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KCC Professor Homar Barcena Awarded Fulbright U.S. Scholarship

Chemistry Professor Homar Barcena

Chemistry Professor Homar Barcena

Dr. Homar Barcena Awarded Fulbright U.S. Scholarship to Study Spread of Mosquito-Borne Diseases

Brooklyn, NY — Dr. Homar Barcena, a chemistry professor in the physical sciences department at Kingsborough Community College, has received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program research award from the U.S. Department of State and the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Since 1946, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 400,000 participants from over 160 countries – chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential – with the opportunity to exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to challenges facing our communities and our world. Barcena is among over 800 U.S. citizens who will teach or conduct research abroad for the 2023-2024 academic year.

Titled “Metabolomics-Assisted Epidemiology of Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases,” this Fulbright ASEAN Research Award will initiate an international collaboration that will contribute to regional work being conducted by the U.S. government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Barcena will study arboviral diseases such as dengue and chikungunya fevers, which are endemic in ASEAN countries, in collaboration with three researchers at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine in Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand: Dr. Nestor Arce Jr. of Jose Maria College of Medicine in the Philippines, who has been conducting a medical surveillance study of arboviral illnesses in the Philippines; Dr. Kobporn Boonnak of Mahidol University’s Siriraj Hospital Department of Microbiology and Immunology, an expert in the viral immunology of dengue; and Dr. Prakaykaew Charunwatthana of Mahidol University Bangkok School of Tropical Medicine, an expert in the epidemiology of mosquito-borne diseases. In addition, the chemistry department of Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia will host Barcena for part of his research.

“Controlling the spread of infectious diseases remains a global public health challenge,” explained Barcena. “Our recent experience with COVID-19 has shown us that we can solve big problems through global cooperation, and the surveillance of diseases ought to be a global effort.” Barcena said this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: “There are not many opportunities for educators to live abroad to initiate a research collaboration, let alone those from community colleges. This scholarship will allow me to start a collaboration on a more impactful project.”

Arboviral diseases can be attributed to infections caused by viruses spread to people by the bite of infected arthropods (insects) such as mosquitoes and ticks. According to the World Health Organization, about half of the world's population is at risk of dengue, with 100–400 million infections estimated to occur each year. The spread of dengue and other illnesses transmitted by mosquitoes could be aided by climate change, and understanding outbreaks when they occur could aid in mitigation efforts.

“Climate change is tied to human health,” explained Barcena, who is one of several faculty members of Kingsborough’s physical sciences department affiliated with the CUNY Graduate Center’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Program, as well as the earth and planetary sciences department of the American Museum of Natural History. “Although this relationship is complex, we know that changing climate patterns can lead to changes in habitats. In the case of mosquitoes, increased rainfall and floods provide more breeding grounds, while warming temperature increases the range of where they can live and feed. Mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue and chikungunya are spreading, and the heavy burden of these diseases disproportionately affects communities with fewer resources. Diagnosis of both diseases is not trivial, and our goal is to add to the tools that can be used to characterize the diseases.”

Barcena’s research interests include using proton nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to study living systems, specifically by looking at their metabolites. This is done using an NMR spectrometer, which allows the molecular structure of a material to be analyzed non-destructively by observing and measuring the interaction of nuclear spins when placed in a powerful magnetic field. The National Institutes of Health has identified metabolomics, which is the study of small molecules produced from metabolism (metabolites), as a rapidly expanding area of research that may enable scientists to better understand the physiological state of an organism and its response to different stimuli, including nutrients and pollutants. “People say chemistry is the central science, and chemical spectroscopy can give big data that may be useful in ‘omics’ analyses,” he noted.

Due to its prohibitive cost, it is rare to have access to such an instrument at a community college. Kingsborough’s NMR spectrometer has been invaluable to Barcena and his students, who have learned to use the instrument to assist him in research projects through the CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP).

Upon returning to their home countries, institutions, labs, and classrooms, the Fulbright scholars share their stories and often become active supporters of international exchange, inviting foreign scholars to campus and encouraging colleagues and students to go abroad. As Fulbright Scholar alumni, their careers are enriched by joining a network of thousands of esteemed scholars, many of whom are leaders in their fields. Notable Fulbright alumni include 62 Nobel Prize laureates, 89 Pulitzer Prize recipients, 78 MacArthur Fellows, and 41 who have served as a head of state or government. “I am looking forward to sharing my experiences in Thailand and Indonesia with our students, to show them that community college is just the beginning,” shared Barcena.

 

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