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NMSU building bridges of collaboration with institutions in Costa Rica, Chile

An initiative at New Mexico State University to build and strengthen international academic and research collaborations is leading the way to new opportunities for faculty and students alike. But the locations of these new collaboration opportunities might come as a surprise.


A group from NMSU tours the botanical garden at an institution in Costa Rica.
The NMSU Costa Rica delegation gets a special tour of the botanical garden at CATIE. The facility functions as a germplasm preserve for hundreds of species of tropical plants. Pictured with the tour guide are David Hansen, Daren Bloomquist, Priscilla Bloomquist, Wendy K. Wilkins and Vimal Chaitanya.(NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)
A group of leaders are seated in a meeting room discussing possible partnerships between their institutions.
Provost Wendy Wilkins, center, makes a point as the NMSU Chile delegation discusses future collaborative efforts with colleagues from the Universidad de Magallanes and University of North Texas. The group had just visited the Omora Ethnobotanical Park near Puerto Williams, where they were introduced to ongoing research initiatives about migratory birds, aquatic invertebrates, and the "miniature forests of Cape Horn." Also pictured are Inigo Garcia-Bryce (NMSU), Francisca Massardo (UMAG), Ricardo Rozzi (UNT/UMAG), Kristian Chervenock (NMSU), Wilkins, Vimal Chaitanya (NMSU), Joy Griffin (NMSU ACE Fellow from UNM), James Kennedy (UNT/UMAG), Sam Fernald (NMSU), and Jaime Jimenez (UNT). (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

After all, the countries of Costa Rica and Chile may appear to have little in common with Las Cruces and New Mexico State University.

Tiny, tropical, tourist-loved Costa Rica is well known for jungles, coffee and bananas. Meanwhile, ribbon-thin Chile's vivid mix of snow-crested peaks, forest-lined fjords and soaring Andean condors can be as surprising as its status as the world's largest producer of copper, second-largest producer of salmon and fifth-largest exporter of wine.

So what is it about Costa Rica and Chile that draws the interest of administrators, faculty, staff and students at New Mexico State University?

Perhaps a better question might be, what's not to like?

Early this year, a delegation of university leaders traveled to both countries and - building on several existing but scattered NMSU connections - laid the groundwork for more in-depth, fruitful collaborations with institutions in both places.

NMSU Provost Wendy K. Wilkins led the delegation with a clear intent on developing partnerships.

"Spanish-speaking America is particularly relevant to us as an institution in Southern New Mexico, with so many members of the university community who are Hispanic and/or have interests - research, teaching, extension - in the Spanish-speaking world, and roots connecting us to Latin America," Wilkins said.

"In terms of our university developing international partnerships, I'd like to focus on areas where we have a unique advantage when compared with other American universities," Wilkins said. "It's clear that partnerships, if they can be established, whether domestic or international, among universities work well to strengthen programs. And there are some institutions in Latin America where we would have a special niche opportunity to build successful partnerships."

First stop on the January 2012 trip south was Turrialba, Costa Rica, headquarters of CATIE, the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education, where a memorandum of understanding was signed outlining a broad set of activities of interest to both institutions.

"The MOU represents a deepening of our NMSU commitment to cooperative initiatives and collaborative programs of research and education with CATIE," Wilkins said about the signing. "In light of our long history of work together, dating back for example to NMSU's investment in Costa Rica under the leadership of President Gerald Thomas, we would like for NMSU to be CATIE's premier partner in the United States. Our missions are very closely aligned, especially in connection to agricultural extension and research. This now extends to work on sustainability, energy and the environment. We also now share an important faculty connection through NMSU faculty member Tom Dormody, currently serving as CATIE's dean of the graduate school. And we anticipate continued joint work with Dr. Miley Gonzalez."

Dormody, a longtime faculty member and former head of the Agriculture and Extension Education Department at NMSU, is now serving as dean of the CATIE Graduate School, following the interim tenure of Gonzalez, former director of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

Accompanying Wilkins on that part of the trip were NMSU's Vice President for Research Vimal Chaitanya; David Hansen, International and Border Programs director of Latin American programs; Sam Fernald, interim director of the New Mexico Water Resource Research Institute; Jay Rodman, senior communications specialist; Priscilla Bloomquist, professor of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management and Faculty Senate representative; Matt Byrnes, department chair of Digital Imaging and Design Technology at NMSU's Dona Ana Community College; Nirmala Khandan, Foreman Endowed Chair, Department of Civil Engineering; Daren Bloomquist, HRTM and campus director of the Tri-National Indigenous Tourism program; and Gonzalez.

A smaller group continued on to Chile, where they were briefed on an existing research collaboration between Fernald and a Chilean colleague at the Universidad de Concepcion. A memorandum of understanding was then signed by university leaders. Accompanying Wilkins, Chaitanya, Rodman and Fernald were NMSU Study Abroad Director Kristian Chervenock; Iñigo García-Bryce, director of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies; and Joy Griffin, American Council on Education Fellow at NMSU.

The NMSU group pressed on to the southern tip of Chile, where they visited the Patagonia Institute at the Universidad de Magallanes in Punta Arenas and the Omora Ethnobotanical Park near Puerto Williams. One NMSU faculty member is already involved in research in that area: Andres Cibils, associate professor of range science, has been working with a Chilean animal scientist colleague on a rangeland sheep nutrition project and has made additional connections at UMAG. Wilkins was particularly struck by the work being done at Omora on bird migration, aquatic invertebrates and small nonvascular plants, as well as a course, offered to students from around the world, titled "Tracing Darwin's Path."

Other trips by NMSU have ensued and more will be taken as the university moves to strengthen existing partnerships and seek new ones.

One goal is to develop collaborative research relationships with other institutions that share NMSU's status as a leader in a particular type of research, such as water in arid lands, as well as seek out research efforts that NMSU could partner with to more fully address a research question NMSU cannot fully address alone.

"So we look for other institutions that are strong where we are strong, but we also look for institutions that can complement what we're doing so that together, we're strong," Wilkins said. "CATIE, in the tropics, addresses climate degradation issues. They have issues with water, but from a little different perspective. The tropics, like arid lands, are particularly sensitive to climate change. So whether you are a high-water area or a low-water area you are like a canary in the mine - what happens in these places can be an early indication of what may happen later elsewhere, where climate changes are not as easy to detect. We do share common interests."

A second goal of the Costa Rica/Chile initiative is to seek new international experiences and opportunities for NMSU students, whether by encouraging more international students to join the student body here or to create new academic and research opportunities for NMSU students abroad.

The most promising opportunity at CATIE is to develop new research opportunities for NMSU's graduate students, since CATIE is a high-level graduate school awash in research activity. CATIE is an international center of graduate study, with collaboration from 13 universities from the U.S. and Europe. CATIE offers eight master's degrees and one doctoral program.

CATIE and NMSU share agricultural interests and backgrounds, and CATIE has historic ties to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Henry Wallace, U.S. secretary of agriculture in the 1940s, first proposed the creation of a research institute for tropical agriculture, which led to CATIE's precursor. Since then, CATIE has developed into one of the top international agricultural research organizations where internationally recognized scientists are supported by countries, foundations and development agencies from across the globe. CATIE scientists maintain two of the world's largest germplasm collections, protecting the genetic diversity found in coffee and chocolate.

CATIE is governed by a group of ministers of agriculture from 14 Latin American countries. CATIE's research stations and contacts in these countries will give NMSU access to a key network of institutions and opportunities throughout the region, as well as extensive research, cooperative proposal development, and curriculum opportunities. CATIE headquarters at Turrialba is well-suited for hosting student groups that can benefit from new educational opportunities.

With the Universidad de Concepcion in Chile, Wilkins sees strong possibilities for NMSU students to gain international experience.

"Concepcion would be a wonderful location for our students to do study abroad," Wilkins said. "They also have interests in sending students from Concepcion to institutions in the United States, so we hope there may be some exchange programs that develop."

Because the university at Concepcion is the main agricultural institution in Chile, and because of the impressive nature of the city of Concepcion itself, Wilkins feels very positive about future developments between the two universities.

"The people we met at the university were extremely friendly and easy to interact with and would provide a hospitable environment for our students," Wilkins said.

In the southernmost region of the country, the opportunities for NMSU also are being envisioned, partly based on a previous partnership Wilkins was familiar with between her former institution - the University of North Texas - and the research activities at the Universidad de Magallanes and the Omora Ethnobotanical Park. A philosophy department faculty member at UNT, philosopher and biologist Ricardo Rozzi, was founding director of the park and specializes in biocultural conservation, as well as the ethics of conserving lands and peoples, in particular the local Yahgan people who were decimated by Western diseases. His focus on biocultural conservation and the linking of human wellbeing with the environment is the core of the nation's top program in environmental philosophy, at UNT. At Omora, one particular concern has been to investigate and conserve an incredible diversity of mosses, lichens and liverworts that they refer to as the "Miniature Forests of Cape Horn."

Such concerns, even as far away as the southern tip of South America, reflect issues being dealt with every day right here in New Mexico, Wilkins said.

"Increasingly, research issues are global issues," she said, "and bringing international students to NMSU, as well as giving our students the opportunity to experience such diverse and important research opportunities as those we visited on our trip, will help lead to solutions to important research questions. At the same time, being able to offer more of our students the chance to experience the rich texture of international travel and international learning can only benefit our students and our university."