Lorena A. Barba group

The science diasporas lead the action from campus to society

Members of diasporas have dispersed from their nation of origin or ancestry, but maintain connections to it.

Members of diasporas have dispersed from their nation of origin or ancestry, but maintain connections to it.

The 2013 Global Diaspora Forum (GDF) in Washington, DC was held 13–14 May at USAID headquarters and  the U.S. Department of State. I was invited to be a panelist in "The Science Diasporas Lead the Action: from Campus to Society," joining moderator Alfred Watkins (Executive Chairman of the Global Innovation Summit) and panelists

Recapitulation from the panel conversations

The convocation to this panel was rooted on two ideas:

  1. science and technology (S&T) fuel economic growth—and the US is a model of this;
  2. diaspora scientists and engineers are leading knowledge transfer to their countries of origin and are in this way catalysts of growth.

During the panel discussion, however, a very interesting complementary perspective emerged: through their actions to spur S&T in their home countries, diaspora scientists and engineers can bring benefits to both sides—the collaborations often bring something back to the US. This observation has the potential to base new arguments justifying US support of S&T diaspora actions.

An example: Prof. Wole Soboyejo (Princeton University) has taken the leadership of a new university in Nigeria, the African University of Science and Technology (AUST) in Abuja. He aims to provide quality education in the continent and train the next generation of educators in technical fields, eventually helping to reduce African brain drain. (His role in building scientific capacity in Africa was recently featured in a Nature News piece.) In building a new technological university to serve the diverse populations of the African continent, one has to think about novel entrance selection processes and fresh curricula that include communication and entrepreneurial skills. As these innovations result in successful new models for higher education, we can bring back ideas for revamping curricula here in the US.

My experiences fomenting scientific research and graduate training in Latin America suggest another example of the two-way benefits of collaborations. In scientifically developing countries, investment in research and development is low and infrastructure for science is lacking. However, often we find many smart and well-trained people that work in these countries and find creative ways to solve problems with little resources. Learning to do research in resource-constrained environments is certainly useful these days, when funding for science seems to be repeatedly on the cutting block.

Another drift in the conversation during the panel proposed a new paradigm of working across diasporas. Having science and technology as common ground, diaspora members connected with Africa, for example, could work with others connected with Latin America. Shared priorities are likely to be found in topics like environmental protection, harnessing green energy and control of infectious diseases, as well as the training of a new generation of scientists and engineers.

My background as a member of the science diasporas

I am a Chilean scientist and engineer, educated in both Chile and the US. My first degrees are in Mechanical Engineering from Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María (Valparaíso, Chile) and I have a PhD in Aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology. In 2004, shortly after joining Bristol University in the UK as a lecturer in applied mathematics, I developed a project for funding under the ALFA II programme of EuropeAid to create a network of higher-education institutions in Europe and Latin America. The project, titled "Scientific Computing Advanced Training, SCAT", was funded with a total budget of 1.34 million euro and ran between Nov. 2005 and Oct. 2009.

A success story from the SCAT project

Claudio Torres was one of the Latin American students that benefitted from the SCAT project. He had never before traveled abroad and he started his visit to Bristol University with poor knowledge of English. For 10 months, I trained him in computational mathematics while he attended English classes, and before his stay concluded, I introduced him to my colleague Louis F. Rossi (University of Delaware). When Claudio finished his mobility grant, he decided to pursue a research career by applying for PhD studies under Prof. Rossi. In May 2008, Claudio was awarded the prestigious presidential fellowship, "Beca Presidente de la República de Chile". And just this year, he finished his post-doctoral training at George Mason University, where he worked on multi-scale modeling of complex material systems. Now, Claudio will go back full circle, as he joins the full-time faculty of Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María in Chile.

This is just one of the success stories of an initiative that funded 31 mobility grants to graduate students who spent a period averaging 7.5 months visiting a partner institution. In another, a researcher from Mexico, Dr. Mario Chavez, continues to this day the collaboration started at one of the SCAT scientific meetings with partners at Daresbury Laboratory in the UK. The collaborative work was featured on the cover of the HPCx News (Issue 12, Autumn 2008) [PDF].

Collaboration builds capacity

My motivation is building scientific capacity in Latin America. I also believe that the global challenges we face today need scientists across the world to be connected and collaborate. International scientific collaborations and scientist mobility have long-term effects, benefitting all partners. I think collaboration can have more impact than "technology transfer", which often only involves North-South movement of instrumentation and South-North movement of data.

What is scientific capacity? We easily equate it with S&T investments and infrastructure, but another crucial ingredient is trained personnel (scientists and educators). Collaborations increase local ability to do science by exchanging experience and training, and building networks.

The Pan-American Advanced Studies Institutes of NSF

A particularly effective program of the US National Science Foundation was the Pan-American Advanced Studies Institutes, PASI (with joint support from the Department of Energy). It supports advanced-training events for researchers and helps to build ties among US and Latin American scientists. I have organized and directed two PASIs in Latin America:

The impact of these actions will be felt for some time, as the young and promising scientists that participated build on their knowledge and new connections. But some comments from the exit survey of the Tsunami school this year give us an indication:

I was overwhelmed that the organizers managed to gather together the world's top specialists in the field. [...] The grant was essential: I wouldn't be able to attend the course without it.

and in response to "What was your favorite aspect of PASI?":

(All responses to the exit survey are visible on a Google spreadsheet.)

The newly organized  NSF Office of International and Integrative Activities took leadership of such programs to promote global engagement of scientists and engineers and perhaps a new version of the PASI program will tap the idea of working across diasporas. I am looking forward to finding new ways to capitalize on the global connections of diaspora scientists.


  • Willington Rentería

    El PASI es una oportunidad valiosa para cualquier estudiante o cientifico latinoamericano, ya que permite interactuar con científicos de alto nivel, intercambiando experiencias y criterios, así como, permitiendo la asimilación de conocimientos y destrezas .

    En mi experiencia personal el PASI2013, me permitió configurar una alternativa viable(bajo coste computacional) para el pronóstico operacional de tsunamis, a partir de la vinculación de los modelos GeoClaw y Coulwave.

    Este es un aporte pragmático de la ciencia a la solución de problemas reales, con un impacto social enorme. Esta propuesta sin embargo, hubiera sido esquiva sin la oportuna realización de este evento, que brindo la oportunidad de plantearla en base a las destrezas adquiridas en el PASI.

    El PASI representa una posibilidad para convertir las propuestas científicas en soluciones de problemas reales, ya que acerca este tipo de herramientas a quienes tienen la necesidad de usarlas. Es notable que el PASI además fortalece el intercambio académico y permite establecer conexiones científicas entres los países latinoamericanos y la comunidad científica mundial.

    • Muchas gracias por tus comentarios, Willington! Me alegra leer tus palabras.

      To other readers of this post, let me tell you about Willington. First of all, he lives in Galapagos Islands! (How amazing is that?) He is an active researcher in tsunami phenomena and the head of the Galapagos Research Marine Center. More on Willington's background in his PASI website bio page:

      In the comment above, Willington explains that at the PASI on the science of tsunamis last January in Chile, he was able to develop a viable alternative for operational forecast of tsunami events, applying computational models that we taught in the school: GeoClaw and CoulWave.

  • Angel Ruiz Angulo

    PASI workshops are a great opportunity for Latin-American
    graduate students, postdoctoral fellows or early career scientists. This is a
    great chance to meet top scientists on the field. I firmly believed that for a
    workshop to work properly it is necessary to place the participants in a
    neutral environment away from their daily duties. It is also clear to me that
    this is not easy since most of the very good scientist are super busy
    time-wise; on the other hand, for the organizers it is not very cheap to get
    all the participants to different locations. However, this type of meetings
    often result on fruitful collaborations and for young scientists, is a great
    way to do networking.

    In particular, PASI 2013 is of great importance on my
    career. I work on problems related to geophysical fluid dynamics. In our
    country, Mexico, we are prone to have a Tsunami related emergencies and if that
    was not the case, the probability of storm surges is imminent since we are on
    the track of tropical storms from both sides, the Pacific and the Gulf of
    Mexico. I became particularly interested on Tsunamis and the computational
    tools now available, allow us to generate scenarios and based on them
    characterize the regions with largest probability of being affected. The
    exposure to different tools, and techniques to attack this type of problems was
    the most valuable part, and I am very grateful that I had chance to talk to the
    people that are currently developing this tools. In addition to that, the
    information was not only thought as a black box, the basics of the tools were
    widely covered and in great detail.

    I became very enthusiastic about PASI, especially now other colleague
    is participating in one that is taking place in Cartagena, Colombia. The
    covered topics are very wide and it seems like a very active community. I
    encourage people to keep a close eye on PASI and also if they are in the
    possibility to propose topics and organize the entire workshop to do it, it is
    worth to attend and I believe it
    should be rewarding to see the results as an organizer too.

    • Thank you for leaving this comment, Angel. I'm delighted to hear that your participation in our PASI on tsunami and storm-surge modeling was important for your career progress. How could we have a follow-up activity to build up on that experience?

      Note that I will soon be adding the videos from PASI lectures to YouTube (sorry for taking so long!) and I'll put links here:

      Here's a neat photo of you giving your project presentation at PASI ...

  • aterrel

    I participated as a US researcher in the PASI event on tsunami's, storm surges, and tidal phenomena. The experience is one that I will cherish throughout my career. The event provided very integrative approach for learning the different aspects of the field in a short time. From mathematical foundations, coastal engineering, to implementation of models on HPC resources, the topics hit a wide swath of science. I have rarely met such an eager group of participants to try out the ideas given in lecture.

    Perhaps the most important aspect for me personally, was meeting some of the scientists working in this field at leading centers in Chile. They have given me a renewed interest in the topic that affects their communities. By actually discussing the science with people who are very motivated to solve the problems, event included much more interesting dialogs and enthusiasm.

    To me, going to countries that have real need of scientific solutions is far more interesting than any experience I have had by staying in my office and working alone. I definitely appreciate the transfer of knowledge between our scientific counterparts in other parts of the world. Lorena's efforts in connecting our communities is amazing and will bear more fruit in the coming years as collaborations continue.

    • Thanks for leaving this comment, Andy. I also noticed that many of the participants were eagerly taking notes, interacting in the breaks and in our Piazza site, and taking in all that they could.

      So it sounds like I would not have to work hard to convince you to visit Chile again :-)
      I hope that I'll be able to connect some of the eager participants again.

  • Milton Alves Gonçalves Junior

    In PASI 2013 I could have a better understanding about wave modeling and some computational issues. In Brazil, both of those subjects are essential for energy production development. It was possible attend awesome courses with renowned professors.

    It was a great opportunity of meeting specialists, young scientists, students and people from several different countries and, still, to make some international friends. Potential research partners. Everything at the same place, at the same time.

    The UTFSM campus and the local staff also caused me a really good impression. I’ve never participated of a such wonderful event. And the financial support was important to the realization of this endeavor.

    • I'm glad that you had a good experience at PASI. Thanks for the comment!
      It was a really good mix of people, wasn't it? From Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and the US. And Chile, of course, the hosts. You are right: they were great hosts!

  • Ben Payne

    I participated in the 2011 PASI and was grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with leading researchers in the field of high performance computing, as there were no local experts where I worked. This experience assisted the computational work I was carrying out as a graduate student and lead to my current postdoctoral research position.

    I continue to interact with the PASI speakers and students to this day. I cherish the memories of my trip to Chile.

    • Ben, you were such an enthusiastic participant at the "Scientific Computing in the Americas" PASI in 2011, I'm delighted to hear that you have found a postdoc where you can continue developing your career in the field.
      Thanks for leaving a comment!