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Scientist ventures abroad to volunteer
Posted on July
Posted on July 28, 2003
Dr. Nohemy Reid never set out to become an international troubleshooter. The 49-year-old chemist and pharmacist usually works in the Tallahassee food-safety lab of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Periodically, over the past four years, she has shared her talents with the Florida International Volunteer Corps - Florida's version of the Peace Corps.
In her travels around the Caribbean, she has met a large lizard, some talented toilet-paper artisans - and old classmates from her homeland of Honduras.
"When I come back from these countries, I always tell my students what I've been doing," said Reid, who teaches chemistry at Tallahassee Community College. "It surprises them to think they can do chemistry and participate in international affairs at the same time. It gets a lot of attention from them."
Her most recent mission, a trip to Honduras in January, was designed to help government officials detect safe levels of pesticides and preservatives in food.
"Before, so many people were having problems," Reid explained. "Little children were getting sick from eating the coloring in snack foods."
Traveling on vacation time, she taught her Honduran counterparts to use new analytical apparatus.
"I was working late into the night, cramming all this training into five days.
This is training that a chemist here would take two months to complete," Reid said.
Reid was thrilled to discover an old friend. Dr. Lavinia Silva, supervising food safety for the government of Honduras. During their university days, the two had been study partners.
"She said. Thank you. God!'" Reid recalled. "It was amazing. She said, 'Would you believe, once we were classmates - and now you're coming here to teach us.'"
Although they'd lost touch for 17 years, the two now exchange e-mails every day. They've gotten together to visit their old professors.
Soon after her graduation in 1986, Reid met her husband, Martin Reid - then stationed in Honduras with the U.S. Army.
The couple married in 1987 and moved to the Gadsden County town of Havana the following year.
The chemist's first adventure in overseas outreach occurred in 1999, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency tapped her for a Caribbean conference on pesticide residues.
In addition to serving as translator, Reid spoke about ways to improve the quality of food and auto products. Much to her surprise, that trip also resulted in a reunion with another college alumnus.
"It's fun - every time I go somewhere, I'm hoping to see one of my classmates," Reid joked.
Her first call from the Florida International Volunteer Corps came later in 1999. The agency asked her to accompany cattle experts on trips to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
Last year, Reid helped Haitian manufacturers develop safer formulas for toiletries, beverages and cleaning supplies.
She was startled by the hazardous contents of one coconut drink: "There was so much alcohol in that product, you can damage people. I told them, "This is like moonshine."
During the 2002 trip, she survived a car breakdown, a tire blowout and an encounter with a foot-long lizard in her hotel room.
On a brighter note, she was impressed with the Haitians' resourcefulness - creating candleholders from scrap metal and rubber-soled sandals from old tires.
"They gave me a present - a beautiful bird made of toilet paper. You hang it from the ceiling. It's all different colors. ... There is so much we can learn from them. They make art out of things that we throw away here."
This August, Reid plans to return to Haiti to dispense more manufacturing advice.
Meanwhile, she's trying to find a Spanish-speaking microbiologist who can help her Honduran colleagues analyze antibiotics.
Over the past two decades, the Florida International Volunteer Corps has sponsored more than 1,000 humanitarian missions in Central America and the Caribbean.
Last year, 232 volunteers visited 22 countries to offer expertise in health, agriculture, social services and disaster relief. To learn more, call 410-3100.