Colombian students gain experience in research program
By Daniel Aloi
Melissa Montoya Arbelaez appreciates the transfer of knowledge at Cornell from working in a lab with professor of plant pathology Rebecca Nelson.
“Working with Rebecca is amazing … she always has time to meet, to ask me what I am doing or if I need something, and to advise me,” said Arbelaez, an agronomy student from Palmira, Colombia.
Arbelaez is one of 20 Colombian undergraduate researchers in a six-month pilot internship program “working full time in labs across the campus, much like a beginning grad student,” said professor of psychology Timothy DeVoogd, who coordinated the interns’ lab placements. “Colombia sees this as the start of a major exchange program, with thousands of students placed in research labs across the world.”
A year ago, Edna Medina, representing Colombia’s national science agency Colciencias, visited Cornell to observe CienciAmerica, the eight-week summer research program designed by DeVoogd for Latin American students. Colciencias then worked with Cornell to develop the six-month Nexo Global program to provide research experiences and promote scientific development and innovation in Colombia. DeVoogd and the agency drafted a plan for the program last fall, with input from Cornell Abroad director Marina Markot, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies executive director Nishi Dhupa, and vice provost for international affairs Laura Spitz.
Cornell and Purdue University are both hosting top-tier students in STEM and agricultural sciences fields from four campuses of Colombia’s Universidad Nacional. Administered by Cornell Abroad, the Nexo Global pilot is supported by Colciencias, which screened applicants to select a cohort of 40 initial participants, said Kristin Blake, Cornell Abroad program coordinator for visiting international students.
“They went through three rounds of evaluation,” Blake said. “Marina Markot, Tim DeVoogd and I flew to Bogota and interviewed the students. All of them had incredible qualifications. On average, they were part of more than one research group and had published or presented at national and international conferences. One of the students had a 4.3 GPA, measured on the same scale as ours.”
Daniela Arango Ospina, a biological engineering researcher from Medellín, said that when the group arrived in late January, “for many of us, it was the first time we had seen snow.”
The student interns began with three weeks of intensive English, met with their research mentors and joined in student orientation activities, including the Colombian Student Association’s welcome back party. During a tour of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they met a group of researchers just returned from Colombia.
“Six months is the perfect time to be adapted to the culture, and to the work in the lab … but I think maybe one year is better,” Arbelaez said.
Ospina’s research for associate professor of food science Gavin Sacks is on controlling the protein content of grapes, a factor affecting the extraction of tannins and the taste of wine. She also has assisted others in the Sacks Lab on their projects.
“I like how people are more independent than in my research labs in Colombia, and between the different labs, they are very cooperative – if you need a piece of equipment, you are welcome,” she said. “All of the things I am learning here, I can use in my career as a researcher.”
Sacks said Ospina is “in line with most of the high-achieving undergraduates I get doing research; she’s enthusiastic and eager to learn. She’s working independently, she’s generating data, and she’s doing a good job defining what the next student, master’s or otherwise, will be working on.”
He said such research experiences for undergraduates have value in “generating a good pipeline of students. … It helps students to have a clear idea of what they do or do not want to do, before grad school.”
Many of the interns are doing research related to their theses, DeVoogd said. Along with their research training, the students are receiving training in finding and applying to graduate school programs in the U.S. Two of the participants have been asked to come back to Cornell as Ph.D. students.
“They are all extremely motivated and very dedicated students,” Blake said. “I’m impressed by their level of commitment and enthusiasm.”
Arbelaez’s research project in Nelson’s lab is on genetic resistance in maize, to reduce a fungal pathogen.
“This pathogen produces a mycotoxin, and when humans or animals eat the corn that is infected, you can have serious health problems like esophageal cancer,” she said.
She wants to apply her future research to help farmers in Colombia.
“This program has given me a wonderful opportunity to expand my knowledge, working in one of the best universities in the world. … it has opened my eyes to the capacity that I have, and what I would like to do in my research to help my country, and now I feel I can do it,” she said.