This June, Future Scientist’s President Richard Novak paid a visit to Panama after seven years since his last trip to the country. The last time he was here was leading a student group, and they did a water storage tank project in the high school in Portobelo. Now seven years later he came back to assess Future Scientist’s expansion up the coast and how the Self-Solving Initiative is taking place in the communities of Costa Arriba. From his arrival on June 21st to his departure on June 26th, our time was filled with meetings with other organizations and amongst ourselves with two other members of Future Scientist that are in Panama, Morgan Hess-Holtz and Amador Goodridge. It was a productive five days of discussion and analysis and it will help to set the tone for our operations for years to come.
On Saturday, less than 12 hours from Richard’s arrival, Morgan, Richard and I began a first tour of meetings in Costa Arriba in the communities of Palenque, Nombre de Dios, and Portobelo. Our meeting in Palenque was with some of the members of the water committee. We talked about the water security of the community and what actions have been taken to ensure water security. We asked them for their ideas on what could be done to better committee administration of the water system as well as the new water well that was constructed by Open Blue. We stressed the importance of stronger collection tactics in order to get the whole community to participate and pay their monthly water bills. This is a local problem that plagues most rural communities in Colón and in other Panamanian provinces. After Palenque we traveled further upcoast to Miramar, the site of a clinic and a future project, and all the way to the end of the paved road in Cuango to get a sense of the communities and local economy. We then made our way back to our next stop, Nombre de Dios.
In Nombre de Dios we met with Aníbal Villacres, my counterpart in the community. With Aníbal we discussed steps we could take in involving the the new government in the water security of the region. We decided with his input that we needed to facilitate dialog among the town and the representatives and mayor of the region, Ministry of Health, and other representatives of local institutions. From there we will organize a discussion of what Nombre de Dios needs with respect to water security and quality, and we will draft a set of goals that could apply to the entire district of Santa Isabel. We hope that together we can mobilize the local politicians and leaders to invest in their communities and inspire the community to advocate for their own benefit in order to create positive and sustainable change in Santa Isabel.
After Nombre de Dios we went back to where it all started: Portobelo. Richard wanted to revisit the school where the storage tank project was done by him and the student group seven years ago. There he was able to reconnect with Wilfredo Aguilar, the original Future Scientist counterpart. They have been friends from when Richard came with the student group to install the storage tanks. It was clear WIlfredo was happy to see Richard and it was nice to see the two old friends reunite. We went to lunch with Wilfredo at a little restaurant not too far from the school. There we discussed future collaboration between the school and Future Scientist. We talked about the upcoming science fair that the older students participate in and ideas on what kind of projects the students could do. The Future Scientist team is brainstorming ideas for the students and we will present them to Wilfredo later on. It will help us reintegrate into the school after a bit of a hiatus extending up coast and having a focus on the local clinics, developing relationships in other communities, and finding other project opportunities in these communities. After we said our goodbyes we made our way back to the city. Richard was finally allowed to rest before the whirlwind meeting tour that would be our Monday and Tuesday. Before that tour we were to have an internal lunch meeting among Amador, Morgan, Richard and myself in order to discuss Future Scientist and the week ahead. It was a productive meeting where we discussed how our Saturday went in Costa Arriba and next steps for the organization. Morgan, Amador, Richard, and I were also able to catch up and get to know one another a little better which was great for group cohesion for the activities to come the following two days.
Our first meeting of our tour was in Open Blue (https://www.openblue.com). We met with Francisco Pizarro and Cynthia Vergara from Let’s Do It!-World (https://www.letsdoitworld.org) and Javier Visuetti from Open Blue. We discussed the Miramar waste management project, our visit to the compost center at the vocational school, fish waste that Open Blue produces and how we could incorporate that waste into our project in Miramar, and next steps for the Miramar project like securing a location for the waste center. It was great for Richard to meet these key players in this project and get a sense for the direction we wanted to take it. Our next stop was the Technological University of Panama (Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá or UTP) (http://www.utp.ac.pa).
The UTP is one of the more prestigious and demanding schools in Panama. Here I have met professors and students alike that are a part of the engineering department. I have collaborated with them for charlas in Costa Arriba as part of our Agua Colón grant. We want to start including them in projects and are looking for an assistant with an engineering background to aid me in project management in Colón. In UTP we spoke with the dean, Prof. Martin Candenado, in order to formalize the collaboration between the university and Future Scientist. We want to work with students in order to get them into the field to get hands-on experience and develop projects to take their studies further. We will continue to work with the engineering staff and students and later on, once we see that the collaboration is bearing fruit, we will work on formalizing our connection with the university.
The following day we stayed within the City of Knowledge and visited the foundations and organizations within the area. We started the day with an update meeting on the AGUA COLÓN project with the project lead, Dr. Zohre Kurt, at INDICASAT-AIP (http://indicasat.org.pa/home). We discussed what the geographic focus should be for the project, what our next steps in water collection should be, and what kind of data we need to measure impact. Critically, we need aggregated diagnoses of patients who come into the health centers and clinics related to symptoms of waterborne disease. We came to the conclusion that the information that both the Agua Colón project and Future Scientist need this information to measure impact, so we are starting to collect this information and will likely hire a short term contractor to help.
The Agua Colón project is funded by SENACYT (National Secretary of Sciences and Technology) (https://www.senacyt.gob.pa), and we want to continue that collaboration for support of future projects. We met with them to discuss how we can continue to work together and help SENACYT reach students and young people in Colón, a dramatically underserved province of Panama. SENACYT is dedicated to providing academic support to high school and college students with education programs, camps, workshops, and even fully paid trips to study in the United States. They wanted our help to connect with these students in Colón and create a strong line of connection between SENACYT and the Colón youth. An idea was that Future Scientist could act as a mentor to students looking for these types of academic opportunities in order to help them with the necessary requirements in application. SENACYT provides these opportunities to students in order to help them rise out of poverty on their own merit, and they are opportunities that Future Scientist can advertise and support among the youth of Costa Arriba.
Our final destination on the meeting tour and the last meeting we were to have on Richard’s stay in Panama was with an organization called CATHALAC (Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y el Caribe or Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean) (https://www.cathalac.int). CATHALAC is an organization based on intergovernmental agreements across Latin America. They support the water health of Latin America by providing water analysis and watershed monitoring technologies as well as educational programs to empower communities to take charge in their water health. Our meeting with them served as an introduction between the two of us and we hope to collaborate with them in the future given Future Scientist’s history of providing access to clean water through the Clean Water Initiative (http://www.futurescientist.org/clean-water-access.html).
Richard’s visit was an impetus towards new relationships and project opportunities with organizations that we had been previously unaware of. It was great meeting the people behind these organizations and it is clear that we have similar goals. It is only the beginning of what we hope to be long and fortuitous partnerships. We want to leverage these relationships with these organizations in order to arrive at mutually beneficial collaboration, with the ultimate benefactor being the people of Colón.