January 17, 2019
Erin Ulrich ’18
From left: Monica Dix ’20, Mae Kate Campbell ’17,  Rita Sibello Hernandez in front of research poster
(From left) Monica Dix ’20, Mae Kate Campbell ’17, and Rita Sibello Hernandez from the Center for Environmental Studies of Cienfuegos present their research at the MARCUBA 2018 Conference. Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Oberlin Geomorphology Research Lab

This past summer, Associate Professor of Geology and Chair of Archaeological Studies Amanda Schmidt, along with third-year politics and geology major Monica Dix, traveled to Cuba to conduct geological research on water quality in the country.

The research team aso included Mae Kate Campbell ’17, an Oberlin alumna who is working on the project at the University of Vermont.

After an arduous process of gaining permissions from the Cuban government, Schmidt, Campbell, and Dix were able to conduct geological research in Cuba this past summer through the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Cosmogenic Nuclide Laboratory. The laboratory’s research is a collaborative effort supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Oberlin College, and Centro de Estudios Ambientales de Cienfuegos in Cuba.

Paul Bierman, professor of geology at UVM, oversees the Cosmogenic Nuclide Laboratory and traveled to Cuba with the Oberlin team. Bierman has worked closely with Schmidt since she was a graduate student. They decided to write a proposal to visit Cuba after former President Obama visited the country in 2016, becoming the first president to do so since 1928. Conducting scientific research in Cuba is notoriously difficult. U.S. citizens have only been able to travel to the country since 2014, following decades of political turmoil and tenuous diplomatic relations.

The research project explores the environmental ramifications on the Cuban landscape following the fall of the Soviet Union. Cuba was dependent on the Soviet Union in myriad ways and shared diplomatic ties. Specifically, the project explores the effects of Cuba’s transition to organic agriculture on erosion rates and water quality. With the help of Aquagenx’s CBT E. coli kit , the research team tested water samples from 24 Cuban rivers in an expedited, cost-efficient fashion.

Professor Amanda Schmidt being interviewed at the research site in Cuba
Associate Professor of Geology Amanda Schmidt on-site in Cuba
Photo courtesy of Oberlin Geomorphology Research Lab

Although Cuba has made the shift to organic agriculture, its agricultural methods still pose health hazards to its citizens. “In the United States, we have a tendency to assume using organic agriculture means you’re therefore protecting the environment entirely,” Schmidt says. “But Cuba’s agricultural is still, in many ways, industrialized.”

The research team found high levels of E. coli in the rivers and initially predicted that the lack of sewage infrastructure in Cuba had directly caused the presence of the bacteria. However, there was no human DNA found in the samples sent off for testing. The feces that was present was from cows. The findings left Schmidt and the rest of the team to speculate what could be causing the E. coli levels, which exceed Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization standards.

Schmidt says that the data “are suggesting that Cuba is one of the most rapidly weathering places in the world.” Thus, the facade of organic agriculture conceals far more daunting environmental and health threats.

Dix, who had never traveled to Cuba before this project, was able to come into her own in the midst of onerous circumstances, Schmidt says. Despite the governmental red tape, language barrier, and long days in extreme heat, Dix developed relationships with the Cuban collaborators in what Schmidt says are still hierarchical, communist, Soviet-era style government posts. “The personal connection with the local people we had in Cuba is something I’ve never had to the same extent in other projects,” she says.

Dix says the challenges she faced in Cuba not only put her research at Oberlin in perspective, but also enhanced her experience. In spite of the 18-hour days, the heat, and the exigency of constant translation, Dix says it was worth it.

“Having moments where you truly realize science is this universal language that we all share and can connect so well through, across governments and strife, is just so incredibly powerful,” she says. “To be together, share knowledge, and learn together and to be a part of that is just really magical.”

Dix plans to attend graduate school and study geology, building off the relationships she developed in Cuba. “I’m planning on trying to bring Obies back with me to Cuba to keep passing along the good fortune,” she says.

Schmidt has submitted requests for sampling points for two more field seasons in Cuba: spring and early summer 2019.

Reflecting on the importance of working so closely with students, she says, “It’s really amazing to see how time in the field and doing geology all day and thinking about it and collecting samples gives students so much more ownership of their education and what they value.”

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