Interview with Dr. Ron Nerio, Director of the CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP)

by Lucia Fuentes and Roman Senkov

The CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP) funds year-long research experiences for associate degree students at all seven CUNY community colleges and three comprehensive schools. The goal of the program is to encourage undergraduate participation in authentic research and to increase persistence in STEM discipline.

Q#1: Ron, how would you introduce yourself? Would you describe yourself more as a researcher, an instructor, an administrator, or maybe as something else?
Ron: My official title is Research Programs Director at the CUNY Office of Research. That makes my full-time job an administrative job, so I am an administrator. Of course, “administrator” means nothing specific, really. It is a very broad term....

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Ron: My official title is Research Programs Director at the CUNY Office of Research. That makes my full-time job an administrative job, so I am an administrator. Of course, “administrator” means nothing specific, really. It is a very broad term.

I teach only one course per semester, but I still very strongly identify as an educator as well. I'm an administrator and educator. Teaching that course is very valuable to me, even though I teach it outside of CUNY – because when you're a full time administrator it's complicated to also be paid as an adjunct instructor at the same time.

Being a researcher is also very important to me. I've been working extremely hard on a current project for the last 7 years. The book is just about to go into print. So, I would fit into all three of those areas. If I had to pick one title, I would go with Director of Research Programs, because that is what the university sees me as.

Roman: Which one of these three activities do you enjoy the most?

Ron: I am most emotionally attached to the research I'm doing. Do I enjoy that the most? As anybody who does research can attest, it can also be very painful. Every spare moment I have, I'm doing revisions, which means going in and looking at every sentence you've written and making sure that you've represented your sources very meticulously, responding to your reviewers' comments.

So it is the thing I enjoy the most, but it’s also the thing that “keeps me up at night”.

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Q#2: We want to go back to your early days. When you look back to your adolescence, are there any events or experiences that you feel particularly affected the career path you chose?
Ron: Absolutely! I sometimes think that I was “born” to be a sociologist because of my early experiences. They immediately gave me a sociological mind...

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Ron: Absolutely! I sometimes think that I was “born” to be a sociologist because of my early experiences. They immediately gave me a sociological mind.

I was adopted into a Mexican-American family on my father's side. I grew up with my phenotypically white mother and my Mexican-American father, but they never told me I was adopted until I was 10 or 11.

We also lived in a primarily black neighborhood, in a factory town, where all of the factories were closed. We had 11 big General Motors factories and one by one, they were closing, mass unemployment was happening, and we were right in the middle of this because we were living right in the downtown. So many houses were being left abandoned and the city went through a lot of turmoil, as a lot of industrial cities did in the 1980s.

I was also gay. I wasn't out, I didn't proclaim this then. I was in this very masculinist environment. Traditional Mexican machismo values were very important in the family.

There was an additional complication to this, which was that those were the bussing years. I phenotypically look white, I'm a white appearing person; but because of my last name and because we lived in a black neighborhood, I was bussed to the white school on the other side of town to “integrate” that school.

I rode a bus, with about 40 black students and myself, every day, to school on the other side of town.

There was also the working-class part of this; there was a union ethos in our family, but at the same time, everyone was sort of despairing of their unions because thousands were being laid off. You never knew from one day to the next whether your father was going to be one of the layoffs.

I was fortunate that I had a really good teacher in junior high – actually for 5 years in a row. This teacher was able to help me put all of this in context.

I should add that I was also alert to the intense racism that was going on, on all sides. The whole city was organized by race. There was a river that ran through the middle of it and at that time, it was overwhelmingly Black and Latino on the side we lived on, overwhelmingly white on the other side.

My mother's white family had their own racism and they lived out in the suburbs. My father's Mexican-American family lived right near us. My great grandmother lived next door, she spoke only Spanish, but I never learned it. All sides had their own version of racism. As I child, I would heard this crackling in the air all the time.

My mother was very good about this. We would go for walks in the neighborhood – it's not a lie when people were saying: “look how terrible that neighborhood looks”, but I was fascinated by that because the neighborhood never felt dangerous to me.

People on the other side of town were constantly telling me -because remember I was going to their schools- “how can you live in such a dangerous, scary neighborhood” and they would say things like: “you can't even walk down the streets without bullets whizzing by your head”. They would tell me that and I would say “wait a minute, I'm the one living there and I walk on those streets, literally, every day. I have never seen any danger.”

My mother did not go to college until later, but she understood something especially important: the absentee landlord. All the houses around us started falling into shambles, the lawns arounds us were growing 3-4 feet tall, windows were broken, single-family houses had been divided into 3-5 apartments and were quite overcrowded.

People on the other side would say: “they cannot take care of their own properties”. The really important thing there is that the properties were owned by white people who were living on the other side of the town. But this factor was hidden from view.

All of these things together made me constantly ask sociological questions. I think it was almost unavoidable that this would be the path that I would follow.

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Q#3: We're moving now into your early college years. What moments would you describe as the most salient? Was there a professor that you especially remember?
Ron: I had a professor, whom I would not quite say was my “mentor” simply because, when I see what CRSP provides in terms of mentorship, I would say: “wow I wish I had had that”...

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Ron: I had a professor, whom I would not quite say was my “mentor” simply because, when I see what CRSP provides in terms of mentorship, I would say: “wow I wish I had had that”.

She and I struck up a conversation, she really helped me deepen my understanding of the world. I knew that I was utterly interested in political science, but I didn't know what I wanted to do as a career, and she was the one who suggested this path. She also oversaw my undergraduate thesis which was a very important turning point for me.

I probably could have used a little more mentorship.

I went to college in Flint, the University of Michigan Flint campus. Obviously, we know Flint today as the city with the poison water, and it was going through a very rough time back then too.

I am very drawn to localities that are experiencing difficult times. Because of the way that I was growing up, I really liked going to college in Flint.

They had a small honors program. The condition of the program was: if you met all of their other requirements, they would give you $3500 to do a thesis project, wherever you wanted, whatever you could design.

I was kind of amazed because most of the people that got this award, about 20 every year, stayed in Michigan. I could not imagine this.

I designed a project in South Africa.

The reason I had done that was that I had moved to London when I was 18. I was one semester into college in Flint, but still living with my family in Saginaw. I was working in the library as a page (the people who put the books back on the shelves) and I came across some travel books. I was intensely interested in travel books. I always wanted to do a “study abroad”, but my family always said: “don't even think about it, there’s no money for such a thing”. There was this little ad that said that if you were a full-time student you could get a work permit to go work in Britain or a few other countries. I wrote away for it (it was $80) and it gave me the chance to work for 6 months in London. A few weeks later I was on a plane. I delayed my graduation by taking that semester off...

Lucia: What year was this?

Ron: This was 1988. You had to have $400 with you when you entered the country to have a chance to find work under the terms of that work permit. I had exactly $400. You had to find your own apartment and your own job. I just got really lucky. They did have a little office where you could look through the ads for help wanted. Among the people that were doing the same program with me, one became an ice cream scooper, one worked at Harrods, that sort of thing.

I saw this tiny little ad that said, “sub editor needed, no experience necessary”. And I said “That's me! Perfect, no experience.”

I called and the first thing the person asked me was: “What do you know about South Africa?”.

I had that amazing teacher that I had mentioned in high school; he was so committed to social justice – he was very passionate as he was telling us about the injustices in all parts of the world. Central America and South Africa were 2 of his biggest focuses. So I started telling him and he said: “can you come over right away?”

I went there and it was a white South African man who went into exile because he was an opponent of the government, and with his wife, who was from Nigeria, they were running a newsletter about opposition to the apartheid government.

They had people around parts of Europe, parts of Africa and they were faxing in their stories. That was my job, to go through and make editorial/grammatical changes to those faxes.

It was in their little house. I loved this family. I would work from 9 to 6 and they would always invite me to stay for dinner. We would end up talking about African politics until about 11 because I had to run before the subway shut down at midnight.

It was just these little accidents that led me to this intense interest. When it came time to do the thesis, it was another case of “I saw a little ad” – article, in this case and it was about a man named Simon Nkoli.

It was 1990 and he had just been released from prison. He was on death row as a traitor – that was his charge. It was right around the time when Nelson Mandela and lots of other prisoners were being released. Simon Nkoli's case was that he had led a rent strike, which was a common way of fighting back against the apartheid government. He was arrested, but he was also gay; even many of the people he was arrested with didn't want anything to do with him.

It became kind of an international incident because there was an organization called the International Lesbian and Gay Association. They had heard that he was locked in prison and potentially could have been put to death by the state and he was a member of something called the Gay Association of South Africa. That was an overwhelmingly white organization. At no point did they write a letter on his behalf, they didn't visit him in prison, they didn’t do anything to try and get him out of prison. So International Lesbian and Gay Association expelled the Gay Association of South Africa for its racism.

Simon got out of prison and immediately started a non-racial Lesbian and Gay association. It was called the Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand GLOW.

After reading that article, the answer to my question “what can I do as a research topic?” was right there. I wrote him a letter, saying “would you be willing to let me come to Johannesburg? Could you introduce me to other people who are doing this?” I wanted to study the politics of the anti-apartheid movement and its relationship to what was then called the lesbian and gay movement.

He did write back and he said: “Sure, come!”.

So I went. He lived in a black township called Sebokeng. I went immediately to his township and he greeted me and we talked for several hours, but in my head I was still thinking: “I had better get back to the city or into the city because I need to find a place to stay”. Then he said “I have found places for you to stay”; for the entire 6 months that I was there I had homes to stay in. I did my research there.

This is where a mentor becomes really important. I was 20 years old when I got there. I was full of ideas and lots of excitement. I was really thrilled to be there, but I didn't really have the skills to know what to do.

I did lots of interviews and I attended everything, and I had tons of notes, but in order to turn that into a workable project... had I been better prepared something else might have happened.

I was still happy with what I did. I came back, wrote my thesis and went to do my first master's degree and Michigan State in Sociology.

Little by little I forgot about South Africa. The world had moved on from talking about apartheid. I got interested in other kinds of Sociology. We didn't have email where we could just stay in constant touch with all the people that we had met.

By the time I had finished my masters and moved to New York and eventually started a PhD program there, years later, I wasn't focused on South Africa at all, but then that changed a few years ago.

It changed because of Ramadan. It changed because I was staying in Kuwait with my husband's family, and they were all fasting. I was not and it was 120 degrees, and you couldn't drink water. They were extremely kind to me and they would send food up to the third floor where I was staying. All of the stores were closed, you couldn't do anything, everybody around me was intensely reading the Quran – I don't read or speak Arabic so what could I do? So, I said “I'm going to go back to Johannesburg for the first time in 20 years. I just want to see that neighborhood again where I had been living”.

I just thought I was going there as a tourist actually, or somebody interested. I had gotten reinterested in the neighborhood because it was the most exciting place I had ever seen, honestly. I had spent time in New York, I had spent time in London. Johannesburg was more interesting to me than anywhere I had been.

Before I went back to visit, a friend of mine who went to Johannesburg, told me “I don't think you understand that Johannesburg has completely changed. Nothing is the same”.

It had changed in part because after apartheid people were able to move around and be in places they couldn't be before. What had happened to the neighborhood was that it became a place where, a lot of people from other parts of South Africa who had been forbidden under apartheid came in large numbers.

At the very same time people were coming from other countries on the African continent because it was the most industrial city with the most jobs on the continent. Nelson Mandela had made public statements with this idea that South Africa is for all of Africa. Tens and eventually hundreds of thousands of people were coming from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Mozambique, etc., but they were also coming from rural South Africa and from other cities in South Africa and everyone was trying to find a place to live.

This neighborhood is very central, with lots of big skyscraping apartment buildings, so it was a very good candidate for new arrivals.

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Q#4: What you're telling us actually leads us to a question we wanted to ask you and that is, how have large human migrations affected the urban landscape.
Ron: This is exactly what's happening. In fact, the phrase “greener pastures” became the most common way to put it. People looking for “greener pastures” start coming into the central city of Johannesburg...

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Ron: This is exactly what's happening. In fact, the phrase “greener pastures” became the most common way to put it. People looking for “greener pastures” start coming into the central city of Johannesburg.

Many of them really thought they were going to be able to start a new and much better life in the city. Many of them expected something wonderful and beautiful, but they were coming into a city where the unemployment rate soared up to 30%.

As verbally supportive of migrants as Nelson Mandela was, the government was not. They were very vigorously deporting people, even in the immediate post-apartheid years.

The way landlords responded in that neighborhood was to let their buildings deteriorate extremely, since it was informally decided that was going to be the neighborhood where most migrants went. Most of them were undocumented. The idea on the part of landlords was: they can't complain about anything that we do.

The neighborhood had very seriously declined in terms of the physical infrastructure and crime shot up through the stratosphere. Johannesburg had become by some measures “the most dangerous city in the world” in the late 1990s.

There is such an openness in Johannesburg. When you begin to talk to people and ask people questions, such a welcoming “yes we would love to tell you our story” either how they got there or how they're managing to survive and how they perceive this place.

I began going back 2 or 3 times per year. Because I work full time I can only get short windows of time off. I go there and I use a snowball sampling and I meet someone – could be anywhere, even a grocery store and ask: “would you be willing to talk to me about Hillbrow” and if they say yes and we start talking I ask “do you know others who would be willing to speak to me?”.

You could even say “I'm especially interested to speak to a teacher, do you know any?” or social workers, homeless people, etc. to get the biggest possible cross section of people.

I find this tremendous willingness of people to open up. They want to speak about their experiences. I could give you all kinds of small anecdotes. It's amazing what people experience.

If you're in the Congo or if you're in Nigeria and you're thinking “I'm going to take a risk and I'm going to get in some kind of vehicle, and I'm going to take everything that I have and go to Johannesburg and try to start my life over there” – that is a major decision. I should add, most of them are doing it for remittances, they're not doing it for themselves, which is one of the reasons they will take the least expensive living accommodations possible, even if it means living with lots of other people. They will send every bit of it home to support their families.

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Q#5: When people migrate to try and achieve a certain quality of life for themselves and their families, very often they lose their home, or they never feel at home in this new place. Do you agree with this statement? And also, how does this alienation felt by these large communities of migrants affect the places they migrate to?
Ron: The question of “where is home?” becomes a really big haunting question for sure. In fact, I just recently read a journal article...

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Ron: The question of “where is home?” becomes a really big haunting question for sure. In fact, I just recently read a journal article about how – Most people that come to Johannesburg say “we're not here permanently. We're only here to work for a while and then to go back.” They see themselves as “I'm only temporarily here”, but very often they can't go back.

Another article that I have literally just read is actually about death. For most migrtants, even if they want to go back and can't, they at least want their body to go back. There are all kinds of networks set up to transport bodies to home countries. To get them across borders and border guards.

Hillbrow is interesting in particular, because it has now become so Zimbabwean that many Zimbabweans say “this is home!”.

Zimbabwe has major different ethnic groups, so Ndebele speakers see Hillbrow in a different way from Shona speakers. The Ndebele speakers are much more likely to see Hillbrow as home, whereas Shona speakers are more likely to see another neighborhood two neighborhoods over called Yeoville as home.

This is an interesting thing happening to Johannesburg as it is becoming truly a geography of the whole continent.

When you're asking about that feeling of “alienation”, I would say for every person that I have spoken to that says “I do not feel good about being here” who is a migrant, I find another person who emphatically says “no I sever my connection to my home, I don't even want anything to do with it. No matter how difficult things are here for me, I choose Johannesburg”.

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Q#6: Thank you for sharing these amazing stories of how you got interested in the research you do today, and how different experiences influenced the choices you made. We want to go back and talk about the CRSP program which you direct today, and about what is happening today, given the pandemic.

We understand that a big part of research is experimental, people have to be in laboratories, work with equipment. How have CRSP mentors managed under these circumstances?
Ron: In March of 2020 it was a really agonizing process. Faculty and students in the program were really devastated – “Here we have this active work and we can't continue it the way it was”...

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Ron: In March of 2020 it was a really agonizing process. Faculty and students in the program were really devastated – “Here we have this active work and we can't continue it the way it was”

Some felt, especially biology professors, that “we can't keep going if the labs are down”. Almost all of them within two weeks came up with innovative ways to improvise.

We did lose a few students and mentors. One of the directors at one of the colleges was so emphatic, he said “I don't think our mentors are going to be able to keep the program going”. Two weeks later he said “No, it's happening!”.

What most of them did was switch over to literature reviews, but they really took it as an opportunity to do a deep dive into scientific literature. The students couldn't work in the labs, but they could really take apart scientific papers, understand their parts, the language and how to think about writing and organizing it, as well as presenting their own work in the form of a literature review.

Some programs were not affected at all. Computer science for instance, had an easy time transitioning to online learning, whereas Earth and Environmental science had a harder time.

In broad strokes, when the program started this academic year, we had no trouble. None of the colleges had any trouble recruiting full cohorts, I think because of all of the work the mentors had done in figuring out innovative replacement projects in the spring.

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Q#7: Looking at education, in more general terms, how do you see things have changed, and what do you foresee will change as we go into the future?
Ron: That's a really tough one. I'm not sure I could even begin to be qualified to answer that question...

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Ron: That's a really tough one. I'm not sure I could even begin to be qualified to answer that question.

It's changed in so many different ways that I can barely count them. Email has changed everything about the way someone communicates. Even just being a professor, now that you can reach your students – Zoom is fantastic. You can have an office hour any time! If a student is struggling you can just say: “here's a link, let's jump on and discuss!”. You don't have to worry about making time to get to campus and the student making time to get to campus, so both can get there at the same time.

The technology has been amazing.

I think an unfortunate thing has been the increasing emphasis on making education about workforce development; this very painful. CUNY is a public university, it should be a public good, it should be knowledge for knowledge's sake. Increasingly the language of the workforce invades everything and we have to justify every expense on the basis of the workforce.

If I could add the word “Success” – another word that is constantly used so that every program has to be about students’ success, but there are so many different ways of thinking about what that means. Is success just “my GPA used to be a 3.0 and now it's a 3.5” or “I graduated earlier that I would have otherwise” or is it about truly having changed your own mind or orientation to the world?

When I spoke to my mentor from undergrad recently, she said that the most painful thing for her was noticing that the concept of education being a way to explore yourself and the world no longer exists. Instead, it's so instrumentally oriented towards “let's get this credential and move into either the next credential program or a career that will make me better off than someone”. I do find this very painful.

Roman: So this demand of success is imposed by society?

Ron: I think that's correct. It's a system. The institution is responding to the society, but then when the institution does that it reaffirms society's perception.

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Q#8: A question to follow up on, thinking about today's students' perspective. If you were to give one piece of advice to today's students, about anything and everything, what would that be?
Ron: I think the best a student can do is get involved. If you're a student that...

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Ron: I think the best a student can do is get involved. If you're a student that goes to classes and leaves and you think that is what you're supposed to do, which is what I think most students do, you might be missing out on the most important aspect of education.

Get close to your professor, talk to them, get to know them, so that later on, when an opportunity like CRSP comes up they might send that opportunity your way, or when you need to request a letter of recommendation, that professor will remember you.

The closer you can get to not only your professors – if your college has a Director of Undergraduate Research... those sorts of people, along with other students – the better.

Join organizations, because the students in those networks know where the opportunities are, where the ideas are, and they have ideas for you.

Form relationships because that's the key to opening up your world in both the narrow sense of instrumental success and also in the sense of becoming a fully rounded human being.

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Q#9: Ron, the very last part of the interview consists of some blitz questions.

1. What do you like in yourself the most and what do you dislike the most?

Ron: For dislike I could list probably 10 things, but if I had to pick something I would say....

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1. What do you like in yourself the most and what do you dislike the most?

Ron: For dislike I could list probably 10 things, but if I had to pick something I would say that I would love to be more organized.

I'm one of those people that loves to do 10 things at once which is what I like about myself. I love that I have so many interests, but that can mean that you've got 10 things that you can't juggle well enough.

2. What can you easily forgive in people, and what is hard to forgive?

Ron: That's such a deep question and I think the topic of a whole book. I think it depends on the forgiver. Personally, whether this is a good thing to say or not, ultimately over time I can forgive anything, because we are all human. Humans can do terrible things. Forgive does not mean you excuse. Forgive means that you no longer have that intense feeling of negativity towards a person that has done something that you consider very bad.

In terms of what qualities can be forgiven, I listen to a podcast and they've done some episodes on serial killers – people that have done really bad things. A constant theme of the host, she hates terms like “psychopath” – language that makes it easy to say, “well that person's not really a full human, they've done such terrible things that they are a different kind of human”. I think that forgiveness is a spiritual thing that means that you learn how to live with the fact that the world can be a very tough, dangerous, hurtful place. You don't excuse it but you live with it, clear your heart of the negativity.

3. What does absolute happiness mean for you?

Ron: Is there such a thing? I actually do think there is such a thing and absolute happiness comes when you're able to go into a deep meditative state and you feel the boundary between yourself and the rest of the world start to disappear. I'm not saying that I'm capable of doing that, but I work towards that and I have those moments and I hope that we can all have those moments. I think most people have that moment when you're walking down the street or a subway platform and all of a sudden you just feel the sense of “I love all of this!”, even the filth on the subway platform.

They call it a peak experience which means two things. You're peeking into this state you could be in and also a peak because it's “the top”.

I also think happiness is not our normal condition. Not that we're sad, but if we were to always have that peak experience, we wouldn't live a life.

4. What do you regret the most in your entire life?

Ron: The thing I do regret the most – speaking of forgiveness, I have forgiven myself for this, I wish I had managed my academic career better. I wish for instance that the book that's coming out now was the first of many, rather than the first. I had to live the life that I led.

Honestly, one of the reasons that it took me so long was, before this job, I was an adjunct for 15 years probably. I was teaching 6 courses per semester, in 4 different boroughs. I'd run from the Bronx to Staten Island, over to Brooklyn the next day then to BMCC, I taught at LaGuardia for 5 or 6 years.

I didn't manage my academic career the best way. The adjunct grind will grind you if you let it. I'm happy where I am now, but if I do have a regret, sure I could have done it all differently.

5. What is one of your main character features that makes you who you are.

Ron: I guess acceptance. Sure you might feel like “oh this terrible thing happened!”, but learning how to accept it as quickly as you can so that it is not a painful thing, which in fact you can learn to see as a beautiful thing I suppose would be the thing that makes me able to be pretty happy about life.

I'll give one example. I did apply for a full-time position at LaGuardia college many years ago and I really wanted it. I really hoped I was going to get it. I was checking my email every day, and when I got the rejection, it was one little line that said, more or less, “we don't want you”. Of course, that's very painful, but you learn to accept that fairly quickly and then later on you look back and you say “no, I ended up somewhere else, and that's okay”.

6. Whether you believe in God or not, if you were to meet God, what would you tell him?

Ron: “Thank you!”. Really, I do have lots of thoughts spirituality – I actually wrote my PhD dissertation about the entry of spiritual ideas into psychology and psychiatry. I did this as a Sociological examination. There's a temptation to say if I met God I'd like to say “why didn't you explain things better to me?, what are we supposed to do here?”. I think instead I would just look at all of this and say “Thank you!”

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