Global Citizenship, Jesuit Heritage and Scholarship Converge for Students in El Salvador

They were cultural ambassadors, scholars, teachers and pupils—but at the core, they were students. Eight students in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, led by Biology Professor Victor Carmona, traveled to El Salvador in November to present their research at an international conference, commemorate the martyrdom of Jesuit scholars and experience Salvadoran praxis.

Junior Marisol Castellanos described the trip as life changing. “I came back with a different mindset and very grateful for everything I have in my life,” the electrical and computer engineering major said. “As an undergraduate I get to conduct research in an area that allows me to integrate my engineering skills and my biology knowledge.”

Castellanos noted that in comparison, students in Latin America who share her same passions may not have the chance to pursue their interests due to lack of opportunities. Lauren Pangburn, a junior biology major, recalled meeting a University of Central America (UCA) student who was rebuffed after approaching several professors about doing research.

“This was baffling to me because research is such an important part of college here,” said Pangburn. “Four days in El Salvador taught me so much about the importance of research. I am so grateful to work with Dr. Carmona and to attend a university like LMU.”

Carmona, Pangburn, Castellanos and six other students presented their research at El Salvador’s First National Conference on Climate Change. In attendance were members of the country’s Legislative Assembly, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, as well as other institutes of higher education.

As one of the keynote speakers, Carmona spoke about the ecology of climate change and the challenges for El Salvador. Pangburn and partner Erich Eberts are researching the effects of climate change on the distribution of invasive species based on photosynthetic characterizations. Castellanos is researching how to translate a biological database system to share information with the University of El Salvador and other institutions.

The trip coincided with the 25th anniversary of the murder of six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at UCA, a Jesuit University in San Salvador. The group was killed by Salvadoran armed forces for advocating human rights and peace during the country’s civil war. The murders marked a turning point in the war and rallied together Jesuit institutions worldwide.

To commemorate the event, the LMU delegation visited the UCA campus, donated 20 USB drives to the UCA Martyr Scholarship, toured the martyrs’ museum and participated in an elaborate, candle-lit procession leading into an onsite re-enactment of the night of the massacre. “This day was so humbling because we saw firsthand how Salvadorans were impacted by the assassinations of these progressive and dedicated members of the community,” said Eberts, a junior biology major. Local media interviewed the students about their participation in the procession.

The group—which also included David Hollis, Alex Napior, Lauren Pennington, Nate Reyes and Taylor Waters—visited the University of El Salvador (UES), home to the country’s only biology department, where they donated more than 200 pounds of books. LMU and UES students collaborating on projects addressing the ecology of Chagas disease were also able to meet for the first time.

Though the trip has ended, the students’ connection with El Salvador remains. Pangburn plans to continue helping students in El Salvador gain access to teaching and research resources. Following in the footsteps of Carmona, Castellanos plans to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship, returning to El Salvador to assist with the education system and conduct her own research.