MSU researchers think outside the borders to benefit scientific collaboration

Published June 10, 2017

“Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” Those words, spoken by then–President Barack Obama on Dec. 17, 2014, eased restrictions that had been in effect for more than 50 years. Now, those words may also have the potential to change the relationship between scientists in the two countries.

The University of Havana -- the site of the first-ever joint U.S.-Cuba conference -- is located in the Vedado district of Havana, the capital of the Republic of Cuba. Founded in 1728, the university is the oldest in Cuba and one of the first to be founded in the Americas.

Earlier this year, two Michigan State University (MSU) chemistry professors were invited speakers at the first-ever joint U.S.–Cuba conference sponsored by the Cuban Society of Chemistry of Havana. They joined speakers from some of the top schools in the country—the University of California–Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard and the California Institute of Technology. The title of the conference, which was held at the University of Havana in January, was Hot Topics in Chemistry. The broad range of subjects represented a sampling of active research at the forefront of chemistry in the United States.

“The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which had been in effect since the early ’60s, really limited the possibility of having meaningful scientific interactions,” said Professor James McCusker, who spoke at the conference about ultrafast laser spectroscopy for solar energy conversion. “Cuba has been interacting with scientists in Europe for years, but it wasn’t possible for us because of the U.S. policy toward Cuba. With the embargo now at least partially lifted, new opportunities are possible. It’s not clear where this is headed, but I think it’s a positive development because as soon as you open up dialogue, you never know what could happen.”

Angela Wilson, MSU Hannah Distinguished Professor of computational chemistry, and director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry, spoke about theoretical and computational chemistry, specifically, her MSU research in theoretical chemistry (quantum mechanical) methods being developed for thermochemical predictions. In her role as an NSF division director, she also talked about NSF priorities for chemistry. 

Cuba is known for its cultural diversity, built from Spanish, African, French and Asian influences.

Wilson and the NSF delegation also met with the president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences; visited with officials at the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment; met with officials from the Ministry of Higher Education; visited the U.S. Embassy; and visited with the director of the Jardin Botanico Nacional de Cuba to discuss science in Cuba and possible scientific interactions. The group also met the president of the University of Havana, and spent time with the leadership of the Cuban Chemical Society.

“Collaborations between scientists in the United States and scientists in Cuba are certainly of interest,” Wilson said. “There are excellent scientists in Cuba, and the opportunity to engage with them would be beneficial in terms of furthering science. Some professors in Cuba go to Canada, Europe, or other locations for collaborations that include obtaining various types of spectral data (some of which we consider to be routine), for example, to bring back to Cuba, as they do not have many instruments that may seem common to us.  And, while a limited number of students stay in Cuba for graduate studies, more leave Cuba for Canada, Europe or South America for school. “

Wilson added that NSF provides funding in a number of ways to support international collaborations. This funding, however, is for the U.S. portion of the collaborations and, typically, for visits by U.S. investigators to another country for collaborative opportunities. 

“Some of the research opportunities that U.S. scientists take for granted don’t have a footprint at all in Cuba right now,” McCusker said. “It has been a challenge for Cuba because of the technological hurdles. High-tech equipment—such as ultrafast lasers—has been largely inaccessible to scientists there.” In addition to a lack of certain types of equipment, Cuban scientists also have to deal with lack of access to chemicals and safety gear.

While at the conference, McCusker and Wilson discussed with the Cuban scientists the potential for future collaborations, including the possibility of undergraduate students from Cuba pursuing research opportunities in the United States. 

“You never know how these seeds of collaboration might germinate,” McCusker said. “I think there’s a strong possibility for scientific—as well as cultural—exchange. But again, this is all still in the early stages.” 

Hot Topics 2018 will be held on January 6.

To read more about the research and activities of the MSU Department of Chemistry in the College of Natural Science, visit http://bit.ly/2seJcf9.