UA Undergrads Do Research in Foreign Countries

November 01, 2011

A student researcher who wanted to study parasites in Egypt became the serendipitous prototype for a model of success – the UA BRAVO! program that provides global research experience for talented undergraduate science majors.

BRAVO! stands for Biomedical Research Abroad: Vistas Open! The first vista opened was Egypt.

In 1991 student researcher Anthony “Tony” Stazonne attended a seminar presented by Egyptian pediatrician Azza Gabr, who studied parasites in the Nile Delta. Stazonne was researching the same parasite and realized the technology he used at the UA lab was more advanced. He proposed going to Egypt, working with Dr. Gabr and sharing updated techniques.

His professors liked the idea – but there was no funding and no precedent to send an undergraduate off on his own to work in a foreign country, Carol Bender recalled. She is the longtime director of both the UA Undergraduate Biology Research Program, established in 1988, and BRAVO! which followed in 1992.

Persistence paid off. Dr. Gabr was based at the Egyptian National Research Centre in Cairo and provided access to the study population. The UA allocated $700 for Stazonne’s airfare from grant funds. The Bi-National Fulbright Commission in Cairo donated lodging. The nearby U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit agreed to let Stazzone use a fluorescent microscope once a week to read his slides.

“There were a lot of people coming together to support this student’s idea,” Bender said.

In 1993 Stazonne presented his research findings to the American Society for Microbiology. He went on to graduate from UA Medical School, do research in Italy and eventually return to Tucson to practice at University Medical Center.

This initial venture proved that one-on-one research opportunities for students were valuable and led to the creation of BRAVO! to develop a network of global connections and fund collaborations for students. Early and continuing grant support came from within National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In 1992 the UA was among the first to recognize the importance of preparing students to function in a global context. By 2003 the American Council on Education reported “unless today’s students develop the competence to function effectively in a global environment, they are unlikely to succeed in the 21st Century.” A 2007 article in the New York Times stated that study abroad is the latest "must have" experience for undergraduate students, Bender said.

BRAVO! succeeds because of the international connections UA faculty members have developed over the years with colleagues in many fields of science and related studies.

This program is open to UA undergraduates with at least six months of research experience. It offers the opportunity to travel to a foreign country and work with an expert in the student’s field of study. The mentor professors do speak English. Interested students present a detailed proposal to a faculty committee that selects the scholars. To date, more than 200 students have conducted research at more than 80 institutions in 35 countries.

Over the years BRAVO! students have had memorable and life-changing experiences:

  • David Frye was the first BRAVO! scholar. He arrived at the train station in Florence, Italy with 100 pounds of luggage, looking looked for professor Giancarlo Pepeu, a neuropharmacologist who described himself as a short balding man in his mid-sixties who’d be wearing a loden green overcoat and gray pants. Only trouble was – there were at least 10 such elderly gents dressed in green overcoats and gray pants.

  • UA Professor Chuck Sterling has studied a multitude of parasites in the shantytowns of Lima, Peru for decades, establishing a wonderful collaborative relationship with a professor he met at a conference in Baltimore. Numerous BRAVO! students have done research in Peru since 1995 and nearly all have become professionals in the health field, including several who work for the Centers for Disease Control.

  • One of those students working in the shantytowns was Concepcion “Nina” Roxas, who collected data to measure the impact of chronic parasite infection on growth faltering in children. She went on to graduate from medical school and become a pathologist in Mesa.

  • In the Czech Republic, one BRAVO! student felt isolated because everyone in his dorm spoke Czech or Russian. Finally he put a sign on his door – “Want to Learn English?” He made many friends for life and went on to work for the FBI.

  • Jared Ragland traveled to Tokyo to research the Agrius Convolvuli moth, but discovered a yen for international relations, which later led to a career with the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

This year 13 BRAVO! students are in Sweden, Norway, Germany, Czech Republic, France, The United Kingdom, Australia, Uruguay and Peru. Bender points out that these students are not traveling with fellow Americans in a study group. They’re totally on their own, immersed in a foreign culture and working with established experts in their field.

For more information, visit www.ubrp.arizona.edu/bravo or contact Bender at benderatemail [dot] arizona [dot] edu (benderatemail [dot] arizona [dot] edu).