The Caribbean region is rich in resources, perhaps the most important of which are its people, said several speakers at the AAAS Caribbean Division Annual Meeting, held virtually Oct. 23 and 24. Accordingly, the meeting highlighted the work of scientists in the Caribbean region and explored how to best draw upon its next generation of scientists to strengthen the role of STEM in the region.
One of three AAAS regional divisions, the Caribbean Division has fostered collaboration among scientists from Puerto Rico, Central America, the islands of the Caribbean Basin, Venezuela and southern Mexico since 1985. Its purpose is to fulfill the AAAS mission throughout the region. The division’s multilingual meeting convened those in the region and beyond to highlight the work of the Caribbean scientists at the Puerto Rico Seismic Network and the public health experts and epidemiologists responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. Presenters and attendees also focused heavily on the meeting’s theme of “Beyond Resilience: Building a Strong Caribbean.”
“Resilience is defined as being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions,” said Ricardo González Méndez, professor of radiological sciences at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, who moderated a panel on fostering collaborations in the Caribbean. “In the Caribbean, we have been resilient for over 30 years now of hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanos, floods, you name it.”
Focusing so singularly on immediate challenges means that the region could have been much further ahead in its long-term scientific outlook, said González Méndez. “We’re decades behind,” he said.
Cardinal Warde, professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered a multi-pronged pathway to build a stronger science and technology enterprise, beginning with fostering a culture of strong STEM education throughout the Caribbean region. That, he said, can lay the foundation for STEM innovation, entrepreneurship and diversification of local economies.
Warde, who also serves as interim executive director of the Caribbean Science Foundation, shared some of the projects the foundation has undertaken in their decade of existence. Those projects support a well-educated, well-prepared future STEM workforce, including STEM teacher training workshops, coding workshops open to both children and adults and an intensive summer program for gifted teenagers called Student Program for Innovation in Science and Engineering. Warde noted that a number of alumni of the SPISE program are currently studying at prestigious overseas universities and said he hopes that they bring their STEM expertise back to the Caribbean and start their own companies.
“There’s no reason why the next Google couldn’t start somewhere in the Caribbean,” said Warde.
Meeting attendee Kevin Alicea-Torres echoed the importance of resources and opportunities for students interested in science, many of whom, like Alicea-Torres himself, leave the region to pursue studies and jobs in STEM.
Investing in science can allow scientists like him to contribute to “the better future of the scientific community here in Puerto Rico and in other Caribbean islands,” said Alicea-Torres, who recently returned to Puerto Rico after completing his Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania to serve as associate director at the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao.
Continuing the focus on the next generation of scientists, the meeting also featured students sharing their own research and presented awards to several students and one educator. The Robert I. Larus Prizes, which recognizes the graduate students who have presented the meeting’s best posters, were given to Carmen Perez, Janice Losada and Gabriela Ramirez. Elizabeth Torres Rodríguez, a teacher in San Juan, Puerto Rico, received the Lucy Gaspar Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. “What we want with this award is to give importance to teachers in their daily lives to influence students to go onto scientific careers,” said Filipa Godoy-Vitorino, president of the AAAS Caribbean Division and a professor at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine.
Sudip Parikh, AAAS’ chief executive officer, also spoke directly to the students in attendance, encouraging them to be motivated by the challenges that 2020 has held and to look ahead to contribute to a better future.
“Take hold of this moment,” Parikh said. “I look forward to you all continuing the momentum so that we can take advantage, take this opportunity borne of tragedy and ensure that the world that we leave behind for our children and grandchildren is better than the one that we found.”
[Associated image: AAAS Caribbean Division]