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UM Fulbright Scholars Set to Embark on Research Adventures Around the World

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    Fulbright scholars, from left, Liz Rebecca Alarcon, Chirag Gheewala, and Rachel Libby will soon embark on research endeavors in Costa Rica, Spain, and the Dominican Republic, respectively. Photo courtesy Meg Pukel

    The University of Miami had ten students from all degree levels and five different schools recommended to the 2011-12 Fulbright Program by a national selection committee. Of those ten, six were selected as grantees and one as an alternate.

    “That’s definitely the most Fulbrights granted to UM students ever in one year,” says Kefryn Block Reese, director of Prestigious Awards and Fellowships.

    Five of the six grantees have accepted the awards and will participate in what is the largest U.S. international exchange program that offers opportunities for students, scholars, and professionals to study, conduct research, and teach at schools around the world. It was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by then-Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright.

    Fulbright’s political career of more than 30 years in the U.S. Congress was distinguished by his contribution to international affairs and marked by his tenure as the longest-serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He passed away in 1995. His youngest daughter, Bosey, is married to former University of Miami President Edward “Tad” Foote.

    Last year UM had three Fulbright grantees: an undergraduate and two doctoral candidates. Two were selected for projects in Brazil, the third in Sweden. In the three application cycles prior to that, between 2006 and 2009, UM had a total of two Fulbright grantees.

    Asked about the upward trend, Reese explains, “Before, there was no specific office dedicated to assisting students applying for this award. UM has put resources into these students to provide support that I think is needed.”

    As part of his Fulbright mission, UM graduate Marvin Alfaro will travel to Australia to track the movement of the Antarctic Polar Front.

    The Office of Academic Enhancement was established in 2007. Reese was named director of its Prestigious Awards and Fellowships services in 2009. She promotes the program through outreach presentations and information sessions, bulletins in campus media, and one-on-one advising with potential applicants. The results have been encouraging: She says this year three times more students than last year submitted Fulbright applications.

    Below are profiles of the quintet set to embark on five diverse Fulbright adventures.

    Liz Rebecca Alarcon
    There was no sanitation system. Houses and other buildings had dirt floors. And the schoolhouse needed new chairs and tables.

    Everything Liz Rebecca Alarcon observed on her first visit to Los Jazmines, a small village in Costa Rica’s northern lowland area, confirmed that it was one of the poorest communities in Central America.

    Alarcon, a University of Miami undergraduate at the time of that one-week, NGO-sponsored volunteer mission in Los Jazmines, did not travel there simply to observe but also to make recommendations of what the village needed to improve its infrastructure.

    Now, a year after that trip, Alarcon will return to the village in September as a Fulbright scholar, working with the townspeople to determine if the proposals she made in 2010 have been implemented.

    “When I volunteered there in 2010, I fell in love with the community and felt I could do something productive to help the residents,” says Alarcon, a 2011 UM graduate who double majored in international studies and sociology. “But a week was not nearly enough time to get to know and understand their problems.” She says her Fulbright award, which will run for ten months, will help ensure that efforts to ramp up community resources are being carried out.

    Cliff Sutton will travel to Uruguay on a Fulbright scholarship to study candombe, a musical genre that has its roots in the African Bantu.

    Alarcon will live with a local family during her stay, immersing herself in the customs of a community that is beginning to show signs of development, thanks in large part to an association of indigenous women, La Asociacion de Mujeres de Los Jasmines, which has partnered with local nongovernmental organizations to establish educational, social, and commercial initiatives. A vegetable greenhouse, for example, has been built, and children now have an elementary school in their own village, Alarcon says.

    Still, many problems persist in Los Jazmines, which was founded in 1980 as a home for nine single mothers. New tables and chairs for the schoolhouse are a priority, and a sewage system is desperately needed.

    Those were among the recommendations Alarcon made during her initial trip there. While observing and polling residents to see if those projects are being enacted, she will also compile a final report on the best plan of action to improve existing initiatives, using the facilities of Reto Juvenil International, a support agency in Costa Rica, to complete her work.

    “This is different than just channeling a project through an NGO,” says Alarcon, who wants to attend Georgetown University to pursue a master’s degree in Latin American studies. “A Fulbright is an investment in an individual.”

    Marvin Alfaro
    Marvin Alfaro’s early television tastes probably set him apart from the other kids on the block when he was growing up in Long Island. “I watched the Weather Channel and was glued to the TV during winter storms,” explains the recent graduate of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

    Alfaro’s passion for weather and years of academic achievement and honors hit a high point in April, when he learned he’d been granted a Fulbright award. The opportunity will carry him to the other side of the world to track the movement of the Antarctic Polar Front (APF), an area of the Southern Ocean that marks an important climate boundary.

    “By better quantifying the dynamics of the ocean,” Alfaro states in his Fulbright proposal, “scientists will improve our knowledge of how these changes will transform different parts of the world’s climate, rainfall, and sea level.”

    His Fulbright year will build on research he conducted during a semester assisting research scientist Nicole S. Lovenduski at the Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training program at University of Colorado at Boulder. Alfaro, who majored in meteorology and minored in mathematics at UM, also credits his mentor, Peter J. Minnett, a professor at the Rosenstiel School, and Kefryn Block Reese, director of Prestigious Awards and Fellowships at UM, with helping him “dive right in” to the Fulbright application process.

    From his base at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, Alfaro will study three decades’ worth of satellite-observed sea surface temperature data that could prove critical to measuring changes in the major greenhouse gasses that lead to global warming. He hopes to develop computer programs that can analyze the data in order to provide more long-term findings and more accurate conclusions about climate change. He’ll also audit two related classes per semester at UNSW and take at least one month-long research cruise into the Southern Ocean for in-situ observations in collaboration with the university’s Climate Change Research Center.

    As excited as Alfaro is about pursuing this significant research, he’s equally eager to strengthen the American-Australian community of scientists and immerse himself in local culture. “It’s not just academics,” he notes. He expects to take part in activities such as climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, learning to surf, and exploring the exotic species found in the outback. Upon his 2012 return, Alfaro will attend the master’s degree program in climate and society at Columbia University.

    Chirag Gheewala
    Three months of trying to develop a new strand of Peptide Nucleic Acid, a DNA mimic with potential diagnostic and therapeutic uses, convinced Chirag Gheewala that research was his calling.

    Now, two years after Gheewala completed that work at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, the recent University of Miami graduate is about to embark on a new, and longer, endeavor: a nine-month research mission at the Institute of General Organic Chemistry in Madrid, Spain, where he will study compounds called chromanes, which have shown an ability to repair cells damaged by cancer.

    “I’m ecstatic,” says Gheewala, 22, who graduated magna cum laude from UM last May with a bachelor of science in chemistry. He minored in biology and Spanish. “This is something I’ve worked really hard for. Spain will be such a great opportunity for me.”

    Gheewala, who immediately called his parents upon learning of his Fulbright award in April, views the scholarship as an opportunity to further develop his investigative skills as a scientist. As a UM undergraduate, he also completed an internship at a research institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina, working on a project in inorganic chemistry. He will enroll in graduate school after completing his Fulbright.

    “I like discovering new things,” Gheewala explains. “I look at research as laying the groundwork for future generations of scientists.”

    Rachel Libby
    After her sophomore year at the University of Miami, Rachel Libby was just three weeks into a summer semester at the University of Havana when a terrible bus accident sent her to a local hospital. “It was crazy,” she recounts. “A lot of people were hurt.” Her own injuries were minor, but as the chaos of triage swirled around her, she caught sight of an “amazing” doctor. He was “holding his patients’ hands and advocating for them because there were not enough supplies. He was just awesome.”

    Libby recalls the experience as the beginning of her own path toward becoming a doctor. “After that, everything has been leading to medicine,” she says. But before starting medical school, Libby will spend nine months working with Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic, thanks to a Fulbright grant she received in April. Building on a previous health initiative established by Eddy Pérez, a medical doctor and researcher with that country’s National Research Center for Maternal and Child Health, she will assess the long-term impact of community-based health education programs on impoverished Dominican sugar plantations, known as bateyes.

    “These sites originated as temporary settlements for Haitians working in Dominican sugar production, but have changed into permanent ethnic enclaves,” she wrote in her statement of purpose. “Batey residents suffer disproportionately from parasitic illnesses, malnutrition, and infectious diseases like tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.”

    Pérez’s findings, published more than three years ago as part of his Ph.D. dissertation at UM, showed that the community health initiative resulted in a significant increase in general health knowledge and promoted gender equity and human security. Libby hopes her research can help the batey communities working to develop sustainable health education programs.

    Libby, who graduated in May from UM’s selective five-year B.A./M.A. Fellows in Latin American Studies program, has already traveled, studied, and contributed to health initiatives in Argentina, Panama, Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Uruguay; served as an intern and employee in the Humanitarian Aid office of the U.S. Southern Command; acted as a medical translator on the U.S.N.S. Comfort in Nicaragua; and volunteered in UM’s field hospital in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake.

    The Boston-born Florida native attributes her strong sense of public service to her mother, a former E.R. nurse and case manager, and her father, a retired police chief who brought home so many kids in the course of his work that he and her mother became licensed emergency foster parents. She credits academic mentors Lillian Manzor and Sherri Porcelain as well as UM’s Prestigious Awards and Fellowships program for encouraging her Fulbright ambitions. “I thought I had no shot,” Libby admits. Then in April a “big manila envelope” arrived, announcing that her proposal had been selected. Asked her expectations of the journey she’ll embark on in October, Libby offers, “These things, you can’t plan for them. They just turn out to be amazing.”

    Cliff Sutton
    Cliff Sutton first brandished a drumstick as a seventh-grader in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Driven by dreams of being a rock ‘n’ roller, Sutton told his middle school band director that if he couldn’t play drums, he would play football instead. No other instrument would do.

    “It’s amazing to me how much you can do as a percussionist,” says Sutton. “It’s easier to be creative and more difficult to be pigeonholed [than other kinds of musicians].”

    Now a Doctor of Musical Arts candidate at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, Sutton has traversed the gamut of percussion—from rock to steel drum band to orchestra, and now to the Afro-Uruguayan tradition of candombe. In August he will travel to Uruguay for nine months to study candombe on a Fulbright scholarship.

    “I started playing steel band at the University of Florida, where I got my master’s degree,” Sutton says. “That’s when I got into South American music, not just the music but the culture, especially Afro-American styles of drumming. Everybody can be a part of it, whether you clap your hands, sing, or pick up some maracas.”

    Before entering the Frost School, Sutton worked as a freelancer with high school marching bands and percussion ensembles, played in symphonies, and taught at several universities throughout South Carolina. Tired of being a “road warrior” musician, he came to Frost, where a class on South American music introduced him to candombe. He discovered that few people outside of Uruguay have written about the drumming style, so he adopted it as his dissertation topic.

    Sutton’s primary research focus is the African origin of candombe. “In the southern cone of South America, the African-descended population is a small minority,” he explains. “I want to find out how this music grew to become a physical representation of the African memory in the region.”

    To prepare his application for the Fulbright award, Sutton had to identify candombe groups in Uruguay that would take him under their wing. These groups, called comparsas, will teach him about more than just drumming.

    “The idea is to immerse yourself in everything,” says Sutton, whose Spanish-speaking friends in Miami are giving him a language skills crash course. “I’ve been working on my Spanish, and living here in Miami, I get plenty of practice!”


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