Summer in southern Mexico proves valuable for biology student

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As Bethel College moves toward a more formal relationship with a university in southern Mexico, one student has already gotten a head-start on the exchange.

Ben Wiens, a senior biology major from Goessel, spent the better part of his summer in a science internship at Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas (Chiapas University of Sciences and Arts), or UNICACH.

Bethel’s connection to UNICACH originated with Francisca Méndez-Harclerode, associate professor of biology.

Méndez-Harclerode spent her recent sabbatical developing a biology field and travel course. A native of Mexico, she wants students not only to learn science and biology in natural settings that can’t be found in the United States, but also to experience the complexity and variety of Mexico that most U.S. citizens miss.

To that end, Mendez-Harclerode is calling her course, to be run for the first time this coming January, “Biological and Cultural Diversity of Mexico.”

“It is easy to overlook Mexico’s richness and have a one-dimensional view that focuses exclusively on social disparity, violence and poverty,” she says.

As she worked on her class, Méndez-Harclerode looked for contacts in Mexico and found some from her graduate school days at Texas Tech University. She connected with Eduardo Espinoza Medinilla, whom she had known as a Ph.D. student and who is now a professor at UNICACH.

Eventually, this contact led to a growing collaboration between Bethel and UNICACH, which have a long-term goal of signing a formal cooperation agreement.

UNICACH faculty Sergio Lopez, professor of evolutionary ecology, and Juan Carlos Najera, a professor of public health, visited Bethel last spring, and that’s where Wiens’ idea began to grow.

“I was trying to figure out what I could do for the summer,” he says. The more he learned about UNICACH, the more he realized it might be the place for him.

“It’s a bigger university, with master’s and doctoral programs, and more equipment for research. And I would be able to set up several different projects, not just one – that was a draw.”

“Ben was grasping for a different awareness of what to do in biology,” says Méndez-Harclerode. “He doesn’t have a drive like some of his friends for specific [areas or careers], such as veterinary medicine. He’s trying to decide on his options.”

Wiens ended up contributing to three major projects.

One involved extracting plant DNA for analysis and study, with…

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