A team of academics from University College Cork (UCC) braved riots and tear-gas to encourage sustainable education, amid political unrest in Honduras.
The journey began in 2015 when Yensi Flores Bueso, a new UCC PhD student from Honduras, wondered if she could help her alma mater - the National University of Honduras (UNAH).
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and is very badly affected by climate change.
Thousand of people flee northwards and risk their lives to escape violence and political and social instability.
Yensi originally arrived at UCC in 2014 on a Masters scholarship through the Academic Mobility and Inclusive Development of Latin America Erasmus Mundus project.
During her studies in Cancer Research@UCC, funded by the Irish Research Council and APC Microbiome Ireland, Yensi learned of the significant potential of synthetic biology, which is the engineering of biological systems to create useful products.
She realised this field could allow scientists in developing countries to create products with a minimal budget and little infrastructure, which could in turn provide solutions to major health or environmental problems in Latin America.
Yensi initially sourced surplus molecular biology lab equipment and consumables from Cancer Research@UCC and APC Microbiome Ireland.
She knew it would be extremely expensive to transport the equipment, so Yensi contacted Fyffes, who donated the transport and looked after the logistics of delivering the equipment to the National University of Honduras (UNAH).
However, sourcing and transporting the equipment was just half the battle.
On a visit home, Yensi saw that the equipment was lying in the UNAH lab unused.
Upon further discussion with local researchers, she learned that they could easily learn how to use the equipment, but did not know why they should use it.
Due to the absence of local research activity, there was a lack of education in how to perform scientific studies.
To address this, Yensi engaged her UCC PhD supervisor Dr Mark Tangney.
“Yensi’s extensive engagement and feasibility assessment with locals made us realise that what we needed to do was design a strategy that would seed relevant teaching and learning in Honduras, in a manner that would become sustainable locally, via development of a self-perpetuating course,” says Mark.
Cliona Maher, UCC’s International Strategy Officer for Latin America, suggested applying for EU Cooperation for Development funding to further the project.
Yensi, Mark and Cliona secured an EU Erasmus + International Credit Mobility (ICM) grant to fund the training activity.
The resulting scheme included the delivery of a short and intensive hands-on course at UNAH.
Yensi and three other researchers from Mark’s lab, Sidney Walker, Ciarán Devoy and Stephen Buckley, travelled to Honduras and delivered the course to 20 participants, made up of UNAH students, lecturers, researchers and officials from the Honduran health and biodiversity government offices.
However, the academics and participants were caught up in a protest on campus during the training.
“Riot police fired tear gas at protesters. We were caught in the middle, with course students and instructors becoming bathed in tear gas, halting course activity for some hours,” said Yensi.
Two weeks later, four protesters were shot on campus.
However, the course was still completed, and graduates were supplied with reproducible teaching and laboratory materials, so they can teach the course to others. This is now happening both in Honduras and other Latin American countries.
“It was only when faced by obstacles that range from absurd to amusing that we learned to appreciate the problems endured by researchers in low-income countries, who, despite of all the barriers, are eager to pursue research,” said Yensi.
Their story has now been published in the peer-reviewed academic journal EMBO Reports, and it is hoped that it will form a template for aiding sustainable educational development in other countries.