of this? And if so, how, how did you become privy to that so early on?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

So no, it wasn't something I had had known about. I mean, not necessarily, like directly known about so I grew up in Westside Phoenix, and it is a known, it's an area known for, you know, having a lot of, quote, unquote, illegal dumping of chemicals due to all the different automobile shops that are around. So it was kind of that unspoken thing. And I didn't actually know that that was or could contribute to people's health. Right. And through my undergrad research journey, I always wanted one kind of have the science background of knowing, okay, what are chemicals? You know, how do they move in the environment? But also, okay, how, what does this actually matter? Or how does actually people affect health, right. And it wasn't until

I'm trying to remember, it wasn't until later on, I think, my first year in graduate school, where I took a course on environmental justice and seminars and what that really meant. And if you look at the progression of environmental justice, and just talking about, you know, who's most impacted, and you go back to the literature, for the scientific journals, you know, 2030 years ago, they allude to it, they say, No, people of color may be more affected by pollution, or they have higher their height, their higher burden, but they don't ever say they are they allude to that and now.

Now, it's explicit now they say, you know, what communities of color are disproportionately impacted. This is not to because they're, you know, they're black or they're Latino, it is strictly because of systematic racism going on. And I do.

It's one of those that I'm very proud that environmental health field is moving towards that I think we still have a long way to go to recognize and put those two and two together, but it is something that you know, you used to hear they're and they're very alluded, not not directly, but now it's explicit now.

We know, and there's no denying that right? It's one of those. We known this for 30 years. And now people are very strong opinionated about it, I think a few years ago, or decades, or whatever people would have gotten, they got a lot of flack for thinking that we're alluding to that. But now we have so much research and paper after paper scientists after scientists showing these patterns.

Brian Bienkowski

So I want to talk about your doctoral training a little bit because you did work with an environmental justice community. But first, getting up to that point of your PhD, you mentioned this professor, that this Latina professor that that you saw yourself in, but are there is that a moment that shaped your identity? Or is there another moment that shaped your identity up to that point that you can kind of, you know,

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

it did and I'll give a shout out to her. So Dr. Paloma Beamer, tenured associate professor at the University of Arizona, and so definitely having her, you know, I kind of see her as an icon in our field. She doesn't necessarily think that, but I do, but hat was definitely a defining moment, you know, her talking about her experiences, you know, visiting her, her grandparents in Mexico have something that I definitely really related to, and then her talking about how oftentimes she was the only Latina and some of her courses and training right, and something that I was also, you know, at the time experiencing, well, some other ones joined the program later, that's, you know, that's a feeling that always stuck with you. And so that was definitely one of those redefining identity, like, you know, what, I'm gonna put myself out there and in, you know, see yourself but another one really was working with the DNA, which is what the Navajo call themselves into our language. And it really took me working with with them, and their community to kind of find myself back in my own roots, and what it really meant to be, you know, this this bicultural, bilingual Latina, because working with them, you know, they embrace your culture and have such a connection to their families to the environment, and, you know, that's part of their, that's, that's part of who they are. And they really embrace that, and love that. And it's who they are every single day. And that working with them and how they interacted with each other really brought me back to wanting to learn more about, you know, more my heritage or more of the roots that may have had been erased over the years. You know, it's no secret Mexico was colonized way back then. And so a lot of that, that heritage has been lost. And so it really was another defining moment of, of a, you know, not necessarily that I knew it was gonna happen, but one of those that really brought me back to Okay, What it is, who it is you are, what it is, what it is you want to do, and who it is actually benefiting in terms of finding your identity.

Brian Bienkowski

And speaking of your work with the Navajo I know that as I alluded to that was part of your doctoral training was working with Navajo communities impacted by specifically the 2015 Gold King mine spill, which for those who don't know, was an environmental disaster where the EPA employees and restoration workers working out of mine and Colorado released toxic waste into the Animas River watershed. And I was wondering what were some of your major research findings when you were working with the Navajo? And how did you communicate these back to the community? And what were the reactions in the responses to your work?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

So yes, so that was a huge collective effort. You know, a lot of that was in collaboration with

the community health worker, Community Health representatives of the Navajo Nation, to Department of Health there on Navajo Nation, EPA, University of Arizona, in quite a few elders, Navajo elders that led that work. And the, my dissertation was really part of this bigger overall project that was funded by the National Institute of Health, led by Dr. Carlota chief who's Navajo and Dr. Paloma Beamer, my dissertation advisor, and really what they're trying to the project and to do was through working with with their communities, very culturally informed framework is one identify environmental impacts into how the spill overall if had any had any cultural damage to them, and specifically to my dissertation work, the main findings were when we saw that one we identified activities with the river that we hadn't hadn't considered in the risk assessment process. Right. So before that, I think the scenario that that the EPA US had been, oh, well, you know, we think they're safe because according to our scenario that a hiker drinking from the server only like 60 days of the year, they're going to be fine. Not really taking into account that people live there every day.

Breathe every day in the US that river for Coltrane's for two purposes. And that really was like the big identifier, right? We identified all these activities that should be put in a risk assessment, to identify, are they going to be more exposed? Are they going to be at risk. And so that was one, we did find that overall, across every category of, you know, either recreational use, cultural use, even spiritual and arts and crafts, their activities really spiked by over 50%, meaning that, meaning that they were no longer using the river. And really, it's kind of hard to put into words, but the best way to describe that is one is that it only not only is impacting them, now, it's one of those things that could potentially impact them in the long term. Because these are teachings that they can pass on to children, right, and water is one of their sacred elements. So you're not only hurting in what we're calling, you know, quantitatively hurting them. We honestly almost that spill honestly destroyed, almost destroyed their, their way of life. And so that was one of our big findings in sort of understanding of how the spill really impacted this community.

Even whether one of the things is environmental, it doesn't seem like the,

it does seem like because of the how the river flows, all those acid mine drainage really ended up down in Lake Powell. So it was bigger than just saying, Oh, well, you know, we did find these high metals in the river banks, which is one of the findings, it's much bigger than just environment and Western society thinks to think of the environment as just, you know, water, air soil, but it really is this, especially to the day is this balance, it's a balance between water, fire earth.

And that was, that was one of the things that was destroyed. And we ended up did have working with our collaborators and the nailart elders, they did end up having a healing ceremony to try to move past this in terms of how our results were communicated. Well, that was a really long endeavor.

We had both from the beginning, we knew, you know, individual results to all the participants that came.

That's a willingly participated in the study, and also bigger community forums. So I, I've lost track. But I think last time, we had added it all up, it was over 20 different community outreach events held that the chapter houses, always having a Navajo translator who translator because traditionally, DNA is an oral language. And so that was very important to be able to reach those that are don't speak English, that's still converse in the DNA language. And so those were the main ways we were trying to make our voice out there. I know, we also had radio forums. And then definitely always working alongside the community partners who knew best of you know, the radio stations to head over to chapter houses, which, which venue would be best to disseminate our results?

Brian Bienkowski

That's a good lesson that when the research is over, at least for researchers, like yourself, that work is a lot of times just begun. And I'm wondering if you can talk on the front end going into a community and I don't know what your familiar familiarity was with Navajo before that, but how much prep went into you embarking on this dissertation, just learning about the culture and maybe ways to go in, in a respectful and intentional way?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

Yeah, so I have not had the pleasure of working with them before. And it's one of those. It's, it's so it really was a it's really a credit to Dr. Carlin achieve. And she's also a first generation college graduate.

Very much, I think an icon for the for the nation was Miss Miss Navajo Nation. And so she knew, you know, kind of what I kind of related to her is that she also kind of grew up in these, you know, both identities, and they and in this Western American type of environment, and it is very much a credit to her, she had just connections, she knew the culture because she is she is dumb. And so she knew what needed to be done, who we needed to connect with. And as an outsider, I would have not known.

You know, first of all, even how to say hi, who do I talk to? Where do I go, and that was really important to, you know, setting foot in there. And I originally just started volunteering for them and trying to get the scientific protocols, how we were going to get, you know, the different samples more of the logistics behind it. And eventually, a few months later, I was like, you know, I think I could really, I really want to do my dissertation on this because there's so many questions that the community has that I think I would be able to help, help them answer. And that included, you know, did the spell cause How did the spell really impacted them in terms of activities and how we could build a better a culturally a cultural, culturally relevant risk assessment. And so I didn't it, I guess looking back now and moving forward, it's one of the things that always carry is knowing, learning about the community and learning about their cultures before you go in. And just like, you know, a lot of researchers kind of just say, I'm going to do the study with so and so and I've never met them, but you know, I know best and I'm gonna go in, and that is totally a wrong thing to know, or to do. Um, I definitely would have, you know, probably read some more books, talk to a few more people about what the customs and expectations were, but you kind of learn along the way, one of the things that I, you know, with every meeting that starts, they always start with a prayer and introducing who you are and who their plans are. And that's something that we don't really do in and other types of meetings, we never start out with, you know, acknowledging your place in time. And that's, that's kind of a shame, because I think it, it really does let you know who's in the room, how are you connected to each other? and setting that precedent moving forward? Okay, we really are going to be working together in unison.

Brian Bienkowski

I totally agree. I'm always astounded by the parallels between science and journalism. Because I've I did a lot of indigenous reporting, before I move into an editor role. And the last thing you just mentioned was one of the first things I remember to traveling around the country was,

I would have my notebook out and ready to go, and let's just get on, let's get on with the show. And that's not how a lot of the tribes they interacted with operated, it was no, who are you? Who are we let's let's, I think you said it best are always at our place in time, you know, who we are. And I really liked that. And it's kind of these interesting parallels between between science and journalism. So now you're working with Latino communities in California to tease out disproportionate rates of respiratory ill health illnesses. And I'm wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that work, and how you see this work and your work in the future fitting into advance social and environmental change?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

Yes, So currently, I'm working with this bigger project, really led by USC at an Imperial Valley, which is more in the south border community in California. And it will one it's been I think it's about one in five kids in that area. Mostly Mexican American have asthma, which is one of the highest percentages here in California and just Mexican Americans overall. And I'm really tied to that bigger is answering the question, Well, why? Because you kind of don't see these rates elsewhere. And one of the, you know, one of one of the ways we think they're being that may or alluding to what that may be, is there's this, which is kind of, you know, I don't know how familiar people are with it, but Salton Sea, which is dry and sailing, like, and over the years, different water demands, and just climate change overall, has really dried that lake out. And it's kind of, you know, not not evaporated, but it's left behind more of what they call a blight playa. So just us and the environment exposed, and that gets suspended in the air, and it makes its way all across that area. And so really what would work is trying to understand one different

the elemental composition of that and how that might be contributing to those higher rates in that area, along with along with, along with a couple of other different environmental contaminants that are known in that area. And so it's really Tz now. Okay, houses really affecting that community. And in terms of social and environmental change moving forward? Well, these is not really, while it does seem unique to that area, it's really not right, so we've seen overall, just different areas can become that more dry environment. That is really, we don't know what's to come. And me along with other researchers have really kind of put this call out to really need to be looking into how climate change is impacting in tiny mortal health effects. And because I think along the way we we've, in terms of climate change research has really been this focus on like, Oh, you know, it's affecting our animals or it's affecting this sort of silo of the world. But in terms of how that actually impacts people. We haven't really been, especially environmental health board, we haven't really been, we haven't really been focused, not focused, but we haven't really been doing I think our job to try to tie these two areas of research together.

Brian Bienkowski

And you're obviously in this Agents of Change program because on some level, you have an interest in communicating your work and your experiences to a broader audience than beyond maybe the scientific journals. So I was wondering how you see science communication fitting into your broader work moving forward?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

I do so it's a realm that I'm trying to get better at. Not necessarily, if that's, you know, still coming true. But I try to No, not the first one to say this. But I was really inspired by

I want to say it was Coby Wilson, Dr. Jacoby Wilson. And he says, I think one of the many research meetings I've encountered in spaces, he said something, you know, our journal or dusty journals don't do good in our shells. And that's, you know, trying to get our work out there in these other spaces that they're not necessarily just peer to peer literature is super important. And science communication is not something we're actually trained on. I mean, I think some people are, which I'm kind of jealous of. But in terms of research, researchers or even public health, environmental health, we're not necessarily we there's no class, I mean, that I've seen that says, here's how you're going to do science communication, like these are the steps these are, you know, you're writing the way you're either communicating through social media or anything like that, there's no course in that. So we kind of learn along the way if this is something that we want to do. And to me, I kind of see this, as you know, it, I have this platform, I have, as my mom would say ... what's all this education if you're not going to help. And so I do really see this as like an advocacy, part of my job as a scientist to try to get better at that. So to be able to communicate with the public, and kind of, you know, bridge these two worlds that I think some scientists have looked down upon, of being quiet or you know, that think, you know, science speaks for itself. But really, that's only something afforded to the privilege and elitist, in my opinion, because not everybody is going to have access to the this research world that people try to kind of put in a spot that only belongs to certain people. And that's not really, for me, science, communication is about being open and transparent. And people having access to your knowledge in you having access to that.

Brian Bienkowski

I need that quote from your mom on all of my emails that I send to scientists that don't want to talk to me.

Give them a little kick in the rear a little bit. So what role do you think social media plays in what you were just talking about getting your science out to a broader audience? I there's a wide array of opinions on this, on how to use it, and if it's good or bad, and I think Ami Zota, Dr. Ami Zota, the founder calls it an agnostic tool, you know, it's a tool to get your research out. So I'm wondering, kind of how you use social media now and what role you see it playing for you in the future.

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

So I love social media. And so obviously, I think like maybe we, you know, the millennial age we kind of, originally it was, you know, like just personal usage, right? And it's become, it's become so much bigger than that. I think a lot of people get their primary news is where they come from. I primarily stick to Twitter and Instagram. I think just because, you know, those are the ones that undergrad those are the ones that came about. But I do see it as a way to reach a certain to reach people. And I think it's one of those also keeping in mind who is the usage so for I always come back to, you know, the elder, elder people probably wouldn't be using. I mean, some of them probably would be using Twitter, but it is because it is one of those generational things and knowing your audience, I would also think that, especially for science communication, sticking to some of the more either print or web based formats for social media, so it is something I'm trying to get better at, you know, how formatting tweets, the timing of them and all that stuff.

And it's gonna say something else about it, but kind of forgot what it was.

Brian Bienkowski

Have you used it much yet in terms of so it sounds like you use social media quite a bit. Have you used it on a on a science capacity? Or is it mostly kind of personal, personal use so far?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

So in terms of a science capacity, it is something I want to move towards. I'm using it I saw, I've always tried to think of ways I mean, not that I haven't gone there. It's just something I'm very, you know, thinking about how can I actually integrate it into my work? And I had joked around that we should probably make I think for Imperial Valley when we were trying to get one of the things is that we measure a lung function for the children, they're trying to serve their respiratory health. And I kind of joked and said that we should probably just make a tick tock video on how to use it, that would, you know, probably work wonders for us. And, you know, I haven't actually done that. But I think that is something that, you know, trying to get that training or trying to get, you know, probably like, tries and fails to try to do that I saw one of the recent Tiktok I don't really know who actually did it, but it was on explaining redlining, and I thought that was genius. Because it is something that that kind of gets all those views and in a short amount of time really conveying that message. And that's, that's hard. It's hard to do that condense everything, you know, recent years of research, years of education years of trying to communicate into these second videos. But it's super powerful. You see, just by how, you know now, how many how many people you're actually able to reach?

Brian Bienkowski

That is one thing with social media. And it really started with Twitter when it was I can't remember if it's 140 characters, but it forced people in the news and, and scientists and others to, you really have to boil your message down. And now Tiktok, which I'm not terribly familiar with, but I think it's short videos, right?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

Kind of, yeah, they're a little short videos, I don't have a Tiktok, so please don't look me up.

But yeah, there are short videos, I should probably make one and like, try to get good at it. But they are there.

I don't know exactly how long they are. But they're not these, you know, hour long YouTube videos that we were so used to like trying to get all your information they really do come down to Okay, what's your point? And you don't really have time to go all through all these details that you know, are important, but not for the message that you're necessarily trying to give.

Brian Bienkowski

So from new media to one of the oldest mediums, my last question is, what is the last book you read for fun?

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

Well, good thing for this 2020 it kind of brought me back to my love for books. And so I haven't finished it. I think I'm in the last chapter, but it is a book that I'm reading for fun. And it's a book by Maria Hinojosa called Once I Was You and she is, she's a Latina journalist. And it's a her book is her memoir, really about her growing up and finding her own space. And also, you know, you're probably more familiar with that in the journalism world. That she really paved the way for a lot of Latino journalists to find her own voice and you know, make their own space when it wasn't really you know, it wasn't given to them. They they fought for everything they had.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, Yoshi, thank you so much for taking time today. This has been a lot of fun.

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne

Thank you so much. It really enjoyed it.

About the author(s):

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