Meet Alexandra – a scientist, musician, and Durham resident

By Alexandra Valladares , 2014 Superfund Trainee


Alexandra Valladares
Alexandra Valladares

When I first arrived to the City of Medicine, it felt like a desolate place in comparison to the colorful vibrancy of Miami. Now that I’ve lived in Durham for half my life, it feels like a blossoming place full of hidden gems. I find Durham to be an ideal hub for the synergy of arts and sciences and Duke to be the engine of amalgamating innovations.  This summer I am doing an internship with the Research Translation Core of Duke’s Superfund Research Center, in which I will participate in science research with talented researchers and artists, in their own right, to perform outreach efforts that benefit local and disadvantaged communities, government entities, and other scientists.

As a local resident of Durham I am aware of the interconnectivity between the environment and health outcomes. There are many factors at play when addressing health disparities, as nature and nurture each provide sizable contributions. Yet, environmental conditions that include ground, fluvial, and air pollution along with lack of access to nutritional food and inadequate knowledge of consumer safety are contributing heavily to the fate and transmission of malaise locally and around the world. A well-known professor, Jared Diamond, stated that “history follows different courses for different people because of differences among people’s environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.” I have passion for understanding the dynamics of the environment, which is why I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and pursued a Master of Science degree in Earth Science at North Carolina Central University. I am graduating this summer and I plan to continue my training in the environmental health field.

My research experience lately has focused on the field of toxicology. At NCCU, I studied pathological mechanisms involved in cellular toxicity due to silver nanoparticle exposure. Nano toxicity is a public health concern due to associations with various health effects including cardio-pulmonary morbidities. Some studies also show correlations between exposure to silver nanoparticles and neurodegenerative pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.  My research project includes data on the possibility of using nanomolar concentrations of selenium as a treatment or as a preventive measure in neurodegenerative diseases.   The research and data from my study may be helpful in providing valuable guidelines to nano manufacturing industries.

My project this summer will focus on communicating to pesticide users about the long and short-term, low-level and high-level exposure health effects from pesticide use. Interestingly enough, some research papers have found correlations between pesticide use and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease among acute and chronic effects from toxicity. The mechanisms of toxicity may be different from nanomaterials to pesticides, but there are underlying similarities in the way cells respond to toxicity. I am also interested in understanding the mechanisms of exposure, such as occupational vs. ordinary inhalation or ingestion, including the hand-to mouth ingestion germane to children.

It is a rewarding experience to be part of Superfund and to know my project topics bear relevance to the people I interact with in my community. As a proud Durham resident, I have weekly commitments with the Durham Center for Senior Life, where I am the adult daycare musical therapist for seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. As with all the communicative arts, music not only serves as a vehicle for expression, but affects a bonding experience, as I personally experienced while singing with the Vocal Jazz ensemble at NCCU. Mostly, I strive to build connections, whether in conjunction with community outreach events hosted by nonprofit or federally-funded efforts, or personally through my community engagements. I hope that my Superfund communication efforts serve to connect people and that disseminating knowledge from Superfund research has a positive effect that raises awareness for people in manufacturing or farming or who are just local consumers like myself.