Students at the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR) may look like ordinary college kids. But the fact is, there is nothing ordinary about the way some of them spend their time.
During the past years, many of them have taken part in producing human skin cells, studying how to make biodiesel out of microalgae, and creating wireless telecommunications networks to protect the country’s forests, among other high-caliber technological innovations.
Led by ITCR professors and researchers, students from all levels and a range of fields have taken part in investigative projects exhibited last week at the university’s main campus in the province of Cartago, east of San José.
Fifty projects were set on display Nov. 10 at the institute’s José Figueres Library as part of the II Investigation and Extension Summit, an activity held every two years, according to Vice-Rector of Investigation Dagoberto Arias.
The projects were chosen as the most representative from a total of 126 investigations participating in this year’s summit.
In a press conference at an ITCR cafeteria that day, Rector Eugenio Trejos explained the purpose of each project is to improve quality of life in Costa Rica.
“Science and technology are key elements in the development of modern societies,” he said.
The students and professors who proudly displayed their projects to visitors that day echoed these ideals.
“Our purpose is to improve the rehabilitation of burn victims,” María Laura Madrigal, a fourth-year ITCR biotechnology engineering student, told The Tico Times as she stood before the “Human Skin Cell Production” project display.
This project aims to cultivate skin cells that replicate a patient’s own cells to produce a gel that can be applied to burns and skin lesions, explained Madrigal, one of three student assistants in the project.
This method can reduce not only patients’ time in hospitals by 40% because of faster application and healing, but also gives skin a smoother, cleaner appearance, she said.
While experts around the world have been looking into skin cell production since the mid-1900s, ITCR, also called TEC, is pioneering this research in Costa Rica, according to Maritza Guerrero, one of the project’s research team leaders.
Guerrero said the team expects to implement this skin healing method at the National Children’s Hospital next year, starting with six patients who will be kept under rigorous observation.
Just across from their exhibit, three second-year biotechnology engineering students stood before a display about the production of biodiesel from microalgae.
Adriana Alvarado, Lisa Jiménez and María Laura Rojas, three of four classmates who undertook this investigation, explained that oil can be extracted from cultivated microalgae to produce biodiesel.
Also, because microalgae are photosynthetic microorganisms that consume large quantities of carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, the students are studying the possibility of massive cultivation of these organisms next to industries and machinery that produce the harmful emissions.
In October, their project earned them first place in the Eco-friendly category of ITCR’s X Fair of Ideas and Business.
At another exhibit, an ITCR electrical engineering duo was explaining to visitors how a wireless network of sensors attached to trees in a forest could help forest rangers detect forest fires, illegal hunting, felling, and other threats to nature.
ITCR electrical engineering professor and project coordinator Néstor Hernández told The Tico Times his investigation, assisted by electrical engineering student Leonardo Villalobos, has been under way for two years. So far, the wireless network is ready, and experimental nodes have been installed at Cartago’s Agua Caliente forest, Hernández said.
The professor explained his idea is to help speed up reaction time in the face of forest disasters.
“We want to provide a tool that will open windows around the world for possible ways to control (these) events,” he said.
Other projects showcased at the fair included production of paper from irises and production of cloned trees, both for forestry purposes.