As an economist trying to predict the costs of climate change for Colombia's government, Ana María Loboguerrero got a sense of what was at stake when torrential rains triggered floods throughout the country in 2010 and early 2011, killing hundreds of people and wiping out entire towns.
The disaster gave Ms. Loboguerrero a feeling of urgency when she was accepted last year to be part of the first group of Fulbright Nexus scholars. The Nexus program was started in 2010 by the U.S. State Department to facilitate academic exchange between the Americas and generate research on global problems.
For her fellowship, Ms. Loboguerrero spent a few months at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, which focuses on climate problems in developing countries. There, academics from across disciplines were eager to help her refine her economic work to make it more practically useful. "I was able to sit down with economists, climatologists, hydrologists, physicists, and sociologists, fuse my economic models with climate ones, and look at the impacts of climate change from different angles," she says. "I was able to see how you could bring information from a wide variety of sources into the climate-change discussion."
At seminars in Buenos Aires; Querétaro, Mexico; and Washington, Ms. Loboguerrero also learned how to bring her research into the public arena. She met Nexus scholars who explained how they had brought their work to the attention of policy makers. She also met government officials directly and learned from them exactly what kind of research was most useful in helping them make decisions.
Back in Colombia, as climate coordinator for the government's National Planning Department, Ms. Loboguerrero has been putting those experiences to good use. Whether that means working with housing authorities to avoid construction in flood-prone areas or with farmers to ensure access to water under new climate conditions, the principles of interdisciplinary collaboration and applied research emphasized at Nexus have proved invaluable. "In academe, we sometimes forget about the potential practical applications of our work. The spirit of Nexus is to bring rigorous research together with decision makers and make it relevant in improving people's welfare," she says.
For the 2012-13 academic year, the Nexus program will focus solely on climate change, again looking for researchers who are exploring practical solutions. For example, Pedro Wightman, an assistant professor in systems engineering at the University of the North, in Barranquilla, Colombia, will travel to Purdue University to refine computer models he has developed to help ease traffic congestion, thereby reducing automobile emissions that contribute to global warming and harm public health.
Mr. Wightman's idea is to attach GPS devices and sensors that measure environmental contaminants to cars and buses as a way to give city planners precise data on the correlation between traffic flow and air pollution. That information could then be incorporated into decisions about where to build new roads or install traffic lights to relieve both congestion and smog. "My main goal is to make a contribution to the city, to provide a tool that will help make better decisions," he says.