ESSIE Representatives Strengthen Connections in Latin America with Multiple Site Visits to Panama and Colombia

As part of efforts at the University of Florida (UF) Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment (ESSIE) to build relationships in Latin America and explore student and professional exchanges there, representatives from the school embarked on multiple visits to South America this past February. The team completed five site visits to Panama and two to Colombia. 

ESSIE representatives included Kyle Riding, Ph.D., a professor, Arnoldo Valle-Levinson, Ph.D., a University Term Professor, and Nancy McIlrath, the School’s graduate academic coordinator.  

Throughout these meetings, the team was able to meet with Eduardo Ortega, Ph.D., the National Secretary of the Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación, equivalent to the National Science Foundation, and Edgardo Diaz Ferguson, Ph.D., executive director of the Coiba Scientific Station (COIBA AIP) to discuss student exchanges and research opportunities. They also met with Oris Sanjur, Ph.D., deputy drector of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, and Jorge Isaac Peren, Ph.D., president of the Society of Panamanian Engineers and Architects (SPIA), and the SPIA’s board members. 

“Dr. Otega is extremely influential in helping agencies, faculty and students by considering funding allocations for research and educational purposes,” McIlrath said. “Our meetings with Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Sanjur helped clarify the needs of COIBA AIP and STRI and determined how ESSIE can become more actively involved in the research being performed there.” 

During the visit, the school’s representatives had the opportunity to speak with ESSIE alumna Gisselle Esther Guerra Saval, Ph.D., (MS ’12, Ph.D. ‘18). Dr. Guerra Saval arranged for the group to meet Omar Olmedo Aizpurúa, Ph.D., the newly appointed Rector, or chancellor, of the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (UTP), and other university representatives. The group also visited the Universidad del Norte (UniNorte), Colombia, where they spoke with Julián Arellana, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering, Carlos Arteta, Ph.D., department chair of Civil Engineering, Jeannie Caicedo, director for International Cooperation, and other faculty. 

“We hope to gain partners in research and student and faculty exchanges in the future,” Dr. Riding said. “We discussed with prospective students the potential opportunities to study at UF within our master’s and doctoral programs in civil, coastal and environmental engineering, and opportunities for students to improve language skills at the UF English Language Institute.” 

Dr. Valle-Levinson, who served as an interpreter when needed, said it was a highlight to see the willingness of the engineering societies in Colombia and Panama to support students and professionals in education and training activities at UF. The group hopes this visit will continue to strengthen relationships with Latin American students and faculty and increase research opportunities for the school. 

The group travelled to Barranquilla, Colombia, to attend the Sociedad Colombiana de Ingenieros (SCI) conference and were met by UF alumna, Paola Castillo.  The UF team was invited by the SCI President, Germán Pardo Albarracín, to give a presentation on opportunities at UF that are available for attendees. Albarracín also sponsored an exhibitor’s booth at the event, where UF personnel interacted with congress participants. ESSIE established its first MOU in Latin American with SCI in 2019. The SCI organization sponsors a competitive scholarship that also allows the selected participant to receive the Latin American Caribbean scholarship from UF, if admitted to ESSIE.  

Like the relationship that has been built with SCI, ESSIE is in the process of developing an additional Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with all the organizations that were visited. These agreements open the door to discuss funding opportunities and the possibility of research collaborations or student exchanges. The school is initiating these efforts to be university-wide agreements, so any group from UF can explore research and student exchange opportunities with Panama and Colombia. 

This visit is part of the school’s graduate recruitment endeavors, spearheaded by McIlrath, to connect with students from around the world, especially in Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Representatives appreciated arrangements by Gladys Bernett, senior EducationUSA advisor and UF Alumna, who coordinated meetings with several Panamanian entities. 

To learn more about ESSIE’s graduate programs, visit 


Reba Liddy 

Marketing and Communications Specialist