UA Student in Italy Says BRAVO! Program Offers Best Education Possible

Rene Siqueiros
Jan. 18, 2001


While most science students may not consider study abroad an important part of their educations, one University of Arizona student finds that travel can sometimes be just as important in learning as textbooks and lectures.

Oscar Serrano, a senior with double majors in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology, is a researcher in Giancarlo Pepeu's laboratory in Florence, Italy. Pepeu's research is on the neurophysiology of memory. Serrano is part of the Biomedical Research Abroad: Vistas Open! (BRAVO!) program, which places research-experienced UA undergraduate students in science labs at selected research institutions in other countries.

For Serrano, conducting research in another country has allowed him to learn and appreciate science in ways he would not have been able to experience in school. Aside from enriching his scientific background and technical skills, Serrano said that BRAVO! has also taught him to recognize the importance and value of other cultures.

"I tend to think that students in the U.S. could never imagine life being anything but the way it is in America. And sadly, in all of the countries where I have lived, I have never seen anything like life in the United States. I think that in order to grow as a person and mature intellectually one has to place oneself in another's shoes and experience life through the eyes of someone else. BRAVO! has allowed me to experience captivating cultures, while working on a project and science that interests me. I couldn't have asked for anything more enjoyable or rewarding," Serrano said.

The BRAVO! program began in 1992 as an extension of the Undergraduate Biology Research Program at the UA. Since then, it has placed close to 100 UA students like Serrano in laboratories in 62 institutions in 23 countries, ranging from Egypt to Japan.

Applicants to the program are required to submit a short proposal describing the work to be done in the foreign lab, along with a personal statement of career goals, a time frame and budget, and letters of endorsement from the UA faculty sponsor and the foreign host scientist.

The program also requires that students have at least six months research experience relevant to work done in the host laboratory.

An advisory committee then interviews applicants and reviews the submitted materials to determine which projects to fund. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health provide most of the funding for BRAVO!.

After their return from the foreign site, students write an article for the UBRP newsletter and present their experimental results at one of the monthly meetings called "datablitzes." These datablitz meetings provide those students who cannot travel the opportunity to gain new insight on scientific methods, as well as the cultures, in other countries.

Carol Bender, the program's director, said that the BRAVO! program gives students the opportunity to act not only as American scientific ambassadors, but as cultural ambassadors as well.

"Just by living in a different culture students learn a great deal about what they value in the United States. They find out what's good and not-so-good about their own culture. They learn what people in other parts of the world think of Americans because people start reacting to them as 'the stereotypic American' and that's not always the way they perceive themselves. So it can be quite an education on how Americans are perceived," Bender said.

Serrano received his first BRAVO! fellowship in August 1999 to work in research in Wurzburg, Germany, for a semester. He deferred his matriculation at Stanford University School of Medicine to pursue his current project and a second BRAVO! fellowship in Italy for a year. He expects to graduate in molecular biology from the UA in May, 2001.

Serrano's research project involves the study of neuroscience using electrophysiological techniques. He analyzes the way in which neurons acquire the ability to turn short-term memory into long-term memory.

The research is important because by studying how neurons convert short-term memory into long-term memory, scientists can expose the neuronal processes that are impaired or damaged during Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's is known to affect a person's memory.

"We are trying to understand certain biological mechanisms that are known to be perturbed during diseases such as Alzheimer's. By knowing all of the components of the machinery, per se, we may be able to treat them in order to fix them in the future," Serrano said.

A cure for Alzheimer's, however, is still a long leap from where scientists are at right now. "Unfortunately, we haven't even scratched the surface of all that there is to know about Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease," Serrano said.

Bender said she feels that BRAVO offers students an opportunity to get involved in research that can provide an important service on an international scale, given the many global problems nations face today.

"The problems that humans are facing today don't respect national boundaries. For example, we have global warming, emerging infectious diseases, water quality issues, and environmental degradation. What happens in one country affects another. And I think that it's important that we have well-trained scientists who are comfortable dealing with people from other cultures to be able to address those problems in the future," Bender said.

Anyone interested in learning more or applying to BRAVO! can find information on the program's website at http://www.blc.arizona.edu/ubrp/bravo/default.html

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