Logo: University of Southern California

Chilingar Fellowship

Honduran civil engineer David Murillo starts master's degree program, thanks to a professor's fellowship program

September 24, 2004 —
Honduran engineer David Murillo, 31, began work on his master’s degree in environmental engineering this fall, thanks to a fellowship established by one of his advisers, George Chilingar, in the background.                             
Irene Fertik photo
David Murillo can turn textbook accounts of Hurricane Mitch into spine-tingling tales.  Sitting in a classroom at USC, the 31-year-old Honduran engineer tells students about the floods that destroyed 94 bridges and altered the course of the Choluteca River forever.
 
Hurricane Mitch was one of the worst storms to hit Central America in recent memory.  It killed 10,000 people in November 1998 and left a path of destruction that is still noticeable today.  Hundreds of Hondurans perished, nearly 2 million residents were left homeless and an estimated 70 percent of the country’s most important crops -- bananas and coffee -- were destroyed.
 
Murillo is something of a rarity at USC, not because he survived the disaster, but because there are only two other Honduran engineering students who know first-hand how much damage was done. 
 
“Honduras doesn’t have many students who are studying environmental engineering,” says George V. Chilingar, professor of civil and petroleum engineering, who serves as one of Murillo’s advisers.  “They need them very badly, just like other Latin America countries.  David is one of the few who went to college and got a job in the field.”
 
Murillo became the third Honduran student to enter the USC Viterbi School of Engineering this fall, thanks to Chilingar’s own Varos Chilingarian Fellowship Program in Environmental Engineering, an endowed fellowship that covers his tuition for a year-long master’s degree program in environmental engineering.  Named in honor of his father, Varos, Chilingar established the fellowship with a personal donation to encourage more students in Honduras to study environmental engineering and use their newly acquired skills in the service of their country.
 
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Longtime champion
Chilingar is a longtime champion of international partnerships with resource-rich and resource-poor nations.  Born in Russia of Russian and Armenian descent, he was the first American petroleum geologist to be elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is considered an ambassador of goodwill by many nations, including Honduras, which 20 years ago named him an Honorary Consul of Honduras in Los Angeles.  Recently, Chilingar was instrumental in establishing cooperation between USC, Russia’s Nuclear Research Center and the International University of Dubna in Dubna, Russia, to form a collaborative partnership of academic and scientific research. 

In 50 years of teaching at USC, Chilingar has designed many collaborative programs under different deans, but none has gone as smoothly as his work in Latin America.  He credits Dean C. L. Max Nikias with his success in reaching out to Honduras.  

 
David Murillo, one of only three Honduran engineering students at USC, gazes out over the second-floor balcony of Kaprielian Hall, contemplating his future.                   
Irene Fertik photo
“Because of his support, I am attempting to convince the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to sponsor more Honduran fellowships,” Chilingar says.  “None of it would have been possible without him.  He has been wonderful in helping us open the doors to Latin America.”
 
Murillo jumped at the chance to spend a year in Los Angeles studying under Chilingar.  “David was the best applicant for the fellowship,” Chilingar says. “He scored high on his exams and had a lot of practical experience.”
 
Eight years to be exact. Murillo earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Honduras in 1996 and went to work for the Honduran government.  
 
“After Hurricane Mitch, I was part of a coordinating unit set up by the Honduran government’s Department of Transportation to repair all of the bridges and roads that were destroyed in the storm,” Murillo says.  

His unit was based in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, but Murillo and his team traveled to five or six of the largest cities in central Honduras to restore roads, bridges and other fragile infrastructure.  Some of the country’s oldest and most critical bridges – such as the Choluteca Bridge – were completely obliterated by the hurricane.

 
Ready for new ideas 
“I’m looking forward to learning new techniques and principles in civil engineering, not just for repairing roads and bridges, but for addressing other environmental problems,” Murillo says.  “This is a wonderful opportunity.” 
 
It’s his first time in Los Angeles, but that doesn’t faze Murillo.  He lives with a Honduran family close enough to campus to ride his bicycle to school every day.  Chilingar, who is committed to his academic success, helps him navigate the campus and stay on top of his studies.
 
Murillo shakes hands with Joe Devinny, professor of environmental engineering and one of his academic advisers.  George Chilingar is in the center.
Irene Fertik photo    
 
He keeps in touch with his wife and five-year-old daughter in Tegucigalpa via email, but he doesn’t plan to go home before he finishes his degree.
 
 "I have to study all the time,” he says, “and I will be in school the whole year, no breaks.” 

That doesn’t faze him either. He is all smiles.

--Diane Ainsworth