April 21, 2014

Cornell Establishes Study Abroad Program in Cuba

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By AIMEE CHO

Starting next fall, students will be able to study abroad and conduct scientific research in Havana, Cuba, the University announced last week.

The study abroad program is the first in the country that allows college students to do scientific research in Cuba, according to Prof. Tim DeVoogd, psychology, director of the Latin American Studies Program.

There are currently only four slots for students who wish to do research, but DeVoogd said he hopes that number will increase in the future.

Students in the program will take classes through University of Havana or the Cuba Study Center, according to DeVoogd.“It’s my hope that through programs like this, [the U.S. and Cuba] will become closer.” — Tim DeVoogd

“Students who are fluent in Spanish can take any class,” he said. “Students who aren’t fluent will also have to take Spanish courses.”

Students interested in research will work with one of two labs — the Research Group in Bioacoustics and Neuroethology or the Center for Protein Studies — according to Kristen Grace, associate director of Cornell Abroad.

“The bioacoustics lab works with bats and the special relationship they have with moths,” she said. “They are unique to Cuba, and they have co-evolved in the way they hunt and evade each other.”

The other lab studies proteases — a type of protein that can break down other proteins — according to DeVoogd.

“There are invertebrates in the water around Cuba that have proteases,” he said. “The Cubans had the idea that they could use the proteases for countering bacteria that might attack people.”

The students will meet in Little Havana, Miami for an orientation before traveling together to Cuba, Grace said.

“Travel to Cuba is not easy,” she said. “U.S. citizens can only go when they’re part of an educational mission.”

DeVoogd said he was first inspired to start the study abroad program when he visited the country about two years ago.

“When students on [Cornell’s] campus want to do research, they talk to a professor that they’re interested in working with,” he said. “I essentially did the same thing. I went to professors at the University of Havana and asked them if they would be interested in hosting students from Cornell for research, and they said yes.”

According to DeVoogd, planning the program and getting approval for it has been a two-year process, due to “all kinds of levels of administration” in Cuba that had to approve any kind of interaction with the United States.

“Of course, [Cornell] had to approve it too,” he said. “We finally got the last of the signatures we needed last month.”

Alexis Santi, coordinator of travel safety for Cornell Abroad, said that Cuba is an “extremely safe country.”

“Crime is virtually nonexistent. My own personal vetting of the location entailed walking streets where students may traverse late at night and interviewing locals in the area. I didn’t run into any issues,” he said. “As someone who is Cuban American, whose parents fled the country in 1960, I find this a deeply powerful experience to be working towards normalizing relations.”

Grace said students will have the opportunity to visit historic Havana and the rest of the island, in order to see a different way of life.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity, given the entwined history of the United States and Cuba,” she said. “It’s a unique opportunity for students to really get to know a place that’s so close and yet so not understood. For those still wanting to engage in research, they’ll have an opportunity [to do so] with endemic species that they would be not able to find here.”

Marina Markot, director of Cornell Abroad, added that there are few other rigorous study abroad programs for science students that also expose them to cultural differences.

“It is important that science students learn how scientific research is done around the world. Many of our current science students will one day be working in multinational and multicultural labs. A broad understanding of the global scientific landscape will be important,” she said. “The Havana program is the first one in what I hope will become a Cornell trademark series of unique and in-depth academic experiences for undergraduates.”

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