Armed with a Jefferson Science Fellowship from the U.S. State Department, Cornell University biopsychologist Timothy J. DeVoogd, PhD, visited 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries in 12 months to find out what scientists there are working on, their greatest challenges and how the United States can promote more research there.
Among other projects, he's now overseeing the development of a Craigslist-style Web site funded by the State Department that will better connect Latin American scientists and publicize U.S. research and grant opportunities.
DeVoogd wrapped up his fellowship in August and spoke to the Monitor about his international work and the exciting science coming out of Latin America.
First, tell us the territory you covered.
I visited Panama, Uruguay, Paraguay, Barbados, Grenada, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala.
Take me through a country visit.
Probably the most exciting and intense trip so far was to Colombia, where I ended up meeting with two cabinet-level officials, the head of their Fulbright program, three dozen scientists, the head of their National Science Foundation-type program, people at the embassy and the heads of three universities. I had told them in advance that I didn't want to just sit on my hands. They took me at my word and programmed me 12 hours a day.
What's your main goal in these meetings?
I give an overview of science structure in the United States on how the interplay between government-funded agencies, universities and industry was set up in World War II and has been incredibly productive ever since. This sort of interchange seems so obvious to us, but so foreign to a country like Colombia.
The good news is that in a number of these countries, the governments are now very excited about science as an avenue of development. They don't want to [just] supply cheap shirts to the United States. These countries are politically fairly stable now and are looking ahead toward development.
What great science can we expect out of these countries sometime soon?
Brazil is doing wonderful stuff with alternative sources of energy and has a concentrated government effort to come up with ways to use ethanol or other bioproducts. They should be equal partners at the table when we are talking about energy in the United States.
Mexico has funded a genomics institute that is doing incredible work. They are getting the genomes of different populations in Mexico and are trying to see how these various populations may have different types of sensitivity to drugs. They have found that there is a beta blocker—one that is widely used in the United States—that has no effect on roughly 30 percent of their population. Hispanics within the United States who have come from those populations could go into a hospital here for treatment and have doctors completely baffled about why a perfectly good drug has no effect.
What are their scientific challenges?
It varies hugely. Chile has everything going for it. They have an educated population, a government that is clear about goals in science and technology. They are forward-thinking about what domains in science they want to develop, and they have money—they put a tax on copper production years ago and were able to squirrel away a huge amount of money and have targeted it for science and technology. They are coming up with incredibly innovative programs using the interest off that money.
Then go a few hundred miles away to Paraguay, which until around 16 years ago had essentially a fascist government. Even over the last decade or so years the government that was in power was not especially forward-thinking. A year ago they elected somebody who has said he is for development, but they are way behind many other Latin American countries in science and technology.
Any potential there?
Yes. I met with their minister of health in Paraguay, and I did my presentation about hoping to build exchanges between science and technology with the United States. Her English was about as limited as my Spanish, but we spoke slowly and carefully and we talked for an hour. At the end, she looked at me intently and asked, "Do you think you could help me put together a national health plan?" I said, "No, no I can't, but I will find people who can."
What did you do?
Our office paid for [a Spanish-speaking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist] to spend a week in Paraguay to discuss with the minister of health and others what they were doing and what they hoped for. He saw the dirty linen, too, that there was virtually no health care of any sort outside the capital. He walked them through making a grant application—which they had never done—he took it back to the CDC. CDC funded a $2.5 million grant for epidemiology training across the country.
This probably should have happened even earlier because they have been getting whacked by swine flu during their winter.
That must have felt so rewarding.
It did. My director said to me at one point, "You realize that without even trying to or realizing it, you've probably saved peoples lives."
National health-care overhauls aside, what other questions did you typically get?
There's a widespread perception that there are things happening in research in the United States and Europe that they never hear about. So there's a lot of interest in either collaborative research programs or some sort of program that would fund short-term visits to the United States. I am trying to figure out a way to make that happen.
How did you come up with the idea of being a science diplomat to Latin America?
I have friends who are scientists in a number of Third World countries. These people are as bright or brighter than I am and have huge teaching loads and labs where they have to think very carefully about buying things like sodium salts, stuff that is fairly trivial for me with my lab. And yet they do it.
I had also lived in Latin America until I was 13 and it felt like going home. My dad was a teacher in southern Mexico for awhile. He put together a school in a Mayan area that gave illiterate adults the equivalent of a Mexican high school education.
What's next for you?
I will go back to the State Department for two days each month and continue to travel to Latin American countries, although less frequently as I'm now back at teaching at Cornell. I just met with the department's undersecretary for public affairs and she is enthusiastic about the science diplomacy I've been doing and hopes to continue supporting it.