UNC-Chapel Hill Wins 2016 Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award

March 31, 2016

The Galápagos Science Center is jointly managed and financed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Photo by Shannon Harvey.

Carolina has been awarded the 2016 Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award by NAFSA, the Association of International Educators. The award is granted to three universities each year that demonstrate innovation and creativity in a particular area of internationalization.

NAFSA presented the Spotlight Award in the area of outreach and partnership to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the successful collaboration achieved with Ecuador’s Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in the Galápagos Islands, showcased by the institutions’ joint Galápagos Science Center.

“We are honored to be selected as a winner of the Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award,” says Chancellor Carol L. Folt. “This award underscores Carolina’s commitment to global activity and the value we place on building strong, enduring partnerships that benefit our students and faculty.”

Located on San Cristóbal Island, the Galápagos Science Center was constructed in 2011 as a result of the growing partnership between the institutions initiated and led by Stephen Walsh, Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Carlos Mena, professor of geography at USFQ and a Carolina alumnus.

This international research center offers a 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility for students and faculty to study the intersection of social, terrestrial and marine sub-systems with particular focus on human populations, social and ecological health and the environment. The range of active faculty engaged in the center reflects the diverse research undertaken and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration: anthropology, biology, computer science, dentistry, economics, environmental sciences and engineering, geography, geological sciences, journalism, marine sciences, nutrition, political science, and sociology.

With funding provided by both universities, the center has also been bolstered by research grants from the National Science Foundation and the McDonnell Foundation and major training grants from the Social Science Research Council, Geological Society of America and the National Science Foundation, as well as the Ecuadorian government.

More than 150 Carolina students have participated in study abroad programs based at the center with courses taught by faculty from both universities, and many additional students have taken advantage of opportunities for research and fieldwork in diverse areas ranging from assessing the ecology of beaches, invasive species and quality of household tap water to promoting sustainable, ecologically safe tourism in the Galápagos.

Researchers brainstorm in the Galápagos Science Center computer lab. Photo by Shannon Harvey.

Researchers brainstorm in the Galápagos Science Center computer lab. Photo by Shannon Harvey.

“The Galápagos Science Center has provided an exceptional foundation for us to build a partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill and USFQ,” says Walsh. “We’re excited to see the partnership continuing to grow in areas of research and scholarship outside of the Galápagos as we also develop a global network of island ecosystems to study the threats to island sustainability.”

UNC-Chapel Hill and USFQ now collaborate outside of the Galápagos in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, social work and dentistry. Faculty are often adjunct professors at the other institution and serve on graduate committees, and there is a growing undergraduate student exchange between the home campuses. The partnership has led to a network of alliances with other institutions and organizations, such as the government of Ecuador, Galápagos National Park, the Charles Darwin Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund, and has engaged universities such as Australia’s James Cook University and the University of the Sunshine Coast and Germany’s Center for Tropical Marine Ecology at the University of Bremen in collaborative research projects.

In addition, the center has strong relationships with the community and is working with local government, hospitals, and community leaders to undertake research relevant to local concerns. Center faculty and students host science and conservation fairs at schools, teach English and share research through a seminar series.

The 2016 winners of the Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award will be recognized at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., during International Education Week this November. UNC-Chapel Hill, along with the other award recipients, will also be profiled in the fall NAFSA report Internationalizing the Campus 2016: Profiles of Success at Colleges and Universities.