Alum Turns Field Experience into EPA Role

Public Health Grad's Work in Puerto Rico Contributes to Real-World Impact

October 05, 2023
Delia Jimenez wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap that say "Estuario"

Delia Jimenez was born in Mexico, in the state of Jalisco, perhaps the most quintessential Mexican state, best known for tequila and mariachi music.

Jimenez’s family immigrated to the United States when she was young and settled in Vallejo. While helping to take care of her ailing grandparents, a young Jimenez was inspired to pursue a health care career. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Saint Katherine in Southern California, Jimenez arrived at Touro University California (TUC).

In the final year of her Master of Public Health degree at TUC, Jimenez was in a strange situation. Despite having a focus on Global Health, COVID-19 restrictions didn’t allow Jimenez to complete her field studies internationally. Instead of choosing between Cambodia, Ethiopia, or other locations, the only in-person field study available was in Puerto Rico.

Journey to Vieques

What began as a limited choice turned into a dedicated career in improving public health in Puerto Rico.

“The Global Health Field Study project took place between May of 2022 and September of 2022, and it really focused on a community health assessment on the geriatric population of the small island of Vieques off the main island of Puerto Rico,” Jimenez says. “It was a mixed method study conducted to gain an understanding of current health conditions of the elderly population. The findings were used to improve the health outcomes and achieve health equity through the access of quality services, a skilled workforce, and innovative high-value programs.”

The study, in collaboration with TUC, the University of Puerto Rico’s medical sciences campus (Recinto Ciencias Medicas), and Puerto Rico’s public health program, uncovered several challenges for the population of Vieques.

Vieques serves as a microcosm of the broader health care and economic disparities faced by numerous communities in Puerto Rico. Prior to Hurricane Maria, there was a small clinic on the island, but the Category 5 hurricane destroyed it, limiting health care access and forcing the population to take an entire day’s journey to and from the mainland of Puerto Rico for medical appointments.

Its elderly population confronts not only limited health care access but also economic challenges, including food scarcity and high prices. The need to travel to the mainland for health care exacerbates these issues, with ferry travel presenting logistical hurdles. Moreover, Vieques has witnessed a significant demographic shift as younger residents seek opportunities on the mainland, leaving behind an aging population.

The results of the study have revealed the severity of the issues to the Puerto Rican government.

More Work Ahead in Puerto Rico

After coming back home to complete her studies, Jimenez’s experience provided another opportunity to apply her knowledge and experience.

“I decided that my work wasn't done yet in Puerto Rico, and I was fortunate to land a job here after the field study working with the University of Puerto Rico as a research assistant,” Jimenez says.

After which, Jimenez assumed the role of a State Revolving Funds Project Officer at Estuario in Puerto Rico.

Estuario, a national estuary program located in Puerto Rico, is part of the Environmental Protection Agency. This program focuses on the ecological and economic importance of the estuary in the San Juan Bay area. Estuario's work primarily revolves around the restoration and conservation of the water quality in the San Juan Bay Estuary ecosystem that involves multiple projects such as conducting a Health Impact Assessment, focusing on illicit sewage discharges within the San Juan estuary and their repercussions on the health of nearby communities.

Jimenez emphasizes the importance of collaboration between academic institutions like TUC and local organizations such as the University of Puerto Rico, but also the power of education, determination, and community involvement in the field of public health.