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Research program connects UNK with Latin American countries

Research program connects UNK with Latin American countries
UNK chemistry professor Hector Palencia, left, works with Emerson Francisco Arias last summer during a faculty-led research project. Francisco Arias, a student at the Autonomous University of Nayarit in Mexico, spent seven weeks at UNK through the DELFIN research program. (Courtesy photo)

KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney is partnering with academic institutions from four Latin American countries to promote undergraduate research, expand students’ global perspectives and create opportunities for collaboration among faculty.

Last year, UNK joined the Inter-Institutional Program for Strengthening of Research and Graduates Studies in the Pacific, better known as DELFIN.

Started in 1995, the program includes more than 200 academic institutions and research centers in Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru. UNK is the first member institution from the United States.

“When we first learned about this program, we knew it fit UNK so well,” said Tim Burkink, assistant vice chancellor for international affairs.

UNK offers countless opportunities for undergraduate students to conduct faculty-mentored research, and the campus and Kearney community provide a welcoming, safe environment for international students. More than 350 international students from 50-plus countries are currently studying at UNK, which is home to an English Language Institute that allows these students to learn more about the English language and American culture.

These attributes align perfectly with DELFIN’s goals.

The program’s main objective is to connect undergraduate students with faculty researchers from other member institutions, either abroad or within the same country. These students spend seven weeks at the host institution while working on a faculty-led summer research project.

Since 1995, more than 55,000 students have participated in summer research projects through DELFIN, contributing to their personal, academic and cultural development.

UNK hosted its first two students last summer – Emerson Francisco Arias from the Autonomous University of Nayarit and Omar Lozano Ramos from the University of Colima, both in Mexico. The students worked alongside UNK chemistry professor Hector Palencia on a project addressing antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

UNK chemistry professor Hector Palencia, left, hosted two students from Mexico last summer through the DELFIN research program. Emerson Francisco Arias, a student at the Autonomous University of Nayarit, right, and Omar Lozano Ramos, who attends the University of Colima, spent seven weeks at UNK while assisting Palencia with his research. (Courtesy photo)

Lozano Ramos, a senior studying chemical and pharmaceutical biology, called it a “life-changing experience.”

“I learned a lot from Dr. Palencia, from chemistry techniques to life lessons, and made very valuable friendships,” he said.

DELFIN connects students and faculty researchers through an online platform. When a student identifies a project they’re interested in, they submit an application that must be approved by the faculty researcher. Students must be juniors or seniors who are proficient in English to participate.

Palencia was impressed by the quality of research performed by Lozano Ramos, comparing his work ethic and intelligence to a first-year doctoral student.

“He’s an amazing student, a very brilliant student,” Palencia said.

Lozano Ramos was equally impressed by UNK. After graduating from the University of Colima, he hopes to return to Kearney to pursue a master’s degree in biology.

For UNK, the opportunity to boost international enrollment at the graduate level is one of the advantages of joining DELFIN.

“When undergraduate students are here, we want to make sure they fall in love with UNK and our programs, and hopefully they’ll return as graduate students,” said Juan Guzman, director of the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion. The native of Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, played a key role in UNK’s decision to join DELFIN.

Because visiting students must pay for room and board – funding is provided by their home institutions, families and Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology – hosting undergraduate researchers creates an additional summer revenue source for UNK.

The program is also a valuable networking tool.

More than 6,700 researchers are part of DELFIN, allowing UNK faculty to pursue collaborations and promote their work internationally. DELFIN publishes a journal showcasing faculty research and hosts an annual conference in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, where students present their projects and member institutions promote their programs.

“We were overwhelmed with student interest at last year’s conference,” said Traci Gunderson, assistant director of international recruitment, marketing and the English Language Institute in UNK’s Office of International Education. “The interest to come conduct research at UNK is vast.”

Gunderson also noted that many institutions are interested in working directly with UNK through exchange agreements that allow undergraduate students to study internationally.

For summer 2020, UNK is looking for more faculty to work with international students through the seven-week research projects. The program will be expanded next year, allowing UNK students to travel to other member institutions.

Following UNK’s lead, Guzman wants to see more U.S. colleges and universities join the research program in the near future.

“We’re hoping in the next two years that we’ll be the chapter of DELFIN here in the United States,” he said.


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