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In 1997, Mercy Borbor-Cordova was well into the career in oceanography that she had wanted from childhood. For a decade she had been on the faculty at the university in her hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador. She could have stayed there for the rest of her working life.
But her personal life changed that year, and she was ready for other changes as well. She decided to pursue a long-held dream, an advanced degree. But there are no graduate schools in Ecuador, so she needed to pull up her roots. Speaking no English and having three young children, she knew there would be struggles. But Borbor-Cordova had made up her mind. She applied for a Fulbright scholarship. "I thought, maybe it's too late for me, but I took my chance," she recalls. "I've never regretted it."
The Fulbright-LASPAU Faculty Development Program brings foreign educators to the United States to work on advanced degrees. Only a few educators are chosen each year from each Latin American country. "It's a very competitive process; I was lucky to get it," Borbor-Cordova says modestly. Although her selection undoubtedly had more to it than chance, she was lucky in one way: she applied during a brief window when English fluency was not required at the start. "Fulbright paid for us to have six months of English around the clock," she says.
That did the trick, according to Charles Hall, distinguished professor at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). Hall was Borbor-Cordova's adviser and mentor throughout her graduate experience. When Borbor-Cordova arrived on campus, "She could already write well—not all of our foreign students can—so I didn't have to waste time teaching her English," says Hall.
‘I thought, maybe it's too late for me, but I took my chance. I've never regretted it.’
At SUNY-ESF, Borbor-Cordova's view expanded. "As an oceanographer, I was interested in ecology, the transport of pollutants, and biophysical science. When I went to graduate school, I got more involved with the systems perspective," she says. "The human dimension is important." Her master's thesis analyzed the environmental impacts of banana and shrimp production on Ecuador's coastal ecosystems. Hall and other faculty members were impressed with her master's work, and when she graduated in 1999 they encouraged her to stay on for a doctorate.
Borbor-Cordova admits to having some qualms because she was older than the other grad students. "But then I thought, what is my goal? I want to go back to my region and do work that encourages young people to be engaged in science; that would be fantastic." She completed her Ph.D. in five years, graduating in 2004.
"I don't know exactly how she did it, because she had three children at the time," Hall says. "I think she's got superb time management skills. She's also very, very bright."
Hall notes another characteristic that's relevant to tackling some of South America's data-sparse environmental problems. "Other students might say, 'I don't have this number so I can't make this model.' That never slows down Mercy. She can figure her way through a problem in a remarkable way."
‘You need to build human capacity before you can put solutions in place.’
The Fulbright scholarship requires recipients to return to their home countries for at least two years' work after receiving their degrees. Borbor-Cordova was offered a job as chief of environmental control for the Municipality of Guayaquil, a city of 2.6 million. The office "was a group of professionals from different backgrounds, trying to implement innovative and sustainable environmental management for the city. I said yes immediately because I was willing to learn about policy implementation and to apply my scientific training." After this eye-opening experience, Borbor-Cordova took on several additional projects as a postdoctoral fellow at NCAR, partly funded by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research.
Now back at her post in Guayaquil, Borbor-Cordova's diverse background has "made me aware of all the challenges we face as environmental managers. The decisions we have to make, the social pressure and the limited resources to develop science all combine to make policy formation and implementation difficult.
"When you make research recommendations in technical reports or publications, everything works in theory, but when you try to implement them, you realize that you need to build human capacity before you can put solutions in place. I have been in the research arena, but looking at these problems from the decision-making side has made me realize that there are always tradeoffs."