Francisco “Paco” Cartujano: Helping Latino and LGTBQ+ Communities Quit Tobacco

May. 22, 2024

Born and raised in Mexico, Francisco “Paco” Cartujano Barrera, MD, (he/él) exemplifies the importance of having a seat at the table. When he began his research career seven years ago, he recalls being the only Latino and LGBTQ+ person on a research team. He didn’t necessarily set out to study these communities, but he realized that his identity gave him a unique perspective that could help reach them and improve their health.

Francisco "Paco" Cartujano Barrera, MD, and his three-year-old pug, Celsius, enjoying the view of Niagara Falls.
Francisco "Paco" Cartujano Barrera, MD, and his three-year-old pug, Celsius, enjoying the view of Niagara Falls.

Now an assistant professor of Public Health Sciences and assistant director of Community Outreach and Engagement at the Wilmot Cancer Institute, he studies how to address tobacco-related health disparities among Latino and LGBTQ+ communities. In partnership with community members from those communities, Cartujano has developed text messaging programs that are culturally and linguistically adapted to help Latino and LGBTQ+ communities quit vaping and smoking.

Learn more about Cartujano’s journey to the University and his passion for research, community outreach… and Taylor Swift.

How did you get into this line of research?

When I was in medical school, my university (Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos) offered a one-year research fellowship at the University of Kansas. I had never been exposed to research, but I took the opportunity and went to Kansas City. That’s where I met my mentor, Paula Cupertino, PhD (she/ella). She does a lot of research on smoking cessation and is a pioneer in engaging community members in the development, implementation, and dissemination of research. I fell in love with the concept of a community-academic partnership to collectively address tobacco-related health disparities. I want to do this forever.


What has your research taught you so far?

Personally speaking, once I started to do this research, I realized a lot of things. For example, my grandfather smoked throughout his whole life and never quit smoking. I remember family members being frustrated with him for not quitting and he was very defensive about it. But now, I realize he was never offered treatment to quit smoking. So that's how the system failed him. When we talk about tobacco use, we're talking about an addiction. So it's not just willpower, or just someone magically wanting to quit, there's a reason why people can't quit, so being judgmental is not helpful at all.

The other thing I'll mention is the importance of engaging the community in research. For all of my research, I have community advisory boards, and they represent different sectors of the Latino and LGBTQ+ communities. By working with them, we have found new research directions. For example, Cupertino and I did a large, randomized trial showing that text messages work for helping people quit smoking—and we were very happy about those results. When we presented the results to our community advisory board, one of the things that caught their attention was the fact that most of the participants were not engaging in physical activity. So, we developed an intervention that combined both basic physical activity and smoking cessation. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be doing that type of research, but it's because our community advisory board really pushed us in that direction. Having their support has meant the world.


What’s your favorite thing about working here?

I joined the University in July 2020—I'm one of those people who left the New York City area because of COVID and I ended up here in Rochester and pretty much everything was closed. But, I have found the University of Rochester a very special place for my work. I have found amazing mentors, friends, and community members who support my work.

One of my mentors is Deborah J. Ossip, PhD, who is the editor of the Journal of Smoking Cessation, which is where my very first paper was published several years before I ended up here. I don't know if she knows this, but I have a screenshot of an email from her saying my paper was accepted. Life works in mysterious ways. She was also the president of the Society for Research and Tobacco, which is our largest scientific society. So moving here and being one of her mentees means a lot. Another of my mentors, Patricia Rivera, MD, is the first Latina president of the American Thoracic Society, and she has mentored me to start doing research on how to increase lung cancer screening among Latinos. Also, community members like Elisa DeJesus, MS, Director of Language Services at Ibero American Action League, have connected me with the Latino community in Rochester. Just to exemplify how wonderful Elisa is, she is a co-author of all my papers on smoking cessation and physical activity among Latinos. So, Rochester and the University of Rochester have brought some very amazing people to my life when it comes to work.


Where can we find you when you aren’t in your office or lab?

Paco and his friend, Gloria, at Taylor Swift's Eras Tour concert in Mexico City.
Paco and his friend, Gloria, at Taylor Swift's Eras Tour concert in Mexico City.

I like to run and Rochester has some amazing places to go to run. I also have a three-year-old pug named Celsius who goes pretty much everywhere with me, so I know Rochester is a dog-friendly city. Celsius loves going to Java’s Cafe and getting a puppuccino (a cup of whipped cream).

I am also very excited to tell you about my most recent appointment. I am a proud member of the Tortured Poets Department. And for those who missed the joke, the Tortured Poets Department is Taylor Swift’s most recent masterpiece. I am a BIG Taylor Swift fan. I have been to the Eras Tour twice —and I'm seeing her again next month in Switzerland. I am very excited. I have been a fan since I was 20. I remember turning 22 when her song “22” was at its peak. I secretly want to believe that I grew up next to Taylor.


Are you flying to Switzerland just to see Taylor?

Yeah, I wanted to see her again. I was contemplating going to Toronto or New Orleans, but it was cheaper to fly all the way to Switzerland than actually going to Toronto or New Orleans! So, I’m taking some time to explore Switzerland, too. This is my first time there. I am so happy I am going. It would have been a cruel summer without seeing Taylor again.


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