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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences
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Christina Cordero, PhD, MPH

Graduation Year: 2006
Advisor: Satchell
Current Position: Project Director, The Joint Commission

Christina Cordero is a native of the Chicago suburb Buffalo Grove and attended University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for her undergraduate degree. She returned to the Chicago area for graduate school, graduating from the Integrated Graduate Program (now known as the DGP) with both a PhD and a masters in public health (MPH) in 2006.

What made you want to go to graduate school?

At some point during my sophomore year in college, I had this idea that I wanted to become a professor and have my own lab. Grad school was the first step.

What brought you to Northwestern and the IGP/DGP?

I interviewed at a few different schools, but I knew early on that Northwestern was the best fit overall. From a professional standpoint, I wan’t exactly sure what I wanted to study, so the umbrella-style IGP program offered me the most flexibility. From a personal standpoint, I wanted to stay in Chicago, and Northwestern has the hands down best location in the city!

What did you study in graduate school?

I worked in the Satchell Lab studying covalent actin cross-linking by the Vibrio cholerae RTX toxin for my PhD thesis project. I did my MPH thesis project on RTX toxin actin cross-linking activity in clinical and environmental isolates.

Did you do a postdoc?

No postdoc for me – I traded in my lab coat and nitrile gloves for some suits, high heels, and an office job.

What was your first job outside of academia, and how did you get it?

After a few years in the lab, I realized that academic science wasn’t the right place for me. I was already taking classes in the MPH program, and I knew that I wanted to do something on the public health/health policy side when I graduated. It was awkward to apply for jobs outside of academia when I didn’t have much experience doing anything else, but somehow I managed to talk my way into a job at The Joint Commission, a company that aims to improve the quality and safety of healthcare organizations.

My first position was Senior Research Associate working on a project focused on how hospitals were providing care to their diverse patient populations, specifically how they were addressing language and cultural needs. I viewed it as sort of a post-doc in health policy, something I would try until the grant funding ran out and then move on to something else. As luck would have it, I’ve been at The Joint Commission in various roles for 11 years now.

What is your current position?

Currently, I am a Project Director in the Division of Healthcare Quality Evaluation. I lead research and development projects addressing key quality and safety concerns, such as patient-centered communication, organ and tissue transplantation, patient blood management, telehealth, electronic health records, and antimicrobial stewardship. On any given day, I can be found researching emerging healthcare issues, serving as a subject matter expert for internal or external projects, or traveling to a conference for a speaking engagement. I’m not going to lie: it’s a decent amount of time in meetings and in airports.

How did Northwestern prepare you for your current career?

Although there may not be an obvious connection between my education and training at Northwestern and what I’m doing now (i.e., a microbiologist ending up in healthcare accreditation), there are actually a lot of things I learned in grad school that have helped me with my current position.

1 – My approach to research: The way that I design projects, ask questions, and find relevant literature are all a testament to my time in the IGP.

2 – My communication and presentation skills: I do a lot of public speaking. A lot. From creating effective presentations to explaining complex issues to navigating through audience questions and interruptions, I can definitely say that all of the journal clubs, seminars, poster presentations, qualification exams, and committee meetings gave me valuable experience speaking in front of people.

3 – My ability to collaborate with colleagues: Both my PhD and MPH thesis projects involved collaboration within the Satchell lab and with labs at other institutions, which has helped me cultivate relationships with other organizations and work with multidisciplinary teams.

What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?

It’s okay if no one understands what you’re trying to do. I basically switched careers before I even had a career, used a combination of degrees that weren’t required (but have been invaluable) to get a job that makes the most of what I’m good at and allows me to make a positive impact on patient safety. You can make it work.

What was the best thing about your time in the IGP/DGP?

I ended up marrying one of my classmates! Josh and I started dating in our second year of grad school, managed a long-distance relationship during his post-doc, got married in 2013, and just had a baby last year. Who knows, maybe our little guy will be in the IGP class of 2040!

Do you have any final advice for graduate students?

Make the most of the opportunities to present your work – lab meetings, conferences, seminars, etc. No matter what you end up doing in the future, being able to communicate your ideas effectively and give an engaging presentation will take you farther than you think.

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