UCF’s International Chemistry Exchange Program Changing Lives

Chemistry Associate Professor Karin Chumbimuni Torres works with students from Peru in her lab. Courtesy of Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala.

By  Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala

Carlos Salazar is wrapping up a month-long educational experience in one of UCF’s chemistry labs this week – and he says it has changed his life.

“I had only read about computational chemistry and chemistry modeling back home” in Peru, Salazar says. “We don’t really have access to that, but now I’m thinking about getting my master’s degree and focusing on this. There is so much potential application in medicine and the environment and now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I know this is what I want to do.”

Salazar is one of a handful of students from his country who spent 30 days in the pilot program funded through grants from the nonprofit organizations Partners of the America and 100,000 Strong in the AmericasAssociate Professor of chemistry Karin Chumbimuni Torres is responsible for putting the program together.

The grant allowed Torres to take four UCF chemistry students to Peru this summer to conduct science in the field and then host four Peruvian students at UCF. The students, who traveled to Lima to attend a conference, worked in labs at the National University of Engineering. They also worked with elementary school students on a hands-on chemistry project. Those visiting UCF worked in one of three chemistry labs, attended workshops and held an outreach program for middle school students at a Seminole County public library during their visit.

“I think this is good all around,” she says. “There are some very good chemistry students in Latin America that could come here for graduate school and really enhance our collaborations and work. And for our students here, they get so much out of it. This is a small investment that will have a big payoff.”

Torres and fellow chemistry professors Andres CampigliaFernando Uribe-Romo and Florencio Eloy Hernandez are collaborating on the program and are eager to see it continue because of the impact it is making on students. UCF Global also supports the effort.

Salazar, a senior working in Hernandez’s lab, expects to graduate in May with a degree in chemistry.

Classmate Julio Ojeda also traveled to UCF from Peru and has been working with Campiglia and his graduate and undergraduate students. They are using spectral analysis to determine what carcinogens are present in sediment found in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spill in 2010 dumped more than 200 million gallons of petroleum into the gulf.

Campiglia says Ojeda has “demonstrated talent and I think he will do well in graduate school. I was happy to collaborate with Karin on this because of the positive impact it will have on students here and there…I did the same thing. I’m from Uruguay, received my master’s degree in Brazil and completed my doctoral studies in the states.”

Julio Ojeda and Professor Andres Campiglia work together at UCF. Courtesy of Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala.

For Ojeda, the 30 days in the lab has given him a confidence boost.

“I know chemistry, it is what I have been studying,” Ojeda says. “But this lab is completely different and I was able to jump in, apply my knowledge and collaborate with people here. It’s expanded my scientific panorama and I now know I can go anywhere.”

That’s just what Torres wanted. When she applied for the grant, her hope was to open a pipeline to South America so that qualified chemistry students might come to the United State, specifically UCF, to complete their graduate degrees and then return home to become ambassadors for higher education and how it can change your life.

She knows it is true, because it happened to her.

Torres was born and raised in a poor region of Peru. She attended a charter school funded by a German philanthropist, which prepared her for college.

She was among the top 10 percent in her class and was able to complete graduate school and post-doctoral work at the University of Campinas in Brazil, the University of California at San Diego and Purdue University in the areas of chemistry and nanoengineering.

There are so many benefits and not just for students abroad, Torres says.

“Our students also get to see how science is conducted in another country, sometimes with less resources. That can lead to interesting approaches to solving a problem,” she says.

Cody Autrey, a third-year UCF student studying biomedical sciences, says the trip to Peru this summer was enlightening. He not only conducted research in a lab in Lima, but he attended a chemistry conference and completed outreach to elementary-age children in Lima.

Andrea Bances-Monard, Caterina Vadell and Rondell Thorpe enjoy some sightseeing during their chemistry exchange in Peru. Courtesy of Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala.

“We take so much for granted here in the states,” Autrey says. “From the roads to all the equipment in the lab.”

Autrey says the lab he worked in wasn’t as stocked as UCF’s labs.

“That makes the students there so much more resourceful,” he says. “I want to be able to collaborate with colleagues like that when I’m done here. It will lead to better results.”

Other students involved in the pilot program are: Gabriel Cerron from National University of Engineering in Peru, who will join Uribe-Romo’s lab next semester for 30 days, and Andrea Bances-Monard, Caterina Vadell and Rondell Thorpe from UCF who traveled to Lima with Autrey.


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