Reinventing Myself in a Pandemic: From Immunologist to Science Communicator

For most of us, drastically changed plans due to COVID-19 are nothing new. Trips canceled, meetings postponed (bye-bye Hawaii!), thesis defense delayed, and moving to a new place during a pandemic were definitely not on my agenda. If someone had asked me in January 2020 about my projects for this year, especially those in science communication, I would not have imagined that they would include writing articles and giving talks from an immunological perspective about a virus that we knew very little about–a virus that has had such a dramatic impact on our way of living. 

I am an immunologist by training, passionate about my research and all things immunology. However, I always knew that just doing research in a laboratory, although important, was not fulfilling for me–it was not enough. As a woman and Latina in science, I identified several gaps and weaknesses in the way scientists were advocating for women and Latinos in science, as well as how science was being communicated to them. I observed that there was a need to put all the important research findings in my field into a cultural context. In that way, women and Latinos could understand what these contributions meant for them and their lives and the role they play in them. 

Before COVID-19, I had the opportunity to present my research at multiple national and international conferences. I tried to bridge gaps by putting all my effort into simplifying complicated scientific terms to deliver an impactful message that made science relevant to the lives of these underrepresented groups. Metaphors, analogies, and culturally relevant examples were my best tools to achieve this goal. My desire to communicate science to a lay audience motivated me to get trained in science communication and participate in outreach projects that involved communicating the importance of it in society. Little did I know that the pandemic would push me to the limits of what I thought I was capable of achieving.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest and most challenging test of my ability to put my science communication knowledge into practice. Most importantly, it has given me the honor and privilege to communicate this knowledge in Spanish, my native language. It all started with writing an article about the immunological response to COVID-19 for the leading newspaper in Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Día, thanks to a collaboration with the nonprofit Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR). CienciaPR and its director of communications Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer have been pioneers in COVID-19-related science communication and advocacy efforts in Spanish. So far, they have facilitated 74 opinion columns and articles and 60 radio and TV interviews, amplifying the voices of scientists and fulfilling the need for COVID-19 informational content in Spanish. 

The first article I wrote was well received by fellow Puerto Ricans and Latinos, who had been craving information from a trusted source. It unleashed a chain reaction of radio and social media interviews, webinars for children and adults, informational video series about COVID-19 treatments and the immunological response, additional articles, among other outreach activities to fight misinformation during these difficult times. 

My goal has always been to impact as many Latin American communities as I can, and I was surprised when I was also contacted by several Latino nonprofit organizations where I live in Minnesota to share my knowledge with them. Through one of these organizations, Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES), we organized a Facebook Live where more than 1,200 people attended and engaged with us, asking all the questions they had about the pandemic. During this event, I realized the influence and responsibility that we as scientists have in our respective communities.  

During this event, I realized the influence and responsibility that we as scientists have in our respective communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many negative consequences and highlighted underlying inequities vulnerable populations face. Meanwhile, it has given us scientists the forum to share our knowledge and be heard. The Puerto Rican scientific community, both on the islands and in the diaspora, has come together to inform fellow Puerto Ricans, and Latin Americans in general, of everything that is known about this virus. It has been wonderful to see how epidemiologists, geneticists, immunologists, biologists, among other experts, have come together for one purpose: to communicate science in a responsible and evidence-based way that is culturally appropriate. 

All our individual efforts will be documented in the project Collective Care: Responding to COVID-19 in Puerto Rico led by Dr. Rosa Ficek Torres, who is a cultural anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey and a postdoctoral fellow at the prestigious National Museum of American History. This collection will be part of this museum and the Smithsonian Latino Center to document the impact of COVID-19 in Latino communities. 

Without any doubt, this pandemic has shown the power that we Puerto Rican and Latin American scientists have when we unify our voices for the common good. I can only hope that our voices and expertise will continue to be valued by the public and the government, and that science and scientists are considered fundamental to decision-making from now on. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to translate my training as an immunologist to a communicator to serve my community and society. It makes any change of plans worth it!

A graphic that says "Take the Science Rising Challenge" with stars coming from the words.

This article is published in partnership with Science Rising, a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Take the Science Rising Challenge and join the movement at www.ScienceRising.org.

Luz Milbeth Cumba García
Luz Milbeth Cumba García

Luz is a fifth-year immunology PhD student at Mayo Clinic Graduate School in Rochester, MN. Originally from Puerto Rico, Luz has a bachelor's degree in cellular and molecular biology and a master's degree in immunology. Luz has taught and conducted research in different countries, including Brazil, Germany, Spain, and China. She is currently working with glioblastoma brain tumors. Luz is a member of the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN) and the Science Diplomacy Network in Latin America and the Caribbean. Read more from her at luzcumbagarcia.com and Twitter (@lmilbeth).

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