Growing up in her hometown of Queretaro, Mexico, Mirle Peña was always interested in improving people’s health. Instead of focusing on the individual, Peña wanted to help people on a larger scale through her studies of science and math.
To pursue this desire to help others, Peña decided to study biotechnology engineering at the Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro where she grew her understanding of biological processes and how to apply them to public health issues. Her next position, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico at the Center of Applied Physics and Advanced Technology helped her further develop her understanding of the real-world applications, Peña continued her education at the University of Cincinnati where she obtained a master’s degree in biomedical engineering.
Later, Peña participated in Project Imhotep administered by Morehouse College. While in this program, Peña was introduced to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) where she met many Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellows who explained to Peña how to become an ORISE opportunity participant.
The following summer, Peña applied to an ORISE fellowship opportunity and was awarded the opportunity to participate in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) NIOSH Research Participation Program in Cincinnati, Ohio. She joined the Engineering Design and Evaluation team, under the guidance of her mentor Dylan Neu.
Peña’s research focused on reducing occupational exposure of emergency medical service (EMS) providers to bioaerosols from an infected patient when in an ambulance. While treating patients, EMS providers may perform procedures, such as an endotracheal intubation, that can put providers at an increased risk for exposure to infectious aerosols from the patient’s respiratory tract. To help reduce this risk, Peña developed two ventilation interventions that would reduce the spread of infectious bioaerosols, thus decreasing the risk of infection and increasing the readiness of EMS teams to respond during pandemic conditions.
Studying containment barriers that have successfully used in the hospital environment, Peña researched how these barriers could be adapted to the ambulance environment. She evaluated two concepts: a local exhaust ventilation device and a general air filtering device.
Peña shared that during her time with the NIOSH program, she was able to collaborate with a team that promoted new ideas and gave everyone a voice. “My mentor, Dylan Neu, guided me all the way, teaching me how to use specialized equipment and supporting me when we needed to troubleshoot the experiments. I was provided with the opportunity to make mistakes and to try again,” said Peña.
Throughout her fellowship experience, Peña learned the importance of engineering controls and how to implement them as measures to promote health and safety. She was able to practice her public speaking skills as well as her writing skills through presentations and various scientific training.
Peña recommends this program to others. “An opportunity like this can open doors to get you where you want to go, where you think you can make the most impact and feel the most fulfilled,” Peña shared. “As a Latin woman coming from Mexico, this experience has been so valuable to me. I was able to make connections with the right people, which has propelled me to complete the work I always wanted to do. I was able to find my passion and do research that can positively impact people’s health.”
The program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists and is managed for DOE by ORAU.