Physics Professor Honored for Advancing Science in Developing Countries

Carlos Ordóñez was an excellent physics student in his native Panama, but it was the opportunity to study in the United States with world-class researchers, that helped launch his accomplished career as a theoretical physicist.

Now Ordóñez, associate professor of physics at the University of Houston, works to extend those same opportunities to promising young scientists from Latin America. His efforts recently earned him the American Physical Society's 2009 John Wheatley Award, which recognizes physicists who have contributed to the development of science in third world countries.

Ordóñez recruits up-and-coming scientists from Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Brazil and other countries and matches them UH's top researchers in biology, chemistry and physics for post-doctoral fellowships.

During these two-year fellowships, the Latin American students gain valuable experience working with prominent faculty and using state-of-the-art facilities often not available in their home countries, Ordóñez said.  

Most of the fellows return home after the program equipped with new contacts and colleagues that will help strengthen scientific partnerships between the U.S. and Latin America, Ordóñez added.

"Third world countries are making great efforts to get up to speed on science and technology, and cultivating these collaborative links enhances the human infrastructure in those countries," Ordóñez said.

Ordóñez is passionate about building these partnerships because he was also the beneficiary of a life-changing opportunity to come to the U.S. 

He graduated from the University of Panama with honors and excelled at physics, but had little exposure to research until he came to the University of Texas for doctoral studies. Competing in such a distinguished research program forced a sharp learning curve.

"I was used to solving problems I was given, but now I had to come up with my own questions," Ordóñez said. "Being a student is a passive process, but in research you have to be creative and proactive."

The realization that he could go beyond simply acquiring knowledge to actually producing it was an eye-opening experience, he added.

Ordóñez will formally receive the Wheatley Award, which is given biennially and includes a $2,000 stipend, at an April meeting of the American Physical Society.