UW Delegation to Colombia: Collaboration Now & Into The Future

UW-Madison delegation overlooking Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia (Photo by Janis Tupesis)

By Katie Newcomb, GHI Communications Director... The Global Health Institute (GHI) is an agent for collaboration, rooted in the Wisconsin Idea. Our One Health Centers are dynamic embodiments of what is possible for global health when multi-sector and multidisciplinary collaborations are formed, and ideas are put into action. In September 2023, GHI led representatives from across UW-Madison’s campus on a visit to its One Health Center-Colombia (OHC-Colombia) to inspire ideas for future academic, industry, NGO, alumni, and government partnerships. Members of the 21-person delegation were able to see the OHC-Colombia in Medellín, and experience the richness of relationships across the Colombian campuses of Universidad de National (UNAL) and Universidad de Antioquia (UdeA) with in-person meetings and tours. 

The OHC-Colombia serves as the best practice for creating additional One Health Centers in strategic locations across the world. Collaborations are the key to GHI’s ethos of moving the Wisconsin Idea into global action.  

Members of the delegation included the following members, representing their schools and programs:

The takeaways from meeting with partners were vast, and it’s easy to see why OHC-Colombia serves as GHI’s blueprint for scaling its international One Health Network. Witnessing the impacts of research and educational opportunities afforded by UW-Madison’s strong partnerships, facilitated by the OHC-Colombia, sparked ideas for new collaborative offerings. These are the moments which inspired future action steps: 

Monday, September 18, 2023: Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Bogotá) 

Photos courtesy Katie Newcomb. From top l-r: Row 1: UW-Madison Delegation with UNAL Vice Chancellor for Research, Juan Camilo Younes at UNAL; GHI Director Jorge Osorio addressing the group with UW-Madison Dean & Vice Provost of the International Division Frances Vavrus; UNAL Vice Chancellor for Research, Juan Camilo Younes listening on; full group of UW and UNAL members at UNAL Bogota campus meeting room. Row 2: Calyn Ostrowski, GHI Associate Director, Strategic Partnerships & Development, addressing the group; Jessica Hite, Principal Investigator, Evolutionary Epidemiology Lab, UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, sharing slides with group; UNAL Vice Chancellor for Research, Juan Camilo Younes addressing the group; Row 3: UW-Madison delegation exploring UNAL Bogotá campus; view from UNAL Bogotá campus.

Arriving in Bogotá on Sunday, the UW-Madison/GHI delegation departed early Monday morning for the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) Bogotá campus to meet with members of their leadership team including the Vice Chancellor for Research, Juan Camilo Younes; Dean of Nursing, Gloria Mabel Carrillo Gonzalez; Vice Chancellor for Research and Extension, Dr. Giancario Buitrago Guiterrez; and Engineer Ana Maria Vargas Caceres. Presentations showcasing the backgrounds and offerings of each university were shared to stimulate conversations and foster an effective collaborative learning environment. 

The delegation had the opportunity to walk on campus and admire the location within the heart of Bogotá before heading to lunch. When traveling that night to Medellín, the delegation reveled in conversations from what they gleaned and excitedly anticipated more discoveries the next day.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023: Faculty of Mines, OHC-Colombia, & Salud Badger (Medellín)

Photos courtesy Katie Newcomb. From top l-r. Row 1: Meetings at UNAL Faculty of Mines; UNAL Medellín Vice Chancellor Juan Camilo Restrepo, Juan Pablo Hernandez Ortiz, Nikki Davis, Tom Yuill, and Calyn Ostrowski have a conversation at Faculty of Mines; Frances Vavrus addresses audience at Faculty of Mines. Row 2: Walking to the OHC-Colombia; Nikki Davis suits up prior to entering sterile area of OHC-Colombia; touring the OHC-Colombia with staff. Row 3: Microscope at OHC-Colombia; UW Delegation giving the famous “W” sign; Frances Vavrus interviewed by UNAL for video. Row 4: Frances Vavrus shares International Division background with guests at WFAA’s Badger Salud event; UW Alumnus Jorge Ossa addressing guests; Jorge Osorio addresses guests. Row 5: Elsa Cardenas Canales chats with recent GHI visiting scholar Marcia Paola Chapeton Castro; UW Alumnus and Universidad de Antioquia Chancellor John Jairo Arboleda Cespedes shares his UW story with guests; table at the event pausing conversations to give the famous “W” sign; Row 6: Photo of all guests at Badger Salud event.

Day three started with a special welcome and presentation by UNAL’s team at the Faculty of Mines, including a greeting by UNAL Medellín Vice Chancellor Juan Camilo Restrepo. The presentations by both UNAL and UW-Madison provided the enthusiasm to recognize shared goals and outlooks that spark continued and future collaborative opportunities for students to share information and research both in Colombia and at UW-Madison.  

Following presentations, the delegation toured GHI’s One Health Center to see the facility first-hand. Viewing the BSL-2 lab and state-of-the-art equipment from industry partners, like Abbott Labs, delegation members were able to learn how the center transforms the way research samples are collected, analyzed, and information shared within Colombia.  

GHI’s OHC-Colombia is part of the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition (APDC). The APDC is a first-of-its-kind global scientific and public health partnership dedicated to the early detection of—and rapid response to—future pandemic threats. The APDC partners with global centers of excellence to identify, analyze and test emerging viral threats quickly to help stop emerging pandemics in their tracks.  Two of GHI’s One Health Centers (Colombia and West Africa) are part of APDC and the Colombian team is featured in this Abbott video

To top off the day, the delegation was pleased to take part in the Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association‘s alumni event, Salud Badger. Salud Badger host, Lora Klenke, was able to harness the excited energy in the room to highlight UW-Madison alumni who are making big impacts within Colombia and across Latin America. UW Alumnus Jorge Ossa, who was a member of Tom Yuill‘s original student team in Colombia in the late 1960s/early 1970s, was on hand to surprise Tom with a special plaque noting his years of service, which catalyzed the first formal international connection between UW-Madison and UNAL.  

Universidad de Antioquia Chancellor, John Jairo Arboleda Cespedes, also shared stories of his time at UW-Madison and how the experience transformed his future career. From the delegation, Frances Vavrus, Jorge Osorio, and Jennifer Kushner shared information on how their departments and programs help advance UW-Madison through thoughtful partnerships and programs established with a Wisconsin Idea-foundation; namely taking the knowledge out of Wisconsin and sharing it with the world. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023: Universidad de Antioquia, Comuna 13 (Medellín)

Photos courtesy Katie Newcomb. From top l-r. Row 1: UW Delegation tour at Universidad de Antioquia (UdeA) campus; colorful murals on campus; conference room for introduction meeting and MOU signing ceremony; Row 2: UdeA professor presentation; MOU signing with Jorge Osorio, UdeA Chancellor John Jairo Arboleda Cespedes, and Frances Vavrus; Row 3: Walking tour of Comuna 13; Nikki Davis & Frances Vavrus share smiles while in Comuna 13; Jorge Osorio & Tom Yuill pause to chat with young resident in Comuna 13. Row 4: UW Delegation; Comuna 13 scene with man and dog; hustle & bustle of Comuna 13 traffic and commerce. Row 5: Janis Tupesis, Tom Yuill, Lora Klenke, Elsa Cardena Canales, John Chan take a break in Comuna 13; mural and shadows over Comuna 13.

After an eventful evening, on day four the delegation visited Universidad de Antioquia (UdeA). The day began by touring the beautiful UdeA campus and meeting with leadership teams from across disciplines to discover mutual areas of research and sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that promotes cooperation between the two universities.  

In the afternoon, the delegation toured Comuna 13, an historic neighborhood of Medellín. Comuna 13 is rooted in transformation and serves as a transcending example of the power of connection and the arts.  

Transformation in Comuna 13 happened in the mid-2000s, when then-mayor (and UW-Madison alum) Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, gathered and organized a multi-sector group to identify the challenges and opportunities to make positive change for a neighborhood which “lost its self-esteem.” Urban development to reignite the community’s spirit included libraries with daycare centers and art galleries, transportation lines to connect residents with jobs across the city, and an escalator system to help residents reach areas which were previously only accessible via 350-step stairways. The area is now a sought-after travel destination where visitors experience what can only be described as emersion in a living, breathing art exhibit with colorful street art at every turn, pop-up musical and dance performances, and interaction with vibrant and engaging residents and business owners. 

The shared experiences of the delegation deepened the senses and collectively ignited what’s possible; offering the chance to dig deeper into what it means to be an agent of the Wisconsin Idea.

Thursday, September 21, 2023: Amazon River Tour, (Leticia)

Photos courtesy Katie Newcomb. From top l-r. Row 1: View of Amazon from incoming flight to Leticia; view from tuk tuk in Leticia; exposed stairways and stilts of homes near the receding Amazon River shore. Row 2: Bridge with roaming dog on walk to boat launch; view of Amazon channel on walk to boat launch; approaching the boat launch. Row 3: GHI Post Doc Olga Lucia Chaparro sharing information on the Amazon River; water and shore views from the Amazon River. Row 4: Jennifer Kushner climbs up from the boat launch; UW Delegation at Amazon shore; sunset view over the Amazon.

On day five, the delegation caught an early flight to Letcia. Upon arrival, they were greeted by Olga Lucia Chaparro, GHI’s post-doctoral researcher working at the UNAL Leticia campus and mentored by UW-Madison LACIS Associate Director Alberto Vargas.  

During the chartered bus ride to the hotel, Chaparro shared information on the city and discussed her research on food security and sustainable agriculture. After quickly checking in, the delegation gathered for a traditional Colombian lunch and headed out for the Amazon River tour. 

Since the delegation was visiting during the dry season, the journey to the boat launch was extended due to the receding river and included rides in tuk tuks (small taxis) in the city, walks past homes with exposed stilts on what was now dry land, and hikes on bridges over the receding Amazon River.  

Delegation members helped each other and successfully braved the makeshift descending dirt trail and single-file plank to reach the boat launch for the river tour. Once on the water, the welcomed breeze toned down the heat and humidity, and Olga Lucia Chaparro and Juan Pablo Hernandez Ortiz shared stories of Colombia and the Amazon. In a rare occurrence, away from the staggered, modest fishing boats, the delegation was able to witness pink Amazon River dolphins, including a calf, and marveled at their serendipitous sighting and shared experience. 

After experiencing the Amazon River together, the delegation headed back to Leticia for a traditional Colombian meal and discussed opportunities for transformative scholarly exchange and future education, research and outreach.  

Friday, September 22, 2023: UNAL Leticia Campus (Leticia) & Return to Bogotá

Photos courtesy Katie Newcomb. From top l-r. Row 1: Beginning tour of Universidad de Colombia Leticia campus; colorful murals on campus; UW delegation hears campus information from Olga Lucia Chapparro. Row 2: UW Delegation hiking through Amazon jungle to visit maloka “Casa Hija;” UW Delegation at “Casa Hija;” Door at “Casa Hija.” Row 3: Bridge on campus within the Amazon jungle; Todd Courtenay speaking with Olga Lucia Chaparro and UNAL’s Olga Fajardo about student accommodations on campus; colorful buildings and murals on campus. Row 4: Professor Hooz Angela Chaparro directing group to meeting room; preparing for meeting with UNAL Leticia team; Hooz Angela Chaparro and Frances Vavrus shaking hands during group presentation.

It was already a sticky morning in the tropics as the delegation made their way to the UNAL Leticia campus. The lush campus provided views of dormitories and classrooms, as well as trails in the Amazon jungle to research archeological sites, including the maloca, Casa Hija. This provided an opportunity to experience and visualize what recent and future UW-Madison students could encounter with potential academic programs. UNAL staff, including Olga Lucia Chaparro, answered questions and provided historical context while on the tour. 

The visit included a meeting with UNAL representatives, including Professor Hooz Angela Chaparro, who welcomed the delegation and shared UNAL Leticia’s areas of study during a welcomed presentation in one of the campus’ air-conditioned meeting rooms. Juan Pablo Hernandez also shared UNAL’s history in the region, and Olga Lucia Chaparro offered her first-hand experiences collaborating with UW-Madison’s mentors on her work while attending the UNAL Letcia campus. The Q&A that followed included Tom Yuill providing insight into his legacy-building efforts to connect UNAL and UW-Madison with the original agreement process and work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This sparked a discussion on how to build future programs on this long-standing, academically rich foundation. 

Discussions within the delegation continued as the group made their way back to Madison through Bogotá. Some members of the delegation continued with research-enhancing meetings, including Elizabeth Birkhauser, who stayed in Leticia for an additional week to visit with local researchers and enhance her work with indigenous and medicinal plants. 

The evening in Bogotá produced heavy rain, and delegation members found themselves with different shared experiences in stop-and-go urban traffic. On the final night, delegates brainstormed action steps to take back to their respective units and advance the Wisconsin Idea in Colombia. 

Takeaways in Action

At GHI, we like to think of ourselves as innovation catalysts. The GHI OHC-Colombia serves as the innovative model for delivering tangible global health responsive results, while also providing research and education opportunities to develop the global health leaders of today and tomorrow. We’ve built significant momentum and delivered impact to save lives, and improve diversity and international presence at UW, in Wisconsin, and beyond. 

Since the visit, GHI and delegation partners continue to advance opportunities for new research and education. UW-Madison’s migration work at the Darien Gap continues to be a GHI priority. The 2024 Global Health Symposium, co-sponsored by GHI and SMPH, features Erin Barbato and Sara McKinnon and their project, Migration in the Americas; in which GHI’s Jorge Osorio is also an investigator. Plus, conversations had during the delegation’s visit to Colombia led to GHI’s January 2024 Webinar featured the topic: Psilocybin & Improving Mental Health

Other units have also moved conversations forward. The International Division continues to identify and share Colombia opportunities for faculty connections within other units including connections with Antioquia’s Nano Engineering Research Group with the WI Center for Nano Science Technology, and other potential research internships. 

The trip also opened the door for UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health, Nursing, and Pharmacy schools to have conversations with UNAL about supporting their new medical school and nursing gap in Colombia. In February, Juan Pablo Hernandez Ortiz met with UW-Madison leadership in the aforementioned schools to discuss UNAL’s progress and promote academic exchanges. 

The College of Agricultural Life Sciences is exploring opportunities to establish UW short-term field courses in Colombia for undergraduate students, and continuing conversations to connect researchers in Veterinary Medicine for potential long-term study abroad programs at UNAL-Leticia. 

And the Wisconsin School of Business is looking to create a commission that will focus on international projects with CALS Global and the School of Education to facilitate faculty exchanges, research, alumni, and international recruitment. 

Curiosity builds versatility, which transcends how we provide educational and research opportunities at GHI and UW-Madison, and how future change-makers impact Wisconsin and the World. If you would like to learn more about this trip and get involved with GHI’s One Health Center in Colombia, please reach out to GHI’s Associate Director, Strategic Partnerships & Development