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
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
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.
Chilingar is a
longtime champion of international partnerships with resource-rich
and resource-poor nations. Born in Russia of Russian and Armenian
was the first American petroleum geologist to be elected to the Russian
of Sciences. He is considered an ambassador of goodwill by many
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, Russia, to form a collaborative partnership of academic and
In 50 years of teaching at USC, Chilingar has designed many
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,
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.