Notes from Mexico Trip- Johnny Monsarrat Mexico Trip

MONDAY, DECEMBER 13TH, 1999 -- BIOTECH PLACES & DZIBILCHALTUN RUINS (CONT.)

We leave, and our guide takes us to a government biotech research place, called "Semana Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia" We pass through a guard station that is a little like Disneyland's: one big roof and two little offices for the guards to stand, dressed in brown & tan. Lime stucco. We get orange "visitante" cards. "Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Quanzados del I.P.N."

There are cement walkways here, too, and huge murals of the sun and planets on the walkways. There's mint-blue stucco on the 1 or 2 story buildings. A few trees along the way hold birds. There's dried up grass. The cement is cracking, and a radio plays loud enough to hear from outside. The biotech lab is 25'x20', with a tiled floor, black lab tables, and white tile walls. Wooden stools abound.

We meet a mid-30s woman, a research assistant. In the lab, the doctors are the highest level, then research assistants, then students. She has gold earrings. Dealing with students is the most difficult thing about her job. She says they do not have the proper items to work. They have sophisticated equipment, but not the proper chemicals. It takes a long time to get the money for stuff they need.

Sometimes, when a chemical is a controlled substance because it might be used to make drugs, a famous professor has to "sign for it", basically personally guaranteeing it won't be misused. So they do get the stuff they want, it just takes a long time and is expensive. Even thought it's banned by Mexico. For example, carbon tetrachloride. Regulation of chemical is getting better, not stricter, over time. They have a special storage facility for these controlled substances. Amy says her lab in the USA worked similarly.

The woman wears sandals with leather straps and red socks. Faded jeans, a black turtleneck shirt, a ring. Her black hair is tied back. Red glasses, broad lips with lipstick. I ask, What are the differences between biotech in the US and Mexico? She says that people are just as smart in Mexico as the US, but the amount of knowledge is not the same, so they are not so up-to-date on the cutting edge stuff. They also lack facilities in Mexico: libraries, for example.

In Mexico, often safety regulations are not enforced. She went to work in the UK, where there were harsh penalties for getting caught breaking safety rules. But in Mexico, not. She says it's a question of education: people just don't understand the hazards here.

They have to wait weeks & months for large & small equipment. For example, reagents. Thus, the first world has more opportunity than Mexico to write cutting-edge research papers, and get them out faster. People from the first world think that Mexicans are LAZY but this is just not true! When she visited the UK, she was able to do research in 1.5 months that would have taken 6 months in Mexico.

In Mexico, there is centralism: everything is in Mexico City and there's prejudice about the quality of the work done in outlying areas. I ask, What's it like to be a woman scientist? She loves her work. "I'm doing this work not for the money: men have the responsibility of being support of house. So a woman can give help to the household, but she knows that the man is really responsible even though the woman works. This means that she's passionate for the work itself. Science is not for making money."

Her husband is American, and he says "The more I live here, the more I realize that Mexicans are less macho than I imagined." However, macho extremes are of course possible here.

I ask her to describe the personalities and the workplace environment. "I am happy with my partner and have a good relationship with my boss. We are very low key here. We are both from Yucatan (local) and we've known each other since high school: 15 years. I've been doing science since I was 19 years old. We stay more than 8 hours a day but don't get paid for the overtime, but we love it. It's a conflict for women because I want to take care of children & see my husband."

Her boss speaks up. His wife is a chemist & she works in a lab but also works around the husband. Then the woman says, "But my husband is an American husband. He cooks for me!" Men do help the women in Mexico, I am assured, even if they are not American.

There's sometimes conflict with people working in neighboring labs, here at this facility. "We're so busy that we don't even know what's happening next door."

Young students have a "neo-liberalism" attitude. "I don't like it," she says. "I respect my boss and family and grandmother. Even though I have a PhD or postdoc, I will always respect the person who taught me." But some young people try to do more than their mentors and say "I'm better than you." This is a new trend for Mexico.

She says that the last generation with good habits was born in 1962. In other words, anyone younger than 37 may have a neo-liberalism attitude. "They're very nice but suffer process of change. These people have everything and don't appreciate it."

What's her typical day like? 9am: check on equipment. Work with computers, work with technicians, deal with students and their necessities. It varies. Take a field trip and collect samples or pick up equipment, or need to teach the students, or supervise protocols and analysis. She's always under stress because she's trying to get the chemicals.

A research assistant needs a B.S. or an M.S. She has an MS and says you need a PhD to be a boss. She went to university in England, got her MS at Newcastle. This lab is nicer than the one at the University. There's a protein analyzer, and Amy writes "level stuff".

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