Coming from South America, Dr. Catalina Lopez-Quintero never expected to find herself in the Middle East. As a child, Catalina was interested in science and the wonders of the human body. She knew she wanted to become a doctor. “I was very aware that I wanted to live my life doing something that will help others and give purpose to my life every single day, so I decided to study medicine,” she said.
Catalina worked as a primary care doctor in a hospital in Bogota, Colombia, that primarily helped underserved communities in the southern part of the city. There, she was an attending physician in the obstetrics and the neonatal intermediate care unit. While she loved her work at the hospital, she was very concerned about the social problems the community faced, the difficulties associated with access to health services, and the negative and long-lasting health outcomes for many of her patients. “I loved my work as a clinician, but I had a strong interest in fully understanding the scientific methods guiding medical practice and public health research.”
The most significant and devastating experience for Catalina was seeing the large influx of unwanted pregnancies among adolescents, many of whom were exposed to violence or used drugs while pregnant, and the negative consequences for their newborns. She thought that studying public health would aid her understanding of this problematic phenomenon and help her develop better interventions and policies. Her experiences as a clinician also helped her to understand that she needed to approach health in a more comprehensive way that goes beyond the standard provision of health care, so she decided to complete a Ph.D. in public health.
Catalina considers herself fortunate to have received medical training from a Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) alumnus who completed the International Master of Public Health (IMPH) program. She learned about public health initiatives and strategies, such as Healthy Municipalities and Cities, and Community Oriented Primary Care. Her training with the HU alumnus prompted an interest in the IMPH program, so she contacted the Israeli embassy in Bogota to learn more.
Catalina completed the IMPH at HU in 2003. She continued her education at HU and received her Ph.D. in Public Health in 2012. Both programs were both based on HU’s Ein Kerem campus, where Catalina enjoyed walking to class and seeing the valley. She loves many places in Jerusalem, including the Biblical Zoo and the Machane Yehuda market.
Catalina considers the IMPH program to be very intense, with classes usually starting at 8 AM and going until 6 or 7 PM. The rigorous class schedule was balanced by a series of trips organized by the program to iconic places throughout Israel, and Catalina was fascinated by the historical importance or beauty she found in the locations she visited. Her two favorite sites are Caesarea and Rosh Hanikra.
Catalina cherishes the friends she made from throughout the world. She thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to learn about their countries, their public health systems, and how they practiced medicine. The ability to discuss sensitive issues with students from different cultural or religious backgrounds highlighted the advantages of learning in such a diverse and rich environment.
The program prompted students to approach scientific and medical knowledge in a different way, and transformed them, from being consumers to generators of knowledge.
Catalina said, “I am impressed by the research and scientific advances taking place at the Hebrew University. During my time in the program, I witnessed the HU faculty’s commitment to science and research while working to create a more equitable and sustainable world.”
Catalina is now an assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Florida (UF). She remains in contact with fellow IMPH alumni through social media and calls her mentor every year for his birthday and major holidays. She emphasizes the importance of maintaining relationships, especially given current events. “The pandemic has increased our awareness in the important role played by global collaboration in our efforts to solve public health challenges.”
Cataline has already put this thought into practice. Since June 2020, an IMPH alumna, Vinita Sharma, joined Catalina’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow. This was only possible because of the IMPH program. She says, “Vinita was an excellent student during the IMPH program in my epidemiology class and I was extremely happy that she was willing to join our T32 fellowship program at UF supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.”
Studying in Israel dramatically changed Catalina’s life in more ways than one. She is grateful for the opportunity to pursue a career in public health research, thanks to scholarship support. “I am sure most alumni, particularly those coming from low- and middle-income countries, share the same feeling.” She continued, “Studying at HU transformed my professional and personal vision and mission. My research and teaching activities are guided by the Jewish concept of ‘tikkun olam.’ I find purpose every day by investing my knowledge, energy, and time in finding ways to improve and repair the most challenging problems we face. For example, my research focuses on identifying and reducing the impact of drug use from a multidisciplinary perspective that includes addiction neuroscience, child development, socio-cultural research, health disparities research and drug policy.”
On a personal level, Catalina is married to an Israeli. The couple is now raising a Colombian-Israeli family, which according to Catalina, “…has been a great experience. We celebrate the main Jewish holidays and try to instill in our kids a sense of responsibility for repairing the world.”