What if air pollution could play a significant role in the neurological development of an unborn child? What if there was something we could do about it?
Working at the unique intersection of biomedical and environmental sciences, Cardenas, who completed his Ph.D. in 2015, has received funding to spend the next five years studying the impacts of prenatal and early childhood environmental stressors on children’s health and development.
"Oregon State was key. I cannot emphasize that enough."
An assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, Cardenas was awarded the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) grant by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to support his research over the next five years. This award will support his groundbreaking research on the effects that air pollution, exposure to heavy metals and diet have on the health of newborns and young children, and whether they play a role in the origins of diseases contracted later in life.
Cardenas credits the support he received from OSU faculty and staff for the tremendous success he has achieved since graduating. He spent nearly eight years on the Corvallis campus earning his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and biophysics, master’s degree in biostatistics and Ph.D. in environmental health science.
“Oregon State was key,” he says. “I cannot emphasize that enough.”
Chasing a life of adventure
A native of Costa Rica, Cardenas did not grow up with a dream of becoming a scientist. In fact, when he graduated high school, he was convinced he would become an airline pilot.
Growing up in a town nearly four hours away from the nearest city, his defining years were spent largely outdoors where he nurtured a growing curiosity for the world around him. His parents – Alice Salazar and Jose Cardenas, a high school math teacher and engineer, respectively – had instilled a strong belief in education from an early age, and one that would ultimately inspire both Cardenas and two siblings to move to Oregon to pursue higher education.
Cardenas was forced to abandon his plans to become a pilot after the financial reality set in, and he began to look for other options. He first heard about OSU through his older brother who was already attending the university for mechanical engineering. “I remember he said, ‘you really need to transfer here, if you want to do science this is the place to go,’” said Cardenas.
Like his brothers, Cardenas attended Umpqua Community College for his associate’s degree, and was able to transfer the credits over to OSU. This was not only a cost-saving decision, but one that helped him substantially improve his writing and conversational English before starting at a large accredited university.
“I think this is really where being in higher education is so helpful. You can really find who you are, and find mentors that will help you navigate these decisions.”
“I remember very clearly, when we were touring OSU as transfer students I got to meet with some of the advisors as well. I walked by one of the posters in the biochemistry building, and I saw that it said ‘Biochemistry: Revealing how life works.’ That was the moment I realized I wanted to study biochemistry.”
Cardenas felt particularly drawn to research on genomics. “I just thought the whole process of replication, transcription and translation of genes is super interesting. How you pass on genes from one generation to another, and how organisms adapt to challenges,” he said.
Interestingly, even at this time, Cardenas did not envision a future career in these fields.
“I came from a small town where it felt like you could be a doctor, a teacher or a business person. It seemed like there were only so many things you could be, and a scientist was not one of them,” said Cardenas.
Instead, he focused his energy on what he believed would be a future career in dentistry or medicine, while continuing to gain more and more appreciation for science.