Since the start of the new fiscal year, two environmental engineers from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Environmental Laboratory have contributed their time and expertise as mentors to college-aged students as part of an all-volunteer organization dedicated to improving the health and quality of life of developing communities across Latin America.
Dr. Edith Martinez-Guerra and Damarys Acevedo have volunteered through the Clean Water Science Network (CWSN).
“It is a networking program where mentors and mentees work together,” Acevedo said. “In the past, they have also done research projects on water and sanitation issues in Latin American developing countries.”
Dr. Farith Diaz, one of the co-founders and co-directors of the program, described how similar networking opportunities are usually available only to students from private and public schools in large urban areas. He and two other University of Texas at Austin alumni decided to establish CWSN to help students from smaller schools in Latin America.
Acevedo was aware of CWSN because she and Diaz became friends while they were both in graduate school at UT Austin. Acevedo shared the volunteer opportunity with Martinez-Guerra, who is originally from El Salvador and knows firsthand the kinds of water challenges these countries can face.
“I’m from a small village located in San Miguel,” she said. “When we had to carry water from wells, sometimes we dropped chlorine tablets in the water to purify it. We have volcanic activity in the area, and after the civil war that ended in ‘92, there hasn’t been any clean-up of contaminants. A lot of people are getting kidney problems from contaminants in the water, probably from heavy metals.”
This year there are approximately 100 mentors and 100 mentees in the program. “There are students from all over Latin America: Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador,” Martinez-Guerra said.
Seminars and discussion groups are held once a month. Students have homework related to the topics presented at the seminars, usually in the form of questionnaires that they answer and share with their mentors. The weekly seminars are on topics related to water and environmental engineering as well as about practical matters, such as how to prepare your resume, write a statement of purpose or apply to graduate school.
Martinez-Guerra also teaches English as a second language to a group of mentees once a month. “English is a tricky language, and I’m trying to give them those English tips that helped me when learning the language,” she said.
Mark Noel, acting deputy director of the ERDC Environmental Laboratory, said that Martinez-Guerra and Acevedo show great initiative every day. “This effort is just another example of their commitment to their careers and willingness to go the extra mile — you can see their work ethic obviously applies to their personal lives as well.”
By participating in CWSN, Acevedo said she is providing others with mentorship that she did not have. “I took classes in English in Puerto Rico when I was growing up, but there was no one to provide me with mentorship on how to navigate the system, how to prepare a resume, how to apply for a job or how to apply to graduate school,” she said. “I would like to give back to the community somehow by helping others with things I wish I had help for – it’s all about helping others for me.”
“We are lucky to have mentors like Damarys and Edith in our program,” Diaz said. “From their academic backgrounds to their work at ERDC, they both provide unique and valuable experience to our mentorship program that helps us grow and that particularly benefits our mentees.”
The researchers’ volunteer work has also aided them in building partnerships for the future.
“We’re able to build a network with people from other countries, and we are able to understand their water issues better,” Acevedo said. “Some of the problems they’re dealing with, we have dealt with already in the U.S.”
“It’s a way to help the students, but it’s also a way to network for us, because the other mentors are from different universities around the country, from different government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, private companies and consulting firms,” Martinez-Guerra said. “Many of them perform research or work on projects that are similar to ours, so I think maybe in the future we’ll be working professionally with other mentors as colleagues.”