Detroit Mercy professor works toward sustainability on local and global levels

April 05, 2018

Victor Carmona is Detroit Mercy’s new Director of Sustainability.Spend a few minutes with Detroit Mercy’s new Director of Sustainability Victor Carmona and his passion for what he does will leave you inspired.

Whether Carmona is talking about his research projects in El Salvador, Mexico and Costa Rica or his thoughts on how to bring students studying different disciplines together, he will make you think in a new light.

Carmona’s excitement comes through in everything he does. He doesn’t take on projects all over the world in hopes of becoming a rich man; he wants to change the world one project at a time.

“What I’m talking about is creating scientists and engineers who don’t just look at research as a way to improve their career, but as a way to improve society,” Carmona said. “They look at it as a way connect and form partnerships with communities. The way I see it, we’re all learning how to speak community and we’re just using research to do it.”

Carmona is Detroit Mercy’s first director of sustainability. Sustainability is defined as the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.

Carmona is an expert in tropical ecology and was previously an associate professor of Biology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The College of Engineering & Science created a director of sustainability position in an effort to bring different academic disciplines together to work on sustainability, and develop sustainable projects both in the community and abroad.

“I think sustainability is extremely important in our College, which we have both the science side and the engineering side,” College of Engineering & Science Interim Dean Katherine Snyder said. “Sustainability can really touch upon every discipline we have in engineering and science, and really outside of the College of Engineering & Science. It’s an important synergy for a lot of the academic programs on campus to really build collaborative-type academic programs, projects and community projects. There are lots of opportunities here to bring folks together. Plus, it’s a really important social justice issue as well, so it fits really well with our mission.”

Carmona seemed like a natural fit for Detroit Mercy’s goals for the position. His experience on the international level, as well as his ability to develop projects locally, are just a few of the reasons the University selected him for this role.

“He’s high energy,” Snyder said. “He’s an idea guy. He’s a good strategic thinker about how to bring people together and get things done. The international experience that he’s had is huge. We have a really strong Hispanic community in the city of Detroit and I would really like to see us prioritize finding opportunities to interact with them in meaningful ways. He’s got the right academic background, he’s got the right way of thinking about things and I think he’ll really help us push this forward.”

Carmona has already assisted the College of Engineering & Science in dual-enrollment programs and he’s been tasked to help create sustainability curriculum that is cross-disciplinary.

Detroit Mercy’s commitment to service and social justice is a major reason Carmona was drawn to Detroit. He hopes to make an impact on a number of social justice issues.

“Detroit Mercy is very good at linking what they do back to the community,” Carmona said. “That really got me excited about coming here. This idea that you can take teacher-scholarship and bring in social justice by working with the community, I’ve never seen that.”

Changing a culture

It took just one visit to El Salvador for Carmona to begin changing the norm. On his first visit in 2012, Carmona, who was working at Loyola Marymount at the time, brought six students with him to present posters at the University of Central America (UCA) Conference.

At that time, no undergraduate students presented posters in El Salvador. Once they saw students from the U.S. doing it, it was a game changer.

“The idea of a student presenting a poster was like, ‘No, not us,’ ” Carmona said. “So we show up with these student posters, much like the ones we see at the symposium at Detroit Mercy. The students had them all translated and we have this makeshift poster session and all these UCA students are blown away.

“After the symposium was done, my students are getting questions and they are not your typical symposium questions. In the U.S. it’s very technical aspects, in El Salvador it was very different questions, like ‘Why is this research important for society?’ ”

The UCA students went to their professors and asked if they could start working on posters.

“Now there is a full-blown poster session at these conferences,” Carmona said. “It came about not because we said, ‘Poster sessions are standard;’ it was simply by showing up. We showed up with the research, looked for ways to collaborate. We transformed, they transformed.”

Carmona then began a Fulbright scholarship at the University of El Salvador, which is the only university in the entire country with a Biology department and, at the time, was only graduating an average of six Biology students per year.

He developed contacts and began publishing research with undergraduates before starting a second Fulbright.

“My second Fulbright is what’s called a flex program,” Carmona said. “I took six months and broke it up over three years. This Fulbright is only research. What I do is, I go to El Salvador over the summer, we set up projects, which run all semester long. I’m here but they’re running the projects in El Salvador. We maintain contact via Skype. We’ll do this for two semesters then I’ll go back in the summer and new projects get built. It’s been incredibly productive. Because of the productivity I was also invited to serve as a research associate with that institute.”

One of the projects Carmona has been working on is combating Chagas Disease, which is a tropical parasitic disease mostly spread by insects called Triatominae, more commonly known as “kissing bugs.”

The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates as many as 8 million people in Mexico, Central America and South America have Chagas disease, most of whom do not know they are infected.  If untreated, infection is life-long and can be life threatening.

Carmona and his team made several key discoveries regarding Chagas disease during their research.

“We found the color of the bug changes when it has the parasite, so now you can create an app so people in the field can take a picture of the bug and it can tell you if there’s a high probability that bug is carrying the parasite,” Carmona said. “That’s huge because all that information, the GPS location, the time of the year, can be processed and thrown into a database. And now we can study the disease in real time.

“Chagas Disease is all over the world, it goes from the south of Mexico all the way to the Northern part of South America. Millions of people would love an app that helps them identify if this bug is carrying Chagas or not. And the people who do research would love to see in real time how this disease is moving around.”

Bringing people together

Victor Carmona is Detroit Mercy’s new Director of Sustainability.Carmona’s work abroad benefits students in those locations, but it also helps students at Detroit Mercy by connecting them to like-minded students in other parts of the world.

Detroit Mercy students can see how their research affects other nations and it opens the door for them to do research abroad.

“My work allows me to recruit students from these countries where I’m working so that we can bring some of these students in and learn from each other,” Carmona said. “The way I describe it is, ‘We can learn each other’s bad habits.’ We learn from each other’s outcomes.”

Carmona believes working on a global level is critical, but it’s also important to do it the right way.

“It’s global engagement. We go beyond academic tourism,” Carmona said. “We can’t just go abroad to go on a bus tour, take pictures of statues, go on the bus and say, ‘I went to Belgium.’ It can’t be that. It has to be: How does your degree help you solve the issues that many times we don’t see in our own backyard. But going abroad, you’re outside of your bubble and it’s very easy to see. Then you come home with new eyes.

“That’s why trips to places like El Salvador are very important. Many of the issues we’re solving as an institution in an urban context are also being tackled in places like El Salvador. We are trying to find ways where we can collaborate. It’s about research. The common language is research.”

Snyder said Detroit Mercy is already talking to schools in El Salvador about bringing their students here to work on a master’s or doctorate degree. She wants students to collaborate on an international level.

“It’s really important for us to help students grow in their global perspective,” Snyder said. “You hear it a million times, the world is a small place now. You can’t get away with just knowing your little corner of the world, especially if you’re going into a professional discipline like science or engineering. There are responsibilities that come with those types of careers that involve having a world perspective, understanding how the things you do in your job impact both what’s near and far.”

Carmona also believes it’s vital for different disciplines to work together. He wants to see engineers, architects and scientists working in harmony so that when engineers and architects take on a projects like a community park, they will consult with each other and biologists to see what is the best course of action for everyone involved.

“In the future, it’s not going to be who is going to build a really good rain garden; it’s going to be who builds a rain garden that lets people engage that space so you can use it, but also engages the biology so no one has to take care of it,” Carmona said. “You don’t have to go in there and weed it. It runs like a small ecosystem. It reclaims what we in ecology call ‘the functional ecology’ of that system. Many times, that ecology also has benefits to human health. We call those eco-system services. It’s now paying us a service, and we don’t have to pay it anything, it just does it by being there.

“Architects and civil engineers that design urban green areas, the last thing on their mind is the communities of animals that disperse and maintain those green habitats. Normally, people expect that if you have a green area, someone has to go in there and weed it. Someone has to go in there and plant trees. But the reality is, if we create a mini-ecosystem, we wouldn’t need to do any of those things.”

Carmona has already begun bringing people together at Detroit Mercy. He does so with a strategy that uses common interests to develop a middle ground.

“When I came here, I thought sustainability, multidisciplinary, how do I approach folks who are already doing research?” Carmona said. “That last thing they want to hear is, ‘I want you to do a new research project.’ So I used this tool I learned in my Fulbright. I went to Architecture and said, ‘Here’s what I do.’ I met folks, and they said what they liked, then that led to more conversations with other folks, and next thing you know they’re telling me, ‘Oh, we’re doing this Fitzgerald revitalization right now. How do we get you on board?’ And that’s where we overlap.”

Carmona wants to look at different pollinators in Detroit and make sure projects take into account biology before they are implemented.

“It’s not, ‘Put up solar panels or a rain garden,’ it’s how do those elements interact with our mission as an institution?” Carmona said. “How do we engage the community? We’re teacher-scholars. We’re not just teaching classes, we’re not just doing research, we’re linking those two things. We have to get students to be able to process information. By linking those three things — teaching, scholarship and service or community outreach — we can begin to address the sustainability of any process.”

The University already has projects in the works, including several in the city of Detroit.

“We’re already talking to folks at Palmer Park,” Snyder said. “They have a number of things they want to do with the park, and they’re looking for some support. I think it blends really well to give us an outdoor laboratory for our students to work in. Plus, build opportunities for the community scientists. There are lots of opportunities like Palmer Park, and it’s so close by that we can leverage someone like Victor to bring these projects together to give our students a way to apply in a meaningful way their own disciplines to make the world a better place.”

To learn more about Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science visit

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.