Yachay: the apex of a 40 year-long academic career, from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere
In the last decade, a realisation helped change the focus of my academic journey. So far, all my scientific activity had taken place in the Northern cone of the so-called Western world. During my previous short stays visiting academic institutions in the Southern Hemisphere, I have realised that another kind of academia is necessary and, of course, possible. Thus, in Latin America there are excellent teaching universities. But, with minor exception, there is little focus on research.
To give you a bit of background on my decision to focus my career towards the Southern Hemisphere, I’ll start with a few details about my journey. On 2nd October 2014, I celebrated my 40th anniversary in academia. On the same day in 1974, I started my last year as an undergraduate, conducting experimental work in the laboratory of the department of organic chemistry at the University of Barcelona (UB), in Spain.
After earning my master’s degree and PhD at UB, I undertook several post-doctoral positions at Tufts University School of Medicine, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, at the faculty of medicine at the University of Aix-Marseille, France and in the department of chemistry at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA. Subsequently, I returned to UB in 1984 as associate professor in Organic Chemistry.
After four decades in academia, my interest shifted. I have started to operate mainly through Latin America and South Africa, where I hold a research professor position. I realised that these countries hold enormous amounts of natural resources used to export raw materials. Then, they import sophisticated ones, therefore resulting in the loss of all value. Furthermore, because the area lacks institutions for developing innovative projects, the best brains of Latin America migrate to worldwide elite universities and companies.
Latin America needs and deserves a large number of research universities able to carry out disruptive research. This should not be an imitation of those carried out in Western universities. This should be based on strengths of the region, with the objective of shifting the productive sector paradigm.
What gave me this perspective on what ought to be the goal of research stems from my experience outside academia. In 1991, I made a decision that changed my academic life. I joined the American company Millipore-Waters in Bedford, Massachusetts, USA, as director of research. While working there, I learned that true quality research is something that has an impact on society. This impact could be a paradigm shift, but also a new product or a new process.
I subsequently returned to academic life with a new personal academic agenda. This led to my participation to a public-private consortium involving PharmaMar, a Spanish oncology biotech company, still in operation nearly 20 years later. Since then, I have collaborated with multiple international private sectors: joint projects, consultancy, patenting, licensing, marketed products, entrepreneurship. I also became involved in the creation of the Barcelona Science Park of the University of Barcelona, and worked as its general director between 2005 and 2012.
With the benefits of all these years of experience, I engaged in an international recruitment process to become a member of the board of directors and the inaugural rector of Yachay Tech. When I was offered the job by the Ecuadorian Government, I had no hesitation in accepting it.
Yachay Tech is part of Yachay City of Knowledge, located in Urcuquí, 150 kilometers North of the capital, Quito. It was born with the objective of being a flagship university in the new Latin American Academia with an idearium based on the I3: Interdisciplinary, International, and Innovative. The institution was designed to promote fundamental research, encourage basic learning and curriculum flexibility, and value and reward academic excellence. Its research will be based on the strengths of Ecuador: biodiversity, energy and mining.
The university is structured around six schools, each with two departments, one more focused on the first part of the value chain and another with innovation as lemma. These schools are Chemistry and Petrochemistry; Biology and Biotechnology; Physics and Nanotechnology; Geology and Geotechnical Engineering; Mathematics and ICT; and Economics and Entrepreneurship, supported by a division of Human Sciences.
I was attracted by the challenge offered by Yachay Tech, which strives to be a representative of the New University. It allows the combination of teaching and research with a strong vocation for the transfer of knowledge from such research to society.
I support its main objective: fulfilling the ancestral Quechua concept of Sumak Kawsay (Good Living). Unlike other approaches, it is seeking balance with nature, the need to satisfy human requirements, taking only what is necessary; in other words, this approach is based on the idea of sustainability, and not only on economic growth.
I hope that Yachay Tech will become rapidly in one of the main drivers in the process of change of the productive matrix not only in Ecuador, but also in all the Andes’ Region. As the Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti wrote: “The South also exists” (El Sur también existe). We will show that the South also exists in science.
To all my mentors during this trip, who rapidly became my friends, Ernest, Victor, Jurphaas, George, Jack, José María, Màrius, Dídac, Gert, and Rafael.
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Featured image credit: Britni Lynn Johnson - Yachay Tech
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