An International Research Experience for Undergraduates (IREU) supplement is a modification of the NSF-wide Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. These IREU supplements are available exclusively to PIs in DEB. Traditional REU supplements available to NSF funded investigators support mentorship for undergraduate students to conduct independent research.
DEB has developed a partnership with CAPES, a funding agency in the Brazilian Ministry of Education. Through this partnership, DEB-funded investigators are eligible to apply for an IREU supplement to NSF in parallel with a Brazilian colleague who can apply for undergraduate funding through CAPES. If awarded, DEB funds the US student, and CAPES funds the Brazilian student so both students have an opportunity to conduct research at home and abroad. Over the course of the supplement, the two undergraduates overlap in the laboratory or the field and conduct a veritable student exchange.
This type of experience can spark a passion for science and research in undergraduate students. While the IREU supplement opportunity is still nascent, it has already provided numerous students the opportunity to conduct international research. Furthermore, programs like this allow international funding agencies to make use of their aligned interests and provide a greater funding impact through coordination and cooperation.
We had an opportunity to catch up with one of these students and her mentor as they shared some of their experiences in the IREU program:
Undergraduate Student, Rutgers University
Kendra Avinger, a DEB IREU student.
Tell us a little bit about your IREU experience thus far?
Surreal is the closest word to describe my IREU experience thus far. My mother is a second-generation Puerto Rican who raised my sister and me. The IREU experience is the type of horizon broadening opportunity she has always hoped for me.
In Brazil I am studying Begomoviruses, a group of viruses that cause disease in dicotyledonous plants, such as Tomato golden mosaic virus (TGMV) and East African cassava mosaic virus (EACMV). Begomoviruses were reported have major agricultural impacts with losses of 40 to 100% in Southeastern Brazilian states. I am learning to collect, catalogue, amplify, and sequence samples of Begomoviruses, as well as assisting multiple graduate students in the lab with their Begomovirus projects.
Have you participated in international activities before?
This IREU is the first international activity I have been involved in, in any capacity.
How did you prepare for your trip?
Mental preparation was key for me before arriving in Viçosa, Brazil. It is important to accept the overwhelming feeling of a new culture, location, and language without allowing it to overwhelm you and consequently, your work. To academically prepare for these differences, I enrolled in a Portuguese course tailored to speakers of the Spanish language, as I am fluent.
Tell us about working with your Brazilian counterpart?
My Brazilian counterpart, Hermano Pereira, and I overlapped at Rutgers for a week before I left for his University. Although our communications were filtered through two languages, we were inspired by our shared connection as young scientists.
Tell us about your mentors?
My mentor in Brazil is the phenomenal Dr. F. Murilo Zerbini. I am the first student to be sent to Brazil from the Duffy Lab, yet Professor Zerbini has had 3 students travel to Rutgers so far.
My US based mentor is Dr. Siobain Duffy. She understands that thriving graduate students are born from efficacious, confident undergraduates. She has helped me to realize that I have as much creative power as any professor, and to view myself on the same playing field. She gives me the confidence to move forward and share my own ideas.
What are your future professional/academic plans?
With my future, I hope to effect change eclectically. Public speaking, presenting, technical writing, and life sciences pull at my strong points thus far. I am not sure where I would like to end up long term, however, a short-term goal of mine after graduation is to manage a lab somewhere that is warm year-round, explore other interests, and eventually apply to graduate school.
Dr. Siobain Duffy
Assistant Professor, Rutgers University
How did you first get involved in conducting international research?
PI and IREU mentor, Siobain Duffy.
I am lucky that evolutionary virology is a very international field. Not just because cataloging viral diversity is a global pursuit, but some of the best experimental viral evolutionary biologists are in Europe, and some of the computational tools we use on a daily basis were developed in Africa.
My closest international collaborations both came from introductions made by a mentor of mine, who is very active internationally herself. As I was starting out as an assistant professor, she invited me to collaborate on some large multi-institution proposals. Some of them succeeded, some didn’t get funded, but the emailing back and forth created the personal connections required to start research collaborations.
Science has always advanced most quickly when ideas are shared internationally, and email, online dissemination of journal articles and VoIP technology [e.g. voice over internet technology] have made it trivial to collaborate with people on the other side of the planet.
What advice would you give other investigators who are considering applying for an IREU supplement?
My best advice is to start everything earlier than you think you need to – visas to the US take time, and undergraduates are less likely than grad students and postdocs to have gone through these processes before. The PIs on both sides will have to walk the students through obtaining housing, making sure their health insurance is set up, making sure they have working cell phones, etc.
What advice would you give to undergraduates, who may be inspired by Kendra’s work, and who are interested in getting involved in international research?
There are many more opportunities for international research exchanges than undergrads realize there are! If you are working in a lab with international collaborations, ask if there is a chance to participate, and if there is time to write an IREU proposal for your work. Look for REUs with an international component! Look for post-baccalaureate programs, especially in countries where you are already proficient in the main language. A former undergraduate researcher in my lab is working in a German science lab doing exactly this.
And don’t sweat it if your research doesn’t turn international at this stage – if you stay in science, there’s a very good chance you can work and live abroad for a while.
Has the IREU supplement impacted your collaborations with international investigators?
NSF’s partner in this exchange, CAPES, has been so pleased with the project they are funding additional Brazilian undergrads to come to my lab this fall. Because I have visited my collaborator’s lab in Viçosa, I know these students, and they already have some sense of who I am and what their time in the US will be like – which makes it much less intimidating to get on the plane. I will be looking for ways to write more IREU students into projects in the future.