Student, faculty research transforms El Salvadorian agriculture

For University of Detroit Mercy’s Director of Sustainability, Victor Carmona, a degree is more than just a degree — it’s a tool for social justice.

As an educator, he works hard to instill in his students that service must be a lifelong commitment, and that the knowledge they create through research can have a powerful impact on the lives of others. To give them a chance to see this impact firsthand, he brings students with him on his service trips to El Salvador.

In El Salvador, there is only one university biology department in the whole country, which means the nation must rely heavily on foreign research and aid to sustain its agricultural community — research like the work done by Detroit Mercy students Yarnise Hines and Joyce Choi.

Hines, whose research project focused on food security and the importance of pollinators, and Choi, who used data from the El Salvadorian government to show a direct link between the infestation of Chagas disease through crops and poverty, accompanied Carmona to El Salvador in October for a climate change symposium. There, they presented their findings and spent time with colleagues at Detroit Mercy’s partnering Jesuit university, Universidad de El Salvador (UES).

It was a return trip for Choi, who attended last year, but for Hines, it was a dream, come true. “As a first-generation, underrepresented minority student, I could only dream of having the ability to do research abroad, along with developing my abilities as a budding scientist,” she said.

Meanwhile, Choi realized that, as an ecologist, her role goes well beyond her contribution to science. “I had my heart set on becoming an ecologist to contribute meaningful environmental research to science and to indirectly benefit society, but now I know that is not enough,” she explained.

Carmona also presented research at the symposium. His work investigated the influence of climate on crops, and opened a new discussion on why some crops, like sugarcane and corn, are not producing as well as they did previously. According to Carmona, global climate change has disturbed the normal weather patterns of Central America, causing the dry seasons to be too hot and the wet seasons to bring too much water and wash away the country’s crops.

But his influence in El Salvador goes far beyond his research, as his students were able to observe.

“We saw projectors, computers, textbooks and even changes to a course, all stemming from (Carmona’s) genuine actions,” Choi said. Seeing the impact her research mentor has had at UES made her acutely aware that “it is actually possible for one individual to make a difference in a community.” She said she now strives to do the same.

Hines believes the trip gave her an opportunity to see Detroit Mercy’s mission in action. “Traveling to a place where my opinion is respected and taken into consideration when improving for the future really has shown me that the University stands by their mission of integrating intellectual and social development, as well as being student-centered,” she said.

Before their return to the U.S., Hines and Choi were asked to serve as contributors to a national publication and present their research, as well as help the sustainability of the agricultural communities throughout Central America.

Both students will carry forward lessons they learned through this experience, as they complete their studies and embark on careers, into which they plan to incorporate the kind of service exemplified by Carmona.

In the future, seeking opportunities that will advance me as both a scientist and as an individual will continue to be integrated in my professional life. I would like my morals and my profession to have great overlap and have integrity and respect for one another, said Hines.

Choi feels similarly, explaining the biggest take-away from the trip, for her, is how she “witnessed how important providing research opportunities are to develop well-rounded students, regardless of their respective career tracks,” adding, “I want to make educational outreach that promotes science to youth an integral part of my future as an ecologist.”

– Story written by International Business and Marketing student Jarod Hoekstra. Edited by Marketing & Communications Social Media Manager & Communications Specialist Amy Skimin.