Dr. Melissa Mercado honored with USF COPH Outstanding Alumni Award

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Alumna Melissa Mercado was born, raised and initially trained (BS, MSc, MA) in Puerto Rico. She moved away to pursue her PhD at the USF College of Public Health. She currently lives in Atlanta.

Mercado started her undergraduate training as a pre-med student at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Mayaguez Campus.

“Soon—that very first semester—I realized that I enjoyed research, and I decided to change to a biology major,” Mercado said. “About two years later, I discovered Healthy People, the nation’s public health goals for the next decade. Public health … what is that? I wondered. This document was my first encounter with the field. I wanted to learn more, so I started looking in ‘my own backyard’ (aka UPR). I found out that UPR had a school of public health and checked out its different graduate programs. I fell in love with public health and the rest is history!”

When researching schools of public health for her doctoral degree, Mercado knew that she wanted to continue her research in violence prevention. 

“The USF COPH hit the mark by having the Harrell Center for the Study of Family Violence.  Fortunately, my employer at the time asked me to attend a site visit in central Florida. It worked out perfectly!” she said. “I changed my flight schedule to arrive a day earlier, emailed several COPH professors to schedule appointments to learn more about their work, rented a car and met with them on my day off from work.”

Melissa C. Mercado, PhD, MS, MA (Photo courtesy of Mercado)
Melissa C. Mercado, PhD, MS, MA (Photo courtesy of Mercado)

She said that seeing how responsive and willing the professors were to meet with her even before applying to the program, how open they were to pursuing youth violence research and how close Tampa is to Puerto Rico (just a three-hour flight) were decisive factors in deciding to join the COPH.

While pursuing her PhD at the COPH, Mercado was a founding member of the USF COPH Maternal and Child Health Student Organization and helped establish the Community and Family Health Brown Bag Lunches. She also served as a graduate and professional student council liaison for the USF Presidential Ethics & Integrity Council, was a member of Eta Sigma Gamma and participated in USF’s Christian Medical and Dental Association activities.

Mercado stated that becoming a doctor is her proudest achievement during her time at the COPH.

“I don’t say this lightly. I am the first one in my family to pursue a graduate degree and currently the only one to have completed a doctorate. Beyond being proud of having completed this very rigorous doctoral program, I’m proud of having been able to give back to Puerto Rico as part of it, by conducting most of my pre-dissertation and dissertation research work there,” she said. “Beyond the PhD credentials, I’m humbled and proud of the day-to-day opportunities that the COPH allowed me to experience, which helped me grow into becoming a doctor.”

Currently Mercado is a behavioral scientist for the Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

She serves as her division’s subject matter expert on children’s bullying and as a co-lead for CDC’s Youth Violence Prevention Centers Network. She is also the CDC’s representative to the federal interagency StopBullying.gov editorial board and serves as a CDC spokesperson for English and Spanish media. Mercado was elected chair of the Collaborations Committee within the CDC-wide Latino/Hispanic Health Work Group and leads the development of an innovative research portfolio on gaming and online communities for violence prevention.

“I’m honored to have the opportunity to serve alongside extraordinary violence prevention researchers whom I used to read about and cite during my graduate studies,” Mercado said. “I’m blessed to have been able to continue my work in youth violence prevention beyond my graduate training. The rigor of the science conducted at our division is also something that attracted me greatly.”

Dr. Melissa Mercado with her COPH Outstanding Alumni Award. (Photo courtesy of Mercado)

In the future, Mercado hopes to continue expanding her portfolio of research on youth violence prevention, especially as it pertains to online environments.

“I love academia and hope to be able to return to the classroom to help prepare the next generation of public health researchers and practitioners,” she said. “Working with entertainment media content developers and storytellers, as well as with faith-based organizations, is something dear to my heart. I aspire to be able to pursue [these things] in the near future.”

Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

A teacher and a doctor, but a doctor in medicine. Well, I did become a doctor, have taught and remained in the health sciences.

Where would we find you on the weekend?

At home with my husband, son and dog.

What is the last book you read?

I’m currently reading “Know What You’re FOR: A Growth Strategy for Work, An Even Better Strategy for Life” by Jeff Henderson.

What superpower would you like to have?

Teletransportation, so that I could go visit my family in Puerto Rico anytime and as much as I wanted to.

What’s your all-time favorite movie?

It’s a three-way tie between Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast (1991), 1968’s Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, and the 1998 version of Les Misérables (Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman).

Story by Caitlin Keough, USF College of Public Health