About a year ago I stepped off a plane with nine incredible students and an amazing professor not realizing that I was about to embark on the greatest adventure of my life. My experience as a PROZKOUMATER! went beyond all of my expectations. I wanted to become more independent, get a great recommendation letter, and gain lab experience from this opportunity, however, this trip surprised me with greater outcomes than I had anticipated. For ten weeks I spent my time at the Institute of Parasitology in České Budějovice in Dr. Ryan Rego’s research group. Under his guidance I learned about European strains of the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and how the loss of particular plasmids affected the infectivity of these bacteria in vivo and its growth in vitro. Of course I gained skills in techniques like DNA isolation, western blots, and SDS-PAGE, but I also received close mentorship and a new group of friends.
I met Lisa in the Rego lab the second day I was there. She was from a small town in Austria and was finishing her bachelor’s degree on an exchange between two schools—the University of Linz in Austria and the University of South Bohemia in Czech. Like her, I was in a foreign place where I did not know the language, the town, or the people around me; we were both away from our families, friends and the place we called home. Lisa introduced me to a couple of her friends who were also part of the exchange program and I introduced her to my nine roommates from America. The Austrians would ask us about America’s foolish obsession with guns and immigration and why our school system seemed off. They would ask us about just how hot Arizona would get in the summer and how it was we survived. We, on the other hand, would ask the Austrians what the world thought of Americans and why we seemed to be crazy. In short we spent weeks learning about each other’s culture and how we viewed each other. We had debates and intense conversations about the way we were living and how the world around us was changing. The next thing I knew, a couple of Prozkoumaters were giving a presentation on the limitations borders have on human relations.
In a small café near the town square, Sarah (another Prozkoumater) and I gave what was supposed to be a 30 minute presentation on the wall that separates the peoples of Mexico and America. Our presentation was supposed to compare and contrast migration issues along the US/Mexican border and the border issues surrounding Middle Eastern and African migration to Europe. Our talk sparked a heated debate among our audience. Those in favor shared their opinion and those against the walls offered their rebuttal. As I stood there for two hours I realized the world and the people in it are not so different after all. All of us as a global community were being strained by the issue of immigration and were facing moral decisions that in part were universal. I realized how important it was to talk about these issues and how necessary it was to be informed about the events that are happening around the world. Before this experience I did not care much about anything happening outside of Tucson, Arizona and didn’t understand how events outside of my city affected me. At that moment my world view expanded and I knew I was now a global citizen.
My stay in the Czech Republic was coming to an end and as a goodbye gift Lisa invited four of us to visit her home in Austria. It had been 8 weeks since I had tasted a home cooked meal and sat in a dinner table with family. We had dumplings, schnitzel, and the best carrot soup I had ever tasted. Lisa also took us to the Alps were we spent time on a lake. I was so astonished at how generous someone I had met a few weeks before could be. She was modest and kind to ten foreigners from America. It was then that understood the power that kindness can have and how a helping hand can change someone’s perspective on life. Soon it was time to go back home and test everything we had learned.
The Prozkoumat! experience was absolutely transformational. The real impact that the program had on me went beyond a research experience. This program offered me the opportunity to push myself past my own limits and build connections with people outside of my culture. I gained a whole new world perspective and respect for global diversity. Over this year I noticed that I am more patient, humble, informed, and eager to live life to the fullest. I gained an amazing mentor with an array of ideas, I met remarkable people like Lisa, and I lived with the incredible ten, also known as the Prozkoumaters! More important, I became a global citizen, which means I became a better fit for science because science is universal and to be part of it you have to be aware of the world around you. Overall, I hope others can experience this incredible adventure and grow. I am grateful for this trip. Thank you.
Belen’s Prozkoumat experience was funded by a grant to the University of Arizona from the National Institutes of Health (MD001427).