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‘Education in science and technology is important’

Astronomer Mariano Mendez honored for education project in developing countries
10 July 2018

Mariano Mendez is a successful astronomer and full professor at the University of Groningen. His career took off when he moved from Argentina to take up a postdoc position at the University of Amsterdam, which gave him the opportunity to interact with the international scientific community. For the last seventeen years, Mendez has been working hard to give this same opportunity to over 1,500 astronomers from developing countries. On 15 July, he will receive the COSPAR Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts.

Mendez has published over 300 peer-reviewed research papers in his career, a very respectable output. His field of expertise is X-ray astronomy, which he uses to study enigmatic objects like neutron stars and black holes. There are two watersheds in his career: in 1996 he moved from his native Argentina to Amsterdam. ‘From that time, the number of citations for my research papers shot up, from a few dozen to a few hundred per year’, he says. And in 2001, he was asked to lecture in a new workshop for astronomers in developing countries. ‘Teaching people about science starts a chain reaction with a high impact.’

Mariano Mendez | Photo Tomaso M. Belloni
Mariano Mendez | Photo Tomaso M. Belloni

Cold War

The workshop was organized through COSPAR , the Committee on Space Research. COSPAR was founded in 1958, shortly after the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, at a time when the Cold War made contact between scientists from the East and the West very difficult. It provided a platform where everyone was welcome to discuss anything to do with space research.

The Cold War ended in 1991, and the inclusive nature of COSPAR also led to other initiatives. In 2001, British astronomer Peter Willmore organized a two-week workshop for South American astronomers in Brazil. ‘I was working at SRON, the Space Research Institute in Utrecht at the time,’ says Mendez, ‘and my boss was contacted by the organizers. He asked if I wanted to teach in this workshop.’ Mendez agreed and has been involved ever since.

Bar

‘We teach people how to use data gathered from space, how to access and analyze them and how to interpret results.’ The format of the workshops is simple: Some ten teachers and 35 students (ranging from PhDs to young professors) stay in a hotel or conference centre for two weeks, which gives them plenty of opportunity to interact. ‘The venues are usually a secluded space, and during the week we’re all there. Students can approach us all the time, even when we’re sitting in the bar. Days like that can be long’, says Mendez, smiling.

At the workshops, the students learn how to interact with the data, for example by reproducing previous results. ‘The idea is that participants will follow up on this with new research.’ Becoming acquainted with the lecturers helps them connect to the wider astronomical community.

Workshop in Ensenada, Mexico (2014) | Photo COSPAR
Workshop in Ensenada, Mexico (2014) | Photo COSPAR

Mendez recalls the example of a Nigerian astronomer, Romanus Eze. ‘He got his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Nigeria in Nsukka at the age of 27. They had no direct internet access, no facilities. After the workshop, he kept in touch with one of the lecturers and together they published a paper.’ Eze used an internet café to exchange emails with his co-author, who also sent him an old NASA pc to work on. One thing led to another and Eze earned his PhD, was able to attend conferences and spent some time in the US and Japan. ‘He is now back in Nsukka as a senior lecturer. He continues to teach, publish and win grants for travel.’

Tenacity

Eze’s scientific career may not amount to much by Western standards, but his tenacity is impressive and inspiring. ‘Education in science and technology is important in any country. Eze will have a great impact on his students.’ This is exactly what COSPAR wants to achieve. Mendez used this example in his inaugural lecture as full professor in March 2016. Teaching in the COSPAR workshops is important to him. ‘I started my career in a developing country, Argentina. It was difficult to keep up with the latest research there, travel was too expensive and we had no internet’, he recalls. ‘Then I got the chance to go to the Netherlands, which meant a big change in my career. That is why I want to help other astronomers in developing countries. I owe it to them

Mariano Mendez performing a magic tric | Photos Tomaso M. Belloni
Mariano Mendez performing a magic tric | Photos Tomaso M. Belloni

The workshops are organized by the COSPAR Panel on Capacity Building, which Mendez has chaired for the last eight years, after four years as vice-chair. ‘We organize about three workshops a year now. The lecturers are all volunteers and receive no compensation, apart from travel and lodging.’ In all, 37 workshops have been held so far, 27 during Mendez’s tenure as chair. His efforts for the Panel have earned him the Distinguished Service Medal. ‘Though I must say, two to three hundred lecturers were involved, and they deserve this medal as much as I do.’

Magic

Over the years, Mendez has gathered a core team of lecturers, each with surprising extra skills. ‘There’s a guy who can play the piano and another who sings opera, there’s a good juggler and I do magic tricks.’ All work and no play make for a dull workshop or lecture. ‘Even here, in my lectures at the Faculty I may do a magic trick halfway through, just to get the students’ attention.’ But a relaxed atmosphere also helps the interaction between students and lecturers. ‘That is part of the success of the workshops. You get to know these people, and if someone then needs a letter of recommendation, I can write it.’

Diner during a workshop in Ensenada, Mexico (2014) | Photo COSPAR
Diner during a workshop in Ensenada, Mexico (2014) | Photo COSPAR

All workshops are held in a developing country, and only students from that region are welcome. ‘The host countries must invite us to come, and give the assurance that all participants will get a visa.’ This can be a problem when there are tensions between countries, like India and Pakistan. Yet so far, this requirement has been met for all the workshops. The participants only pay for their travel to the venue, and even there COSPAR can provide grants that will go towards the costs. This is well worth the investment: two participants of the first workshop in Brazil were on the organizing committee for a similar workshop in Argentina in 2012.

Legacy

In all, some 1,500 people from more than 50 countries have attended one of the workshops. Over the last ten years, 50 students from developing countries have received a grant from a COSPAR Fellowship Programme for a six-week visit to an astronomical research institute in a developed country, to complete a research project started during the workshop. In all, the Panel for Capacity Building has obtained around $ 1m in funding from COSPAR and other organizations thus far.

Mendez will receive his medal at the 42nd Scientific Assembly of COSPAR; a biennial conference on space research that is attended by more than 3000 scientists. It will be held this year in Pasadena (US). ‘I’m looking forward to meeting former workshop students there’, says Mendez. ‘A few of them will give talks on the impact of the workshops.’ In Pasadena, he will step down as chair, after the maximum two four-year terms. His students are his legacy: ‘When I’m gone, the students – from Groningen and the workshops will remember me. I hope they remember the science and the fun. In that way, I will transcend a bit.’

See also: International award for Groningen astronomer Mariano Mendez

Group picture of participants of a workshop in Viedma, Argentinia (2017) | Photo COSPAR
Group picture of participants of a workshop in Viedma, Argentinia (2017) | Photo COSPAR
Last modified:10 July 2018 6.47 p.m.

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