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Diplomacy Lab students advise US Embassy in Mexico on natural disasters

Aug 4, 2020

As the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season brings storms such as Hurricane Hanna to the shores of Mexico, the country has a new source of disaster response information and analysis to draw upon thanks to the work of students at Indiana University Bloomington and IUPUI.

IU students and faculty speak to U.S. embassy officials in Mexico on Zoom
IU Diplomacy Lab students and faculty from IU Bloomington and IUPUI briefed embassy officials during a Zoom meeting.Photo courtesy of Michael Hamburger, Indiana University

As part of IU’s contribution to the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomacy Lab program, 16 IU Bloomington students spent their spring semester producing a technical database and 150-page report on policy challenges and opportunities related to natural disasters for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. A larger group of students, including students from IUPUI, then capped the project with a May 8 briefing to the two lead members of the consular team, Minister Counselor Ambassador Don Heflin and Consul General David McCawley.

Diplomacy Lab helps the State Department “course-source” research and innovation related to global policy challenges from the nation’s top universities. Michael Hamburger, a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Science’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, helped bring the program to IU Bloomington after spending the 2015-16 academic year as a Jefferson Science Fellow at the State Department. Another branch of the program was established at IUPUI two years earlier under the leadership of Gabriel Filippelli, professor of earth sciences in the School of Science at IUPUI.

IU Bloomington’s Diplomacy Lab program is managed by the IU Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, and IUPUI’s program is managed by the Office of International Affairs at IUPUI.

Under the program, IU and other universities “bid” on topics posted by the State Department, which selects the best proposals and assigns students as consultants to their foreign embassies. In this case, the client was the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, which is responsible for the health and safety of the estimated 1.5 million American citizens who live in, work in or travel to Mexico. Consular members work from the embassy in Mexico City, as well as nine offices across the country.

IU Bloomington was awarded the Mexico natural disaster course in the fall of 2019. Although the fourth Diplomacy Lab course taught by Hamburger, it was the first focused on an area close to his research specialization: seismology.

“In contrast to some other countries, Mexico has well-developed scientific and government planning for natural disasters, including earthquake, volcano and tsunami warning systems, and elaborate flood control systems in some parts of the country,” Hamburger said. “How well these systems function under the stresses of a natural disaster, however, is not always ideal.”

He added that that natural hazards are a critical issue for Mexico’s consulates, which are vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis on the western coast; hurricanes on the eastern coast; and flooding, volcanoes and landslides in the interior. U.S. policymakers in Mexico face difficult decisions about how best to prepare for, respond to and communicate with the public about natural disasters.

A building collapsed during the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City
A 1985 earthquake devastated Mexico City.Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

The 150-page report produced by the IU Bloomington students consists of policy recommendations and analysis on natural disaster response and preparedness based upon their synthesis of relevant data from the scientific, technical and societal perspective. The report also highlighted opportunities for U.S. and Mexican cooperation in scientific and technical development as well as areas of potential improvement in the embassy’s response to natural disasters.

Students and instructors kept in touch with embassy staff through email and video conversations throughout the semester. After completing the report, embassy vice consul Lester Asamoah arranged for students to brief Heflin and McCawley on their findings, along with several consular team members at other sites across Mexico. The briefing took place via Zoom, with students from both IU campuses joining from sites across the U.S.

The majority of the nine graduate students and seven undergraduates in the IU Bloomington Diplomacy Lab class came from the IU Bloomington Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. The others are from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Geography, the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Affairs.

A second group of participants from an undergraduate class at IUPUI were led by Filippelli. The IUPUI team focused on long-term issues related to climate change, infrastructure and public health; the IU Bloomington team focused solely on natural disasters.

“This course was a wonderful and unique opportunity to apply niche knowledge in a manner that directly impacts the lives and safety of others,” said Josh Bregy, a joint Ph.D. student in the IU Bloomington Department of Geography and Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “I take pride knowing that this comprehensive report – one that was strengthened by our diverse backgrounds and interests – will produce tangible results beyond the classroom.”

“The breadth of natural hazard topics and policy challenges facing the U.S. Embassy in Mexico encouraged interdisciplinary team building amongst undergraduate and graduate students, promoted problem-solving and provided experience with government consulting,” added Madison Howell, a recent graduate in environmental management from the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington. “Unlike some courses, the final deliverable was meaningful and has wide-reaching impacts beyond IU’s Sample Gates.”

Additional elements of the report included:

  • A massive database of Geographic Information Systems maps, as well as a digital record of the various resources and infrastructure that might be affected by natural disasters.
  • An individualized breakdown of potential natural disaster impacts in the categories of earthquakes and tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, meteorological activity (such as hurricanes), and landslides and floods.
  • Training recommendations for embassy staff and visitors to improve their awareness and preparedness for natural disasters.
  • Recommended updates to the embassy’s website and its “Smart Traveler” app.

“The embassy team was genuinely impressed by our team’s work and interested in following up on the recommendations,” Hamburger said. “The Diplomacy Lab program offers IU students a remarkable opportunity – the opportunity to take their academic training and focus it on the application to real-world issues that could affect thousands of Americans working and traveling abroad.”


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