PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Andrés Martínez-Muñiz will journey north to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to continue his research on malaria vaccinations. Krizzia Soto-Villanueva will venture to Peru for an archaeological fieldwork expedition. Mariana Ramos will collaborate with a Brown literary arts lecturer on a handmade art book about colonialism in Puerto Rico. Emmanuel Correa-Vazquez will begin graduate studies at the Harvard Divinity School.
Those are just four among 33 equally compelling next steps in the journeys of nearly three dozen undergraduates from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) who spent much of the last academic year at Brown in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
At an early May celebration of the UPR students’ contributions to Brown, President Christina Paxson commended the visiting students for their bravery and resilience in resuming their studies under such adverse conditions.
“You’ve given us many things — friendship and a better knowledge of what’s happening in Puerto Rico — but more generally you’ve shown us what true resilience looks like, what true love of homeland and love of family looks like,” Paxson said. “And you have earned the admiration and respect of everyone in this community. Thank you, thank you for coming to Brown.”
The majority of visiting UPR students came to Brown last October after extensive storm damage and an island-wide electrical blackout temporarily shuttered the university’s campuses. Soon after the storm, Brown partnered with UPR, committing to enroll as many as 50 students during the 2017-18 school year so that their studies would not be interrupted. Ultimately, 32 undergraduates and one doctoral student came to College Hill, some staying for one semester, others for the full academic year.
Many already had a connection to the University, having participated in summer research experiences on campus through the Leadership Alliance, a Brown-based consortium of 36 universities and research institutions, including UPR, that works to increase the participation of underrepresented students in academic careers.
The year presented its share of challenges for students faced with adapting to a new university, both academically and socially, all while family members confronted difficult living conditions in Puerto Rico. But most of the UPR students spoke at this month’s celebration of embracing the opportunity to make new discoveries, both in classrooms and laboratories as well as in interacting with their fellow students at Brown.
They also contributed immensely on campus, adding new perspectives to research projects, community efforts and other work underway at Brown.
For Soto-Villanueva, the time at Brown enabled her to stay on track to graduate from UPR in 2021 and cemented her excitement for the study of anthropology and archeology.
“I’ve been able to take courses in my field that I didn’t think existed,” she said. “And I’ve been able to explore the field in ways that I might not have if I hadn’t come here. Being here at Brown really reassured me that this was what I’m meant to do.”
Before heading back to UPR to resume studies this fall, Soto-Villanueva will continue to pursue her interest through a Brown-sponsored research trip to Peru. There, she will study community involvement in archaeology with Brown faculty member Parker VanValkenburgh and a team of other students.
Martínez-Muñiz, who was the first UPR student to arrive on campus in October, will return to UPR as a senior next fall. But first he will spend the summer at MIT, conducting research on pancreatic cancer metastasis. He said he will use many of the research techniques introduced in his work at Brown over the last year in the lab of Dr. Jonathan Kurtis, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School. Martínez-Muñiz had first come to Brown as a participant in the Leadership Alliance’s undergraduate summer research program working with Kurtis on the development of malaria vaccines.
“It has been interesting work and has really inspired me to look for other opportunities in research,” he said. “My time here has been very fruitful.”
"Andrés has been instrumental in developing approaches to expressing one of our malaria vaccine candidates and has made significant contributions to training our undergraduate students in molecular biology techniques,” said Kurtis. “He has all the hallmarks of a future leader in translational medicine."
The effort to support fellow scholars in the wake of Hurricane Maria builds on a tradition at Brown of partnering with higher education institutions during periods of disruption caused by natural disaster. Following Hurricane Katrina, Brown partnered with Princeton University and the Leadership Alliance to host displaced students and scholars and to provide technical assistance to a number of institutions in New Orleans. The University also undertook similar efforts following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Brown Provost Richard M. Locke, whose office coordinated efforts to bring the UPR students to Rhode Island, noted the commitment of the University’s students, faculty and staff in mobilizing to welcome and support the displaced scholars — from mentoring students and finding housing for them (on campus and in faculty and staff homes) to quickly figuring out the logistics required to turn the vision into reality, including the ability to fund the students’ enrollment at no cost.
“This is an incredible celebration of what I think is the very best of Brown University — bringing people together to not only overcome adversity, but to work together to solve problems and build community and to do so in a way that strengthens us as university,” Locke said. “This is a community that leans in to do the right thing time and time again, and to do it in a collaborative way.”
For some, that spirit at Brown has inspired an interest to ultimately return to College Hill. Martínez-Muñiz said that after his UPR graduation next year, he hopes to attend graduate school — at Brown, of course.
“Fingers crossed,” he said.