When Irene Avila traveled to Mexico in 1996 to study the skullbones of gray whales, the UC Santa Cruz undergraduate found it lonely going at first. But by the time she left, she had not only presented her research at a major conference, but had made new friends, attended weddings, and joined a church choir.
"It was kind of like my home away from home," said Avila, now a graduate student in behavioral neuroscience at Arizona State University. Although Avila had originally planned to spend only five months in Mexico, she ended up staying more than a year and a half.
"If I had to do it over, I probably would stay even longer," she said.
Avila traveled to Mexico as part of the Minority International Research Training (MIRT) program. Since 1994, the program has enabled about 80 UCSC students to travel to Mexico or Argentina to conduct scientific research. The MIRT program provides funds for living and travel expenses for underrepresented minority students to participate in international research projects; in the past two years, the program has been extended to include female students of all ethnic backgrounds. The program is funded by the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health, in cooperation with the institutes' Office of Research on Minority Health.
"The rationale is to give underrepresented students the chance to get research experience before they apply to graduate school," said Leo Ortiz, professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology, who directs UCSC's MIRT program. "But it's more than just learning science. It's learning a culture, a language, and an international perspective on science."
Antonio Carrasco, who went to Mexico as a MIRT student from UCSC in 1995 and 1996, agreed.
"Working in Mexico gave me the understanding that different people and institutions do things differently," said Carrasco, who is now finishing a Ph.D. in biomedical science at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "I learned how to work with different people, something I've been building on since I came to Mayo. Here we have professors from Asia, Europe, and all over the world. They all have different approaches, but the same goals, and I've learned to work with each of them."
Most of the students in UCSC's MIRT program have conducted marine mammal research in Guaymas, Mexico, or Patagonia, Argentina. The program has just started a new project in Argentina to study condors, and in September it will launch a project in New Zealand, Ortiz said.
Although Ortiz travels to each site about once a year, the students are supervised by scientists from the country they visit and work alongside local students.
"The people I worked with were fantastic," Carrasco said. "At first there was some hesitation on both sides. But we worked together every day, all living on the same boat or island. There was a real exchange of academic and cultural ideas."
The interaction was beneficial for the Mexican students as well, Carrasco added. Many of the Mexican students imagined that Americans were all alike until they met the MIRT students, Carrasco said. "It altered their perception of us," he said.
Students in the program are involved in every stage of research, Ortiz said. They plan projects, carry out fieldwork, conduct lab analyses, and interpret data. Many of the students eventually present their research findings at conferences and publish papers in scientific journals.
"The program gives the students the credentials to be very competitive getting into graduate school," Ortiz said. About 60 percent of them do go on to graduate school, he noted.
"Never did we imagine we would be so successful getting students to go to graduate school," he said.
For Avila, the program offered a preview of the challenges and rewards of graduate research.
"All the time that we put into working on the project really showed me what to expect," she said. "The program was the extra edge I had to get me into graduate school."
As former program participants spread out through the academic community, they are carrying Ortiz's intercultural approach to science with them. Michelle Wainstein, a former MIRT student in Argentina who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, has received funding from the Wallace Foundation to start a long-term conservation project in Chile, in collaboration with a colleague at UC Davis and Chilean scientists.
"My experience in Argentina and my connections there really opened doors for us and helped us get funding," Wainstein said.
For many MIRT students, the only drawback to the program is having to leave at the end of it.
"When I was leaving, they gave me a big going-away party, with a cake," Avila said. "My professors weren't just mentors, but friends. I keep going back, and I know I'll always be welcome."