Seeking human and environmental health

Mercy Borbor-Cordova, Chief, Department of Environmental Control in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Photograph of Mercy Borbor-Cordova
Mercy Borbor-Cordova, Ph.D., is chief of the Department of Environmental Control in Guayaquil, Ecuador. She spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow in NCAR's Advanced Study Program. (Photo courtesy Mercy Borbor-Cordova.)


In 1997, Mercy Borbor-Cordova was well into the career in oceanography that she had wanted from childhood. For a decade she had been on the faculty at the university in her hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador. She could have stayed there for the rest of her working life.

But her personal life changed that year, and she was ready for other changes as well. She decided to pursue a long-held dream, an advanced degree. But there are no graduate schools in Ecuador, so she needed to pull up her roots. Speaking no English and having three young children, she knew there would be struggles. But Borbor-Cordova had made up her mind. She applied for a Fulbright scholarship. "I thought, maybe it's too late for me, but I took my chance," she recalls. "I've never regretted it."

A crash course in English . . .

The Fulbright-LASPAU Faculty Development Program brings foreign educators to the United States to work on advanced degrees. Only a few educators are chosen each year from each Latin American country. "It's a very competitive process; I was lucky to get it," Borbor-Cordova says modestly. Although her selection undoubtedly had more to it than chance, she was lucky in one way: she applied during a brief window when English fluency was not required at the start. "Fulbright paid for us to have six months of English around the clock," she says.

That did the trick, according to Charles Hall, distinguished professor at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). Hall was Borbor-Cordova's adviser and mentor throughout her graduate experience. When Borbor-Cordova arrived on campus, "She could already write well—not all of our foreign students can—so I didn't have to waste time teaching her English," says Hall.

‘I thought, maybe it's too late for me, but I took my chance. I've never regretted it.’

. . . and intense pursuit of new ideas

At SUNY-ESF, Borbor-Cordova's view expanded. "As an oceanographer, I was interested in ecology, the transport of pollutants, and biophysical science. When I went to graduate school, I got more involved with the systems perspective," she says. "The human dimension is important." Her master's thesis analyzed the environmental impacts of banana and shrimp production on Ecuador's coastal ecosystems. Hall and other faculty members were impressed with her master's work, and when she graduated in 1999 they encouraged her to stay on for a doctorate.

Borbor-Cordova admits to having some qualms because she was older than the other grad students. "But then I thought, what is my goal? I want to go back to my region and do work that encourages young people to be engaged in science; that would be fantastic." She completed her Ph.D. in five years, graduating in 2004.

"I don't know exactly how she did it, because she had three children at the time," Hall says. "I think she's got superb time management skills. She's also very, very bright."

Hall notes another characteristic that's relevant to tackling some of South America's data-sparse environmental problems. "Other students might say, 'I don't have this number so I can't make this model.' That never slows down Mercy. She can figure her way through a problem in a remarkable way."

‘You need to build human capacity before you can put solutions in place.’

Where science meets people, policy, and everyday life

The Fulbright scholarship requires recipients to return to their home countries for at least two years' work after receiving their degrees. Borbor-Cordova was offered a job as chief of environmental control for the Municipality of Guayaquil, a city of 2.6 million. The office "was a group of professionals from different backgrounds, trying to implement innovative and sustainable environmental management for the city. I said yes immediately because I was willing to learn about policy implementation and to apply my scientific training." After this eye-opening experience, Borbor-Cordova took on several additional projects as a postdoctoral fellow at NCAR, partly funded by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research.

Now back at her post in Guayaquil, Borbor-Cordova's diverse background has "made me aware of all the challenges we face as environmental managers. The decisions we have to make, the social pressure and the limited resources to develop science all combine to make policy formation and implementation difficult.

"When you make research recommendations in technical reports or publications, everything works in theory, but when you try to implement them, you realize that you need to build human capacity before you can put solutions in place. I have been in the research arena, but looking at these problems from the decision-making side has made me realize that there are always tradeoffs."


Mercy Borbor-Cordova's research projects extend from the equator across South America and on to Antarctica. From her hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador, she has built a career that spans three continents, is conducted in two languages, encompasses the oceans and atmosphere, and brings together scientists, policymakers, and impoverished communities. She has found some solutions that are transferable anywhere in the world—and also found that every problem is unique.

Pollution and poverty in Guayaquil

Borbor-Cordova is chief of the Department of Environmental Control in Guayaquil, a job to which she has just returned following two years as a postdoctoral fellow at NCAR. Her postdoc work was the result of a meeting she had in Guayaquil about three years ago. "The leaders of the community came to me to say, We have a problem: We are facing air pollution from power plants," she recalls. Borbor-Cordova wrote a proposal that was funded by the International Development Research Center of Canada to do a study of how air quality affects children in two impoverished neighborhoods of the city. One of these communities is located near three power plants, while the other is adjacent to Guayaquil's harbor, where pollutants from both ships and the unloading process accumulate.

The research group monitored particulate emissions and used an air dispersion model to track their paths. After performing epidemiological and control studies, they found that children aged 6–14 who lived near the highest emissions sources were 18 times more likely to contract a respiratory illness than control cases from elsewhere in Guayaquil. Their final report made recommendations for ongoing air quality and epidemiological monitoring and other activities to alleviate the problem.

People standing near some power plants and river
Borbor-Cordova and colleagues investigate housing conditions in an area close to the power plants of Guayaquil, Ecuador. (Image courtesy Mercy Borbor-Cordova.)


Science and politics: Cooperating from the start

The city government of Guayaquil has already put some management recommendations from the report into place and begun the capacity building needed for monitoring air quality. Borbor-Cordova credits this early success to the fact that "we worked shoulder to shoulder with the city government from the start. That's the most important lesson. If we want to apply our science to policy, we need to work with the decision makers. If we stay on the academic side, probably they will never take our recommendations.

"In my region, most of the people who are working on health and environment issues are facing big problems every single day," adds Borbor-Cordova. "It's not their job to think deeper about causes, develop hypotheses, and test them. To catch up with all we've done in the research area, we need to develop a group of scientists who will work with the policymakers and practitioners so that science reaches the community."

Community empowerment: One size doesn't fit all

The politicians aren't the only ones who got involved. The two impoverished neighborhoods have organized committees for health and environmental issues. "I'm really amazed and happy that this is happening," she says. "The people have a voice, they have leaders. They are not asking the city government for this or that; they are taking action to improve health in their own community." The committees are taking responsibility for managing solid waste and are sponsoring health events such as races for children and elders. "This social dynamic is really important to create a sense of a stronger community."

Borbor-Cordova believes that this model could be repeated in other parts of the world, "but it must be in the context of the specific problem. The community has to find their own solutions. You need to go to the ground, to talk to the people, to see why things are the way they are. From far away you can form a fine theoretical conclusion, but when you get closer, you see in the context what you couldn't see in the data."

Megacities, pollution, and health

Photograph of people taking measurements in a slum
Mercy Borbor-Cordova and Mary Hayden worked with the local population to survey areas of Guayaquil, Ecaudor, with a high incidence of dengue fever. Note the barrels of standing water. (Image courtesy Mercy Borbor-Cordova.)

With Patricia Romero Lankao and Olga Wilhelmi of NCAR, Borbor-Cordova is studying the interactions among air pollution, heat waves, and vulnerability in four megacities: Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Santiago de Chile. The goal is to pinpoint the worst of the worst: the poorest neighborhoods in the path of the greatest pollution.

Seventy-five percent of Latin Americans live in cities with populations over 10 million, so the researchers had many choices. The cities they picked already have data sets on air pollution, socioeconomic distribution, and other relevant factors, plus another critical asset: experienced local researchers. Three or four scientists from each country are involved in the study, and "the leaders of these national groups are very experienced people . . . who already have contacts in the policy area," says Borbor-Cordova. The national groups will be responsible for creating networks and making contacts with public health and environmental authorities.

The research team held a workshop to hash out how to standardize the information from each country. They're also conducting spatial analyses; "every city has a different way to monitor . . . environmental, health and vulnerability data," she says. Borbor-Cordova's job is to pull together the health data. The project is funded by the Interamerican Institute for Global Change Research in Brazil and is a follow-up to a previous project called South American Emissions, Megacities and Climate, which developed emissions inventories and climate change scenarios.

Dengue fever and climate change

Another project just under way studies the spread of dengue fever in Ecuador. This disease—almost unknown in developed countries—is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and is found where there are warm temperatures and clean, stagnant water in which the insects lay their eggs. Most people recover from most forms of the disease, but hemorrhagic dengue can have fatal complications, particularly among children and the elderly.

To begin discerning what social and ecological factors are important in dengue transmission, Borbor-Cordova and Mary Hayden (NCAR) went to Ecuador last summer to do a pilot study of two communities with different rates of infection.

Both neighborhoods have water lines, so Borbor-Cordova was surprised to find that most residents stored water. They do this in case the piped-in water breaks down. "They use all kind of containers, from cisterns to the smallest containers, and they don't see it as a risk," she says. "But if there is even just a little amount of humidity, the pupae of Aedes mosquitoes will be there." Borbor-Cordova is working on recommendations for a health education campaign in the communities to raise awareness of this problem and its solutions.

Since their pilot study, Borbor-Cordova and Hayden have joined with an NCAR interdisciplinary research group to work on a proposal to study how climate change will affect the spread of dengue, not only in the city but upwards into the Andes mountains. "At some point the climate will be getting warmer at higher elevations, so the habitat for mosquitoes will also expand. Thus we need to determine how weather, climate, and land use would change under various projections for climate change." Ecuador is particularly well suited for this study because its population centers range in altitude from sea level, where Aedes aegypti is abundant and dengue is widespread, to higher elevations where the insect is absent and the disease currently does not occur.

Widening the circle of collaborators

A group from Borbor-Cordova's former university in Ecuador is collaborating on this project, as are public health and malaria control officials. "It would be impossible to do that work without their help," she says. If the proposal is funded, researchers will include Mexican and Colombian nationals who work on dengue fever and climate modelers from NCAR in a team that will be more interdisciplinary than most. Borbor-Cordova admits that working in such a diverse group is difficult. "For example, in my case I'm an environmental scientist and I have to learn a lot about epidemiology." Yet she stresses that it's the only way to tackle this extensive and complex problem.

The dengue initiative is at the interface of environment and public health, like Borbor-Cordova's previous work on air pollution and health in Guayaquil. Does that mean she'll organize this research in the same way? Not exactly. Borbor-Cordova has learned that each problem requires an individual approach that takes into account best practices as well as the nature of the affected population. For example, part of the success of the Guayaquil project came from the impoverished communities themselves, but to attack a mosquito-borne disease, "a top-down approach is important to complement the mosquito control in the community." That's what's worked in other places like Puerto Rico and Cuba, she says.

Pollution in the coldest place on Earth

Photo of Borbor-Cordova and Riofrio standing near an arctic bay
Borbor-Cordova (left) and Monica Riofrio (Instituto Antartico Ecuatoriano) at Admiralty Bay on King George Island, Antarctica. (Image courtesy Mercy Borbor-Cordova.)

Antarctica's summer workforce of about 4,000 (four times the winter total) is dwarfed by the continent's tourists: close to 50,000 in 2007–08, with an equal number of support personnel. That may not sound like many people for a continent that's bigger than Europe, but it's enough to leave humanity's unsavory calling card: pollution. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research of the International Council for Science has begun an attempt to enlist the 30 nations that conduct research in Antarctica to monitor and protect the health of the unique Antarctic environment.

Admiralty Bay, Antarctica, is the home of research stations run by Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Poland, and the United States. To establish an environmental management and monitoring program there, the Ecuadorian Antarctic Institute wanted a South American with a Ph.D., experience in environmental management, and knowledge of coastal environments—a capsule biography of Borbor-Cordova. "We had our first meeting in 2006. We are trying to define what environmental management is already happening, how each station manages their emissions, what contingencies there are for oil spills. We already know what parameters we want to observe to develop a long-term monitoring program."

Borbor-Cordova visited three of the Admiralty Bay stations in the Austral summer of 2007. "It's an overwhelming experience," she says. "You feel total isolation, and you get a lot of respect for nature. The weather is the main driver of the daily activities of the expedition. We want to keep this big Earth system the way it is."

A living laboratory of evolution—and pollution

The unique flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands drew 180,000 tourists in 2008, reports estimate, and the demand continues to grow. The permanent population of the islands has skyrocketed in a similar way, from about 3,000 in the 1960s to about 30,000 today. But the tourist boom threatens the very ecosystem that fuels it. The dangers of invasive species such as rats and mosquitoes are well known, but some of the human impacts are just starting to be studied.

Borbor-Cordova is interested in the fluxes of water and nutrients on the islands. "I thought this would be one of the places that is more studied, but when we looked for surveys of the basic hydrology and aquifers of the island, we found little information."

Aerial photograph of an island
Santa Cruz island, as seen from space. A dormant volcano, Santa Cruz is the second largest of the Galapagos Islands and home to the archipelago's largest population center, Puerto Ayora. (Image courtesy NASA.)

Borbor-Cordova and Alisha Fernandez (a student in UCAR's SOARS internship program) began their study by visiting the island of Santa Cruz in the summer of 2008. Their first step was to interview the researchers at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Then they gathered the available data on water quality, hydrology, and human activities to develop a preliminary budget of water and nutrients in the coastal area. "In land-ocean interactions, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are the starting point for all ecological systems—you go from algae, primary producers, to all the food web and its biodiversity," Borbor-Cordova explains.

The team looked at nutrients that come from both anthropogenic sources and the ocean. They found that tourism and local population growth are increasing the fluxes of nutrients because waste is not well managed in the water system. They also found that the island's freshwater aquifers are being infiltrated by ocean water, compromising the water supply in a time of ever-increasing demand.

"We would like to investigate how an increase in the nutrient fluxes may induce ecological changes such as eutrophication and algal blooms," says Borbor-Cordova. "This is the critical time for an integrated, holistic study of all the research that has been done on the coastal zone." However, with four other research projects on her plate, Borbor-Cordova admits, "This is one idea that probably we will have to save for the future."


February 2009


One-minute mentor

What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?

Do what you love; it'll keep you going

Two things are critical for academic success, says Borbor-Cordova. One is persistence. The other is what makes persistence possible: choosing a subject you really love. She credits "a keen interest and enthusiasm in my topic" with keeping her motivated throughout graduate school.

Borbor-Cordova also highlights the satisfaction that comes from doing something you believe has value to society. "I think it is totally worthy to invest time and energy in developing science that could help to alleviate the urgent issues of our society and improve people’s welfare."

Mercy Borbor-Cordova, Chief, Department of Environmental Control in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Follow Us



Contact the SOARS Center
+1 303.497.8622

Mailing Address:
SOARS Center for Higher Education
c/o University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, CO 80307-3000