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Growing up in McAllen, Texas, health economist Norma Padrón had no healthcare insurance. And she wasn’t alone: the city is the most expensive US town for healthcare and is home to some of the highest rates of uninsured people in the country. But although Padrón would go on to achieve multiple advanced degrees in the subjects, neither economics nor healthcare initially piqued her interest.
With McAllen being a border city, Padrón attended middle and high school in Reynosa, Mexico. So, when she got to the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley (UT-RGV), she says, “Math was my happy place because I didn’t have to speak English.”
When she first arrived at UT-RGV, she had no clue what she wanted to study. While she may not have realized it at the time, though, Padrón already thought like an economist, and she soon developed a passion for using her love for numbers to answer her keen questions about the world.
One day, a Duke University professor came to her class to promote the American Economic Association Minority Summer Program (AEASP). The program prepared students for doctoral programs in economics, something Padrón was intrigued by but also fearful of.
“Through that program, I met many other Latino students who also wanted to pursue that [field of study],” she recalls. “That community helped me believe I could do it.” By the end of that summer, Padrón had set her sights on achieving the highest postgraduate degree one can earn—a PhD.
Padrón went back to UT-RGV with a newfound command over her academic direction. After earning her bachelor’s with a major in economics and a minor in mathematics, she went on to earn a master’s of economics from Duke and, there, published her first peer-reviewed study, “Preferences, Beliefs, and Self-Management of Diabetes.”
Then, after being awarded a Rotary International Foundation ambassador scholarship, Padrón earned another master’s in public health from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. “That’s why I emphasize community,” she says. “I was able to find role models and people who would push me to do things like apply for scholarships—sometimes you need that.”
By the time Padrón got to Yale University, she had already published a peer-reviewed article and held two master’s degrees, yet she still found the prospect of attaining her PhD intimidating. “My education was the one thing that no one could ever take away from me—what you learn is so powerful. But no matter how many degrees you have, there will be times when you feel like you can’t get to that next step—that’s when it’s time to seek external opportunities to grow,” Padrón says.
After graduating with her PhD in health policy and management with an economics track, Padrón moved quickly on an academic trajectory, starting as a research scientist at the New York Academy of Medicine and an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
In the years following, she’d continue to take opportunities to lecture at several institutions and serve on multiple boards while forging her career as a PhD health economist. Through her board director positions, Padrón became interested in how healthcare teams worked. Then, when she started working with early-stage companies in digital health, her questions turned toward healthcare technologies.
“I became interested in understanding—if the technology is there for remote patient monitoring, for diabetes prevention, for virtual behavioral health, etc.—why are we not seeing it at scale? The conclusion was my company,” she explains.
Padrón’s company, EmpiricaLab, bridges work with learning through work-integrated learning curriculums. Its mission is to help teams identify the best, most relevant training platforms to reach their goals as a collective. “This technology moves so fast and is so unique to each healthcare organization or technology company that the only way to learn is from each other and to learn it together.”
While it is still at the beta testing stage, EmpiricaLab will soon be integrating its tools for training and peer learning across interdisciplinary teams in frontier healthcare technology companies and systems. “If we can be that bridge and teach teams on the ground to use these new technologies, it’s going to transform patients’ experiences,” Padrón says.
Through all of this, Padrón has continued to emphasize the power of community. “There’s no regression equation that would’ve predicted me to be where I am,” she points out. “The variables that made the difference were the people that mentored me, believed in me, and pushed me to be more than I ever imagined.”