Maria Culman Forero is 33 and emigrated from Colombia to Flanders three years ago. The trigger? An interesting PhD on remote sensing applications in agriculture and forestry at VITO, in collaboration with KU Leuven. Since then, she has been literally and figuratively pushing her boundaries every day in a fascinating and innovative project.

An old dream, a new language and a shocking Flemish habit.


"At the time, I chose to study engineering because I always had an affinity for mathematics and programming. My brain loves logic," Maria explains. "I obtained two undergraduate degrees: as an engineer in energy and in mechatronics. Two fields not directly related to remote sensing."

Remote sensing or earth observation is a research domain that uses drones, satellites and imagery. This offers interesting applications in innovation around agriculture and water management. "The research I work on focuses on agriculture and forestry, to manage land with more precision. Artificial intelligence creates a new dimension in this field. Thanks to the experience and knowledge of my two supervisors - from VITO and from KU Leuven - I learn so much every day."

A dream of many years

Maria grew up and studied in Bucaramanga in Colombia. "After high school, I was offered a scholarship to university. In return, I worked at the faculty during my studies. Later, I also officially joined the university as a researcher."

But the government stopped subsidising the project and Maria had to look for a new challenge. "During my undergraduate years, I was already dreaming of getting a PhD abroad. The idea stimulated me again and I started looking."  

In her search for PhD grants, Maria found an interesting offer - a research project on remote sensing - more than eight thousand kilometres from home. "I applied, was selected, did an assessment, ... and had the job. Yes, I was super enthusiastic when I got the message," says Maria, "although I had to look up where I was going. I knew nothing about Belgium, except that it is the heart of Europe."

Culture shock

Maria is down-to-earth in life and takes a pragmatic view of her emigration. "Yes, Belgians are rather reserved compared to South Americans. On the other hand, it is up to me to adapt. You can't force your integration. Otherwise you would constantly live with frustration. What I don't understand in Belgium, though? That shops close at 6pm. And that everything is closed on Sundays. That was my culture shock." 

Meanwhile, Maria lives in bustling Berchem. "First I lived in Mol for a while, close to VITO. My flat was surrounded by woods and quite far from the city centre. That was difficult for me to network. Especially when the corona-lockdown crippled any kind of social life. Antwerp is a much better place for me, with an endless supply of cafes, culture and activities. There are trains here to every corner of the country. I've really found my niche here."

"That VITO gave me this opportunity!"

Maria also takes Dutch lessons. "Besides language classes, I do pilates and like to discover new cities and restaurants. I believe my future lies in Belgium, so I'm trying to integrate as well as I can. When my PhD is finished, I would like to work in the private sector or industry. And then you are stronger if you can speak the language anyway."  

"Hiring someone from Colombia to work on a project? I still can't believe VITO gave me this opportunity! It meant a lot to me and to my career: a new continent, a new research field, a completely different life. I work every day towards my lifelong dream of obtaining a PhD. VITO means a lot to me in that respect."  

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