Published: June 20, 2017

MSU part of first U.S./Cuba conference

Contact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561

Earlier this year, two Michigan State University chemistry professors were invited speakers at the first-ever joint U.S.–Cuba conference sponsored by the Cuban Society of Chemistry of Havana. They joined speakers from some of the top schools in the country – the University of California-Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard and the California Institute of Technology at the University of Havana in January.

“Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” Those words, spoken by then–President Barack Obama on Dec. 17, 2014, eased restrictions that had been in effect for more than 50 years. Now, those words may also have the potential to change the relationship between scientists in the two countries.

 “The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which had been in effect since the early 1960s, really limited the possibility of having meaningful scientific interactions,” said James McCusker, MSU chemist who spoke at the conference. “Cuba has been interacting with scientists in Europe for years, but it wasn’t possible for us because of the U.S. policy toward Cuba. With the embargo now at least partially lifted, new opportunities are possible.”

Angela Wilson, MSU Hannah Distinguished Professor of computational chemistry, and director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry, spoke about theoretical and computational chemistry.

Wilson and the NSF delegation also met with the president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences; visited with officials at the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment; met with officials from the Ministry of Higher Education; visited the U.S. Embassy; and visited with the director of the Jardin Botanico Nacional de Cuba to discuss science in Cuba and possible scientific interactions. The group also met the president of the University of Havana and spent time with the leadership of the Cuban Chemical Society.

“Collaborations between scientists in the United States and scientists in Cuba are certainly of interest,” Wilson said. “There are excellent scientists in Cuba, and the opportunity to engage with them would be beneficial in terms of furthering science.”

Wilson added that NSF provides funding in a number of ways to support international collaborations. This funding, however, is for the U.S. portion of the collaborations and, typically, for visits by U.S. investigators to another country for collaborative opportunities. 

“Some of the research opportunities that U.S. scientists take for granted don’t have a footprint at all in Cuba right now,” McCusker said. “It has been a challenge for Cuba because of the technological hurdles. High-tech equipment – such as ultrafast lasers – has been largely inaccessible to scientists there.”

In addition to a lack of certain types of equipment, Cuban scientists also have to deal with lack of access to chemicals and safety gear.

While at the conference, McCusker and Wilson discussed with the Cuban scientists the potential for future collaborations, including the possibility of undergraduate students from Cuba pursuing research opportunities in the U.S. 

The University of Havana -- the site of the first-ever joint U.S.-Cuba conference -- is located in the Vedado district of Havana, the capital of the Republic of Cuba. Founded in 1728, the university is the oldest in Cuba and one of the first to be founded in the Americas. Courtesy of MSU.