Thursday, August 2, 2012
Uruguay and Me---a Personal Memoir
This post originated as an invited article I wrote for the Fulbright (Uruguay) Newsletter in 2005. I've twice been a Fulbright Professor in Montevideo (the second time as a shared award with half of the time spent in Salta, Argentina), which has led me into a series of continuing collaborations with scientists there and a rich store of people and places to use as background for my novels. The Newsletter asked for a 5-year retrospective on what my experiences during the tenure of the prestigious Fulbright award there in 1999 were like, and what has occurred since then.
Besides acquiring an occasional taste for yerba mate and parrillada compleada, the Fulbright award had several other influences on my life, then and now. Most important was the result of a promise I made to myself that relationships made during this Fulbright award, my second (the first was to Uruguay in 1982), would progress beyond the nominal exchange of Christmas cards after I returned to California. Fortunately I was at a time in my career when this commitment was possible to pursue.
My only previous visit to Uruguay (Montevideo) before 1999, in 1982, was during an especially difficult time for Uruguay. Montevideo was a very different place in 1999, and the vigorous democracy that had replaced the military dictatorship was a clear source of pride to the people of Uruguay. It was an optimistic country, despite the economic hardships that were apparent even then. I was able to get to know Uruguayans, especially many not at the University, a lot more in 1999 than in 1982, in large part because I could get to know people who were no longer living daily in fear. Our hosts in Montevideo took pains to look after us continuously and to share with us their lifestyle, families, professional expertise, and pride in where they lived. We rented a furnished apartment in the Pocitos neighborhood in Eastern Montevideo a couple of blocks from the beach pictured on the cover of "The Matador Murders". This was ideal, as we got to interact with neighbors and live in the community where we could meet non-academics. We had a full kitchen, and the Punta Carretas supermercado and local shops featured excellent pre-cooked dinners, as well as inexpensive beef and wines for our meals. Our local butcher looked after us despite my obvious lack of fluency in Spanish, and the occasional mystery meat was an adventure to be savored when beef was getting to be too easy to eat. We were helped a lot by our local contacts in terms of developing a social life and locating the rare restaurants with salad bars. Weekend vacation highlights included Iguazu Falls and several days at a working Estancia in Florida where our host spoke no English, and we got about the campo on horses. The friends we made in Montevideo have become lifelong friends, and our cultural differences are minor compared to common values that we share.
We returned to Davis in time for our third consecutive winter without a summer (a tribute to bad planning on my part), and all of the deferred work that had accumulated over the 6-month sabbatical leave we had taken. Six months or so later, I started writing grant proposals for possible projects with our colleagues in Montevideo. Since then, we have been fortunate enough to receive two major grants to facilitate academic exchanges and research training between UC Davis and the Mercosur region. One, for 3 years from the Bureau of Cultural Affairs of the U.S. State Department, which has just come to an end (in 2005), funded exchanges between UC Davis and the University of the Republic in Montevideo. This program has served as the basis for a formal agreement between our two universities to continue such exchanges in the future. The second grant, for a total of 11 years from the Fogarty International Center of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, currently funds research training and short courses in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile in the broad areas of Environmental and Human Health. This award also allows for the continuation of scientific and personal interactions with former colleagues in Uruguay and Salta, Argentina. Veronica Rajal, one of the students in my Salta course in 1999, finished her second year of postdoctoral training at UC Davis in environmental engineering; she returned to Salta in 2005 as a faculty member. Veronica collaborated with colleagues from Uruguay in helping present a short course in 2003 on water quality to faculty and students at the University of Chile in Santiago, and in several other workshops and short courses subsequently. Key collaborators in Uruguay have included Gualberto Gonzalez, Beatriz Brena, and former Dean (and Rector) Alberto Nieto of the Facultad de Quimica at the university de la Republica, as well as several of their students and junior colleagues we have had as visitors to UC Davis for additional training or for research experiences towards sandwich degrees between the two universities. We have assisted several Uruguayan graduate students in Ph.D. programs to choose UC Davis as their training site; several of these former students are currently faculty members in Uruguay.
One of our most unusual trainees thus far was Andres Lalanne, who spent three weeks in Northern California visiting business incubators, experts in technology transfer, and experts in entrepeneurship. He is now managing the “Polo Technología” of the Facultad de Quimica at Pando, a facility dedicated to commercializing some of the scientific products from the University de la Republica’s faculty research. With the assistance of a large grant from the European Economic Community, this vision is well on its way to becoming a reality.
Several of the projects we have embarked upon have broad implications for public health in Uruguay and elsewhere in the Mercosur region. We initially focused on a technique called ELISA for environmental analysis as it is relatively inexpensive, and is a practical method for environmental monitoring in less developed countries where the high cost of traditional methods is a deterrent to measurement of environmental contamination where it might be occurring. Under Gualberto Gonzalez’ direction, a consortium of 6 labs from 5 countries (Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru), with sponsorship from PAHO and WHO, have standardized ELISA methods for diagnosis of a parasitic disease called hydatid cyst disease that is endemic in the region. Gualberto has also helped train technicians in the grain industry to use ELISA methods to ensure the lack of fungal contamination of wheat being used to make bread in Uruguay. Under Beatriz Brena’s direction, the Intendencia of Montevideo has used ELISA methods to examine the levels of pesticides in drinking water supplies in the rural regions, and to test for the presence of blue-green algae and their toxic products in recreational waters around Montevideo.
I have traveled to the Mercosur region at least half a dozen (or more) times since 2001, and taken a 2-semester course in Spanish at our local University to improve my skills in the language. At least three UC Davis colleagues have taken sabbatical leaves at the University de la Republica in Uruguay as Fulbright Professors based on their new activities with the Fogarty center or the Bureau of Cultural Affairs award. Several collaborating faculty at UC Davis have become interested in the region, and our University Extension and our Department of Viticulture and Enology are currently developing courses in Spanish for distance learning in the region (the initial course development was funded by a grant to Dr. James Lapsley from the Dean of International Studies at UC Davis). Dr. Lapsley did a 3-month sabbatical leave in Montevideo several years ago with funding from the Fulbright program to assist UdelaR to develop a degree program in Viticulture and Enology, as well as several other activities related to developing the fine wine industry of Uruguay. Professor Richard Plant from the Agronomy Department at UC Davis spent a sabbatical in Uruguay, with Fulbright support, working with INIA on new rice cultivars as potential new products for Uruguay to grow and export to the world market. And we were loaned an additional family member, as we hosted the youngest daughter of one of our Uruguayan friends for her final year of high school in Davis.
Most of our continuing activities in the Mercosur since 1999 have been in Uruguay, and more recently in Argentina and Chile. Our long-term goal is to develop a self-sustaining regional network of scientists who collaborate and train each other in the areas of environmental science and local economic development. UC Davis plays an important role in training and in serving as a source of expertise to catalyze new programs in Montevideo and elsewhere in the Mercosur region. To me, this seems to be the embodiment of Senator Fulbright’s ideal: international friendships catalyzing collaborative interactions between institutions and between individuals, resulting in economic and intellectual development among all of the participants.
To briefly update this essay, we competed successfully for a 5-year renewal of the grant from the Fogarty International Center of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in 2007, and our activities in Uruguay have expanded considerably (to Peru and Guatemala, for example). Professor Rajal has returned to Salta, Argentina and is flourishing in her career there as a Professor of Engineering. And lots more, but I'm out of space.