College faculty plan international collaborations at networking event in Cuba

While the future of US foreign policy remains unclear, the warming of relations with Cuba under the Obama administration produced an opportunity for US scientists and researchers to connect with their Cuban neighbors. Associate Professor Tania Huedo-Medina of the Department of Allied Health Sciences recognized the benefit of shared knowledge and the advancements that could be achieved through the formation of partnerships with Cuba. She created the Cuba Research Initiative to pair the University of Connecticut with several Cuban institutions to facilitate an exchange of ideas and establish joint research ventures. Multiple trips by UConn representatives have forged memoranda of understanding and these formalized relationships are now shaping into potential projects.

The UConn faculty at ICA
Ana Legrand, Guillermo Risatti, Steven Zinn and Hedley Freake (left to right) at the Institute of Animal Science.

College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) faculty members spent a week in Cuba in January 2017 for a networking event to outline possible partnerships. Guillermo Risatti, an associate professor in the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science, led the group. He was accompanied by Professor Ana Legrand of the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture and UConn Extension, Professor Hedley Freake of the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Professor Steven Zinn, head of the Department of Animal Science. Aviana Rosen, former project coordinator for the Cuba Research Initiative, also traveled with the group. With a focus on agriculture and animal science, they met with representatives from the Institute of Animal Science (ICA) National Center for Agricultural Health (CENSA), National Institute for Agricultural Sciences (INCA) and the Agrarian University of Havana (UNAH). The group discussed specific areas in their respective disciplines that would benefit from collaboration as well as broad initiatives, including forming study abroad opportunities and assisting with the publication of journals to share US and Cuban research. The individual CAHNR departments and UConn Global Affairs provided funding for the trip.

The US trade embargo, imposed in the early 1960s, restricted Cuba’s access to US technology, equipment and resources. As a result, Cuban scientists innovated their own products, systems and methods independently of American research. While a lack of resources remains problematic in Cuba, their successful approaches to sustainable agriculture, livestock management and vaccine development are world-renowned but their advancements remain relatively unknown in the United States.

President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations in December 2014. The announcement was followed by the lifting of restrictions on travel, trade, telecommunications and financial institutions. This action initiated the possibility for improved scientific exchange between the countries.

Previously, US scientists were required to contact the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) through the Treasury Department to apply for a license that authorized collaborations with Cuban researchers. The strict limitations on these licenses, coupled with the adopted travel and communication constraints of the embargo, made long-term partnerships difficult. The approvals lasted only one to two years and renewals were difficult to obtain, impaired by a lengthy and complex re-application process. OFAC has updated these licensing rules and currently allows for a number of exemptions from this process. Professional research and meetings are included in the exemptions.

While prohibitions have relaxed and the subsidizing of research ventures is becoming accessible, adequate funding remains an obstacle to launching projects. When CAHNR faculty members sat down with their Cuban counterparts, cost-effective collaborations were a key focus.

Drs. Risatti and Zinn meet with colleagues from ICA and CENSA outside the ICA cafeteria
Risatti and Zinn meet with colleagues from ICA and CENSA outside the ICA cafeteria.

“Student exchanges are one possibility we discussed, since the costs are essentially paid for by the student,” says Freake. “Exchanges would be self-sustaining, in terms of funding, and would be a great way to introduce American and Cuban students into strong learning environments with rich cultures.”

“In a study abroad, UConn students can learn about the challenges Cubans face while they gain experience conducting research and extension work,” says Legrand. “It would be a perfect way to integrate culture and history and address topics pertinent to everyone, including climate change and plant protection. We also want to commit to making it affordable for Cuban students to come here.”

“In addition to exchanges and visits, there can be seminars and workshops to share information and research. We could also work together to arrange training sessions on a variety of topics,” says Legrand.

Academic journals provide another opportunity for inexpensive collaboration.

“The institutes we visited in Cuba all publish their own journals and the printed copies are bilingual [Spanish and English]. They circulate the journal electronically, although it is on a compact disc. We could help with distribution, have our research featured and assist with editorial work. There are a lot of ways we can work together,” says Legrand.

Inadequate communication infrastructure, such as unreliable internet access, has reduced the ability for scientists to efficiently coordinate or share research outside of Cuba. Domestically, Cuban researchers excel at sharing critical health information with residents that have significantly reduced and prevented diseases that are common in other parts of the world.

Huedo-Medina has traveled frequently to Cuba to learn more about the promotion of health science in the country while helping to refine methods of analysis and data storage of health information.

“We had a chance to suggest promoting activities that transcended any specific department or discipline during the trip,” Risatti says. “Our discussions kept in mind fiscal concerns and what could be achieved in the near future. But we also had conversations to consider what research we’d focus on together in order to envision specific long-term goals.”

Risatti wants to focus on efforts to improve animal health by identifying and treating infectious diseases. Bluetongue disease (BT) and classical swine fever (CSF) are problematic throughout Cuba.

BT is caused by a non-contagious virus transmitted by insects. It can affect a wide range of ruminants and most commonly infects sheep, although cattle and goats are also susceptible. Infected animals have symptoms that include fever, nasal discharge and respiratory difficulties. The disease can lead to death and sheep have a high mortality rate. BT does not pose a threat to human health.

“There are vaccines available for many of the serotypes of BT virus. We can also help to determine the insect most responsible for its transmission and work to control it,” says Risatti.

CSF has a high mortality rate for pigs and negatively impacts pork production in Cuba. CSF is not linked to foodborne illnesses in humans, but the extensive presence of the disease severely limits Cuba’s ability to export its pork products. The virus can cause reproductive harm for pigs, leading to congenital defectives. The US eradicated CSF in 1978.

Visting a laboratory at CENSA
College faculty visit a laboratory at CENSA.

“Cuba has been working towards addressing CSF and we can help by proposing ways to tackle the circulation of the disease regionally by focusing on high risk areas,” says Risatti.

The application and development of vaccines to treat these animal diseases can be furthered by improving Cubans’ access to technology and bioinformatics, including genetic sequencing.

“We have many of the same animal species in this country so we can certainly help to eliminate diseases to ensure healthy food production,” says Zinn.

Freake suggested in addition to food production that improving food security could be another aim of the US-Cuba partnership.

“There were many farmers’ markets with products from local growers, but there were a limited range of items available. That is something we might want to work on together. Cuba does an exceptional job promoting healthy eating and natural products that we could certainly apply here in the US. Their agriculture is on a smaller scale and they are quite resourceful and advanced in their sustainability practices,” says Freake.

Cuban scientists have introduced a number of biopesticides and conducted extensive research into nutrient management in soils and plants.

“Their use of biological controls is extensive and they market several products developed for a wide range of uses in organic and conventional crop systems,” says Legrand. “Whether it is managing invasive species, pests or soil resources, there is plenty of common ground to establish further research that will benefit both countries. Climate change adaptation was also of mutual interest.”

“These partnerships with Cuba can model what other nations have done, such as Germany and Spain,” Risatti says. “They established mentorship and training programs and student exchanges. With a small investment in these endeavors, we know that we can generate a good return.”

A banner on the wall at CENSA
A banner of Castro’s quote on science hangs on the wall at CENSA.

The weeklong visit by CAHNR faculty members aligned with Science Day, a countrywide celebration dedicated to observing the importance of scientific learning. The yearly occasion marks the contributions of science in creating opportunity and progress. The event commemorates the anniversary of a speech delivered by former leader Fidel Castro on January 15, 1960. “The future of our country has to be necessarily a future of men of science,” Castro declared as he set about directing government funds to support science, particularly in the area of biomedical research.

Students performing at the Day of Science
Students performing a dance at the Day of Science.

“As guests, they invited us to sit in the front row. There were awards given for projects and extension work that honored people working all over the country. It was also a family event. Everyone was welcomed and there was dancing and poetry readings,” Legrand says.

“It was a refreshing experience to see science valued and to witness its celebration alongside cultural performances,” Freake says.

By Jason M. Sheldon