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Mexican students gain research experience on campus

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Joe Schwartz
Gustavo Flores-Macias meets with Mexican exchange students in his office
Robert Barker/University Photography
Assistant professor of government Gustavo Flores-Macias meets with exchange students Melissa Alvarez and Adriana Padierna.

Cornell has joined President Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative, an effort to increase international study and student exchange between the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.

In July, the university welcomed 23 students from Mexico to conduct research for six weeks with 19 faculty members in labs across campus – “and they’re loving it,” said Timothy DeVoogd, professor of psychology and director of the Latin American Studies Program. “Many of them have never been out of Mexico, coming from universities all over their country.”

Having the exchange students here “builds ties to their home institutions, [and] it lets us look them over as potential grad students – in my mind it’s a win-win all the way around,” he said.

DeVoogd met Hazel Blackmore, executive director of the U.S.-Mexico Commission for Cultural and Educational Exchange (COMEXUS) at a Mexico City conference on higher education in May and learned that the exchange program had funding, but American partner institutions were still being sought.

He offered to place students at Cornell, worked with the International Students and Scholars Office on logistics to bring the students here, and enlisted faculty – including Susan Suarez in biomedical sciences, Gary Bergstrom in plant sciences and Gustavo Flores-Macias in government – to work with them.

Two of the students are working with DeVoogd, looking at brain cells in birds “so we can correlate brain and behavior between the species,” said Pamela Cejudo of Mexico City, a graduate student in biology at Universidad de Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. “I want to do research back in Mexico. I really like being involved in part of a bigger project.”

Roberto Llerenas Zamora, a medical student in Colima interested in genetics and medical research, said, “This is my first time doing behavioral research.”

Flores-Macias said his summer students, Melissa Alvarez and Adriana Padierna, “have been eager to learn about social scientific research.” They contributed to an ongoing research project on tax reforms in developing countries in a way “that will advance their own research agendas,” he said.

Bergstrom gave his student, Enrique Ortega, a project that would extend the results of a previous study. “On his own initiative, he consulted the literature and made some improvements on the methodology, and pulled together a report in a timely way.”

“It’s a short period of time to spend in a laboratory, but he impressed both myself and my research support specialist,” Bergstrom said. “He was really open to any kind of experience. We do fieldwork as well, and he got to harvest grain on a combine, which is not a typical plant science experience.”

The exchange program is funded by Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education and administered by COMEXUS. After beginning the program last year with only two students, COMEXUS placed 97 students this summer at nine American universities. “We were aiming for 100 spots and got around 500 applications from students at 32 institutions,” Blackmore said. “Of those over 50 percent were from public institutions, and 51 percent were female. We were very happy with the diversity of applicants, and also the diversity in disciplines.

“Before, there were no opportunities for undergraduates [in Mexico] to do research abroad,” she said. “We will follow up on them and see how many will pursue graduate studies or research or will look for jobs in applied science.”

In early 2013, Cornell welcomed 27 students from Brazil to study for a year under Academia do Brazil em Cornell, a program that is continuing with “a dozen students on campus this summer doing research, and there will be another eight to 10 in the fall,” DeVoogd said.

“It’s still novel for Cornell to receive exchange students rather than just sending them out,” he said. “I know Chile and Colombia are now also looking at sending undergraduates abroad.”

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