Katie Cardarelli is a shining example of how faith and science work together.
A professor of public health at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Cardarelli is an epidemiologist whose research is primarily focused on the health of underserved communities. This, along with her deep Catholic faith, has given her a profound perspective on life during the COVID-19 pandemic, a perspective of moral clarity in addition to scientific understanding.
She and her husband have been married for 20 years and have two boys, ages 15 and 11. The family attends St. Peter Claver Parish in Lexington, and their boys attend Lexington Catholic High School and Sts. Peter and Paul School.
Dr. Cardarelli spoke with Cross Roads about what her research as an epidemiologist has taught her about the pandemic and how her faith informs her work as a scientist:
CR: Tell us about your background.
KC: I was born and raised in rural Texas on the Mexico border. My mother cultivated in me a love of God at a young age as well as the value of social justice through her work as a public health nurse. She died when I was 14, and that experience shaped who I became, along with lots of encouragement and love from my father. I was always attracted to science and completed my bachelor’s degree in biology, master’s degree in public health and Ph.D. in epidemiology. I met my husband, Roberto, in a biostatistics class in 1997, and we were married several years later.
CR: What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught you?
KC: One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on is the unequal burden of disease and preventable death that certain populations face. As an epidemiologist, my research has focused on marginalized populations, so I am not surprised by these inequities in COVID-19 that we are seeing, but many people are just now learning about how people’s jobs, housing, economic stability and physical environment can impact health status.
What the last year has taught me is to not try to predict the future of this pandemic, given the mutating variants that have emerged. Collectively, public health scientists have learned that the best approach to reducing the burden of COVID-19 is implementing several mitigation measures at once: vaccination, mask wearing, handwashing, testing, etc.
CR: What do people need to understand an issue like vaccination?
KC: The single most important thing that everyone can do to protect themselves and others is to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which is FDA-approved, safe and effective. Unfortunately, there is a lot of inaccurate information about the vaccine online and particularly on social media that has created distrust and perpetuated myths. The more people that get vaccinated in our community, the faster the pandemic will subside. The teachings of the Bible are clear that we should do all we can to love, show compassion and take care of each other, and getting vaccinated is an important part of protecting each other right now.
CR: What does your research tell you that people might not realize?
KC: My approach to research is to work directly with communities that have historically high illness and preventable deaths to understand their perspectives of the disease that we are trying to combat. This community-engaged approach teaches scientists important factors to consider when developing interventions to reduce disease. For example, we worked with youth in Appalachia to understand their perspectives on environmental determinants of respiratory disease. They blew us away with their creativity and desire to make change in their community! It was my first time working with young people on a research project, and they really impressed me.
CR: How does your Catholic faith relate to your work as a scientist?
KC: My research focuses on understanding inequities in health among vulnerable and marginalized populations, including racial/ethnic and Appalachian populations, and implementing interventions to reduce health inequities. These inequities, at their core, are related to unequal life opportunities perpetuated by historical oppression of these populations, and elimination of health inequities is a social justice challenge. My Catholic faith is also focused on human dignity and the protection of human rights, so my research and faith go hand in hand.