Cultural Immersion with a Scientific Twist

Cultural Immersion with a Scientific Twist 

STEM majors often struggle to study abroad; they don’t have a lot of wiggle room because of their required credit hours and summer research projects. Fortunately, Kate Mullaugh, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and William Veal, professor of teacher education and adjunct professor of chemistry, created an intensive two-week environmental chemistry and sustainability program in Ecuador with a focus on water quality for undergraduates and graduates. 

“I had always wanted to study abroad,” says Casey O’Brien, a biochemistry major and Spanish minor, “but with my major, it was hard to fit in. This two-week program was perfect.” 

Visiting El Pacer, a series of corrugated tin-roof homes, was the most transformative experience of the trip for the recipient scholarships including the Haisten Family Scholarship and Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust Scholarship. O’Brien was struck by how kind and generous the people of El Pacer were despite the village’s low income and lack of modern resources.  

“They were some of the happiest people I ever saw,” says O’Brien. “There is no division between households. No one had locks on their doors and little kids wandered in and out of people’s homes.” 

O’Brien was also impressed with the self-sustainability of El Pacer. “When COVID hit, they were able to make their own bubble,” he explains. “They used their farm and resources and didn’t need to interact with the outside world for the first six months of the pandemic.” 

The most eye-opening experience for O’Brien was seeing the toxic waste left behind by oil companies.  

“I was shocked that companies were able to leave such a mess,” adds O’Brien, who was concerned about the impact of the oil seepage on the health of families living on the land. The oil residues are now incorporated into the soil on many family farms in which food is grown for personal consumption and the broader market. 

O’Brien also experienced part of his family’s history during the trip. His grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador, and he had the opportunity to visit Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the church his grandmother had attended, which gave him a closer connection to her.  

Without question, the trip to Ecuador served as a learning experience for the students about how incredibly intertwined our health, community, science and sustainability are.