Sunday, June 30, 2013

WORK WORK....and more WORK!!


This video was taken with the camera on my phone so please excuse the poor quality. What im basically doing is taking a quick walk through my lab and showing you where I work. My project involves whole cell patch clamp of amicrine cells in goldfish retinas. Pretty interesting right...I know!

The Beautiful City of Florianopolis

After nearly 4 weeks, it's still hard to believe that we're actually living in Brazil.

The bus terminal TILAG is our only 
way to leave Lagoa and explore the
rest of the island. After a few weeks I've
finally gotten the hang of the bus
schedule, so I don't get lost as often
The view from the top of the mountain we have to cross every day to get to our labs, as well as anywhere else on the island. Our pousada is on the shore of the Lagoa, on an unbelievably peaceful and beautiful street. 

The graffiti throughout the island is really awesome.
The wall says, "Our world is sick,"
and the pill says "peace" and "love."

With protests and demonstrations 
spreading across Brazil, it was only
a matter of time until the people of 
Florianopolis got involved. An
estimated 70,000 people occupied the
streets of Centro last week, with songs
of peace and change.

The island of Florianopolis is beautiful, beyond words, and the biodiversity throughout the island is astonishing.
From the beaches of Barra da Lagoa, we began walking through the sand dunes, stretching across the horizon
towards the distant mountains.
Eventually, we stumbled upon remnants of the long-forgotten lake that used to occupy
 the sand dunes.Bright,fresh foliage dotted the dunes, with a number of strange birds
circling the air and wandering the sand.

Our Neurobiology lab at UFSC, where
we do stereotaxic surgery and behavioral
experiments, and drink a ton of coffee. 

Working in Padua's lab has been an awesome experience. Since Padua has been travelling to international
conferences lately, I've been working primarily with two Cristiane and Frank, two PhD students. Along
with teaching me dozens of techniques and helping me design my research project, they have been
very patiently trying to help me with my Portuguese.

Florianopolis really is the most beautiful place in the world.  

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Living the Brasileira Life

It's been two weeks since my last blog post and I don't know where to begin. Well for starters, I can't believe we are already starting week four! It feels as if we were just stepping off the plane yesterday! From our amazing view of Lagoa da Conceiçao to the rolling mountains, it's hard to believe that we're really living here!

Before leaving for Brasil, my major concern was the language barrier. I knew enough to begin a conversation, but not finish it. Listening to the Brasilians speak Portuguese was mind blowing for the first couple weeks but after practicing with my lab mates I'm slowly but surely learning. Everyone is so helpful and forgiving of me when I butcher the pronunciation of words like "trabalho." One day I'll get it.

Every morning it has become a tradition for Erica and I to order a frango empanado at the bus station before riding to the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC) where our labs are located. These little pieces of heaven make living in Florianopolis that much greater. I'm pretty sure I'm already addicted to them. It didn't take long for us to learn how to navigate the bus system and make our way around the island. I think the native Brasilians mistake me and Erica for Brasileira's because they now come up to us asking questions (in Portuguese!) about the buses! It's exciting yet frightening at the same time. They speak so fast!

In the lab, I had the opportunity to observe the master's and doctoral students' experiments.  My mentor, Dr. Linder, thought it would be a good idea for me to be able to see the work each student was conducting so I could get a broad-spectrum understanding of the research she is managing. It was interesting to see how each student had his or her own way of doing the same lab technique when dealing with live animals subjects. I begin conducting my own experiments next week and I am more than excited to get going. The weeks are now flying by and I have enjoyed every second of it. Eu amo Floripa!

The Value of a New Experience

Fique tranquilo (translation: “Don’t worry about it”)!  If there is one thing I admire about the people of Brasil, it’s their optimism and positivity.  Throughout the past month, I’ve learned how to truly relax and enjoy the moment. In America, many people live to work but in Brasil, most people work to live (and when they do work, they love what they do). The people of Brasil have given me a new outlook on almost everything, and I’m eternally grateful.

My project is finally starting to gain momentum after spending some time learning new lab techniques. I've logged in nearly 50 hours in the lab for the past few weeks, but the first half of my project is complete and I’m getting really promising results. Two weeks ago, I never thought it’d be possible for me to perform a surgery on a rat to extract the nucleus of the solitary tract from the rest of the medulla oblongata, but my technique and precision has improved incredibly. 

This is an historic time to be in Brazil – manifestations have taken place and there are protests all across the city. The people of Brazil usually do not protest; the last widespread demonstration that has happened in Brazil occurred decades ago. While going on a tour around downtown Sao Paulo, we happened to encounter the beginning of a huge peaceful protest! While we didn’t stay too long, seeing the passion for better education, better public services, and fair wages was incredibly inspirational.

Since I’ve been in Brazil, my love of biology and my love of traveling have been reaffirmed. I’ve been learning, growing, exploring, and soaking in everything around me. The other MHIRT students have made this experience even greater – our dynamic is great and I’m glad I get the opportunity of sharing memories with them. Not only are we learning from renowned researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, but we are also learning from each other. 

Poverty Perspectives

I have been very interested in looking at poverty during my stay within Uganda. I participate in service to the impoverished in St. Louis and Atlanta, so I often observe the attributes and scale of the poor within this country. Poverty is definitely pervasive in many areas that we have observed. Yet, my perspective of poverty shifts with the area and the people that I interact with. For example, while Justin, John, and I were walking in Kampala, a young boy, who was about 13 years old, briskly approached me with his palm-up and arm extended towards my face. We walked side-by-side with for about 10 m before he realized that we would not give him any money. We also saw individuals who were motionless while lying face-first on the sidewalk blanketed with dust and people who were too busy to pay any attention. It was a strong message that demonstrated the level of poverty that can be reached throughout this area. 

            While in Ishaka, I have experienced similar instances of people asking me outright for money, such as a man with bumps and dirt studded on his hands, arms, and face that grabbed me by the arm while walking to the market. Although many of the locals here may be impoverished, I have noticed that the difference is that they seem to be satisfied with what they possess. They do not make their monetary difficulties apparent even when the conditions of the environment surrounding them may suggest otherwise. They believe wealth is present in different respects. I remember Mr. Kakunta, the head collaborator in our research, told us “I do not have any money, but I am not poor.” He was referring to the idea of wealth in community. He described the resources that others had given him when he had to go to the hospital for an illness and how the relationships he had with others can have a value greater than money. Also, obtaining an education is crucial and presents knowledge as a form of wealth. An education not only impacts pecuniary aspects by being able achieve better employment, but also increases your status and respect amongst others in the community. Observing the cultures and practices while in Uganda has broadened my perspectives on many topics that can be compared to the U.S. Viewing wealth from these perspectives has shown me more about the people here in Ishaka who often live simply and encourage me to be stress-free.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ishaka Days

Rolling hills covered in banana trees, seventy to eighty degree days and nights, and sunshine and friendly people wherever you go.  This is Ishaka, the town that is the home base from which we are conducting our research, and home to the Ishaka Health Plan, the community based insurance scheme that we are working with and acting as research consultants for.  The town, the surrounding villages, and the people who inhabit them have thus far been amazing.  Admittedly, it took me a while to get used to all the stares, the shouts of “mzungu”, which means foreigner, and the associated mzungu prices at the local shops.  However, I have started getting used to the funny looks and extra attention, and it even has some perks.  For example, in the United States children, with the possible exception of my younger siblings, would never be so excited to see me.  I was also compared to Rambo for the first, and almost certainly the last, time in my life.  Even after paying the “mzungu price”, which has been getting progressively lower as our haggling skills have improved, the fruit here is absolutely fantastic.  The pineapple here tastes like some divine mixture of rainbows and love.

For those who may be wondering, I have actually been doing work here as well, and it has been extremely interesting. Last week we had the opportunity to attend the annual national community based health insurance conference.  It was great to have a chance to meet the leaders of organizations across the country and to see the unique challenges, as well as potential solutions, that they all had.  Actually working in the Ishaka Health Plan office has also offered a great opportunity to see the dynamics of a work place in Ishaka, as well as to have the chance to see what works and what could be improved to better the insurance program.   What makes all of these activities worthwhile however is getting to work with the local staff members.  This gives us a chance to bounce ideas around with the people who know the local insurance challenges and opportunities best, and to ensure that any solutions we come up with are actually feasible in the Ishaka area.  It also gives us a great environment to learn ways to insult each other in the local language, and I suppose to learn some more useful, less offensive phrases as well.  It’s been a great few weeks of work and play, and I can’t wait for another month of eating pineapples and exploring the area.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Floripa! "The Magic Island"

Santa Catarina Island welcomed our arrival with a majestic view of what we (MHIRT-Florianopolis) have been describing it, PARADISE! After the long night of traveling, nothing could have been more comforting and rewarding then looking out the window as the plane landed and seeing what we will be calling home for the next 10 weeks. Words cannot tell what I was feeling when we were landing, but I could not wait to step off the plane and begin my adventure.

Lagoa da Conceição: our perfect, beautiful neighborhood by the sea. After seeing other parts of Florianopolis, we could not have been placed in a better location. Lagoa da Conceição is separated from the busy city life of downtown Florianopolis by rainforests covered mountains. There are no high rises on this part of the island. The neighborhood feels much like a small beach town with many restaurants, marinas, surf shops.

I work in the Aquatic Pathology Department, with the lab located away from the main campus of UFSC. So far my time spent in the lab has been very rewording. The people in my host lab are incredibly nice and helpful and a lot of fun to be around.

Everywhere you look all you see is beauty on the Island of Santa Catarina. With a less than a 15-min walk from our pousada, the tropical landscape of the swaying palms and mangroves stops, and mountains of sand and small grasses appear. The picture above was taking after a 3-hour hike across the mountains of sand, that were as high as 10-story buildings. With every mountain of sand climbedthere was always an incredible view of the island and sea.

History is being made in Brazil. The large violent protests and riots that the news media is portraying in Brazil are skewed by very small incidents in a much larger movement that has swept the county with millions participating in peaceful marches in over 100 cities in Brazil.

There are many reasons why the Brazilian people are protesting, but its mostly due to government corruption. On Thursday June 20th, the country erupted in protests that were schedule for 6 that evening. On that day the University closed at 2pm and the city buses stopped running at 3pm. Work that day was very different. The city felt different. You could feel something big was about to happen. The afternoon, my lab mates used the back of old research posters to write their signs of protest.

That night reports say anywhere between 20,000- 70,000 people marched peacefully in Florianopolis. They protested on the bridge connecting the island to the continent, blocking the only access onto the island. So far my experience in Florianopolis has been truly magical. Every day I experience something new, and learn about world. This is by far the closest place I have ever known to paradise and so lucky to call it home. I cannot wait to see where the magic of Floripa will take me next!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

From the lens of the Acholi

Since their inception in the northern Ugandan region in the seventeenth century, the ethnic group more commonly known as the Acholi, have been a prominent and steadfast group here in Gulu. Making up more than 80% of the population in Gulu, my experience has been catered around the cultural makeup of these people from the inside-out.

Here at the home of our organization, Centre for Reparations and Rehabilitation (CRR), Amanda and I are taking what they term as a "family pic" with our staff members. At this facility, they offer free psychosocial and legal services to vulnerable populations in various areas such as land dispute, gender equity, and medical referrals.


These photos are from the field in the Minakulu sub-county of Gulu. Here we are implementing our "alternative dispute resolution" (ADR) with a village over issues of land. It is amazing how these people were so receptive to our presence and even through the language barrier, were grateful for our help.

The sentiments of this town and more importantly the major clans who suffered from displacement during the war. This encompasses our project here and hopefully we'll not only gain great data through our discussion with the community but leave our footprints here after.

A typical day in the field...

It's a hot Thursday in Uganda as Justin and I, along with Max, Thomas, Sandra, and Sunday, a few of the Centre for Reparations and Rehabilitation (CRR) staff, drive to a small village in Ojam District, Minakullu sub-county for an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).  CRR serves communities in 10 sub-counties of 5 districts (2 sub-counties per district) in northern Uganda, providing free legal mediation and representation and psychosocial services to communities.  The ADRs serve to offer access to legal services for individuals who can't afford the time and money it costs to use the formal legal system in Uganda. We drive about an hour and a half on dusty, pot-hole ridden roads, made nearly impassable by the rainy season to reach the village.  After about an hour of hearing the case, with multiple attempts to draw a map of the land under dispute, we decide to walk through the 'bush' (wilderness) to see the property.  So we walk.  And walk.  And walk!  After walking about 3 kilometers (that's nearly two miles) through fields, brush, and tall grass in the heat of the sunny afternoon, and many arguments back and forth among community members, it seems that no one can agree on where the property lines are and therefore what land is under dispute.  This is common in northern Uganda, where civil conflict uprooted entire communities from their homes for long periods of time; who owns which land, how it is inherited according to customary law, and where property lines are has become unclear with the passing of time, memory, and descendants.

Our work with CRR is two-fold: we are doing a program evaluation for the organization as well as a needs-based assessment for a program they intend to start up in August that focuses on addressing sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV). The issue of SGBV is integrally entwined with land disputes, health and access to services, women's right to inheritance as well as the process of reintegration into communities in post-conflict northern Uganda.  CRR has been terrific thus far: they are supportive of our work, helpful in accessing the field and key informants, and a great source of positive energy for us! We are officially kicking off our research this coming week after shadowing the organization for about two weeks now and we can't wait!

Sights of Belem, Brazil

This is the building where we conduct our research and experiments.

 I am having my retina; photoreceptors, optic nerve and blood vessels examined with an optical coherence tomography ( OCT )
 I am examining amigo Phillip's retina, photoreceptors, optic nerve and blood vessels with the optical coherence tomography
 An excited patient after his eye examination. I guess he was excited and I guess this is why some people think we are being pirates for :) Fun times in the laboratory including serious work. You know what they say, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"
Ahhh the awesomeness of the month of June. Festivals and dances happening left and right. This was
a festival competition dance that occurred on my second day. Great costumes and excellent choreography.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Life in a Day

I wake up. I go exercise. I go to work. This is my normal schedule for the work week, but it is not that simple. My time in Brazil has been fun and exciting, but also a true learning experience. I continue to learn more about the project I am working on here in Dr. Dora Ventura´s lab at the Institute of Psychologia (Universidade de São Paulo), but the basis is genetically confirming the diagnoses of individuals with albinism. I have learned so many different genetic techniques such as Polymerase Chain Reactions, DNA Extraction, and DNA Primer Dilutions. All of this experience will most certainly benefit me in the future, but it is not what I mean by a "true learning experience." I am referring to the absorption of culture and society that can't be experienced anywhere else. São Paulo is a melting pot of people not only from around Brazil, but all over the world. For instance, in the Pousada I live in we have people from Uruguay, Sweden, and Peru. It is being immersed in this atmosphere 24/7 that teaches you more about you deal with struggles of a language barrier, how you deal with missing the luxuries of home, and how you overcome cultural obstacles between people. I am not only fortunate to be in the MHIRT program, but proud to say I am one of the select few that knows what it is like to do research abroad.

On a lighter note, I have been able to do so many awesome things since I arrived 13 days ago in São Paulo. The first weekend I was invited to join Dr. Ronaldo Sano at the Aruja Golf Club on the outskirts of the city. We enjoyed very pricey Churrasco (Brazilian is grilled meat and nothing like American BBQ, but still very good), drank many Caipirinhas (a very strong cocktail made from Brazilian Liquor called Cachaça), and I even met the mayor of Sao Paulo (who apparently not too many people like because there have been protests everywhere since I arrived). More recently, I was able to tour the 2nd best medical school in South America called Santa Casa. In particular, I spent lots of time in the ophthalmology department where I helped give examinations to albino patients and scrubbed in on Cataracts and retinal detachment surgery. In writing this post, it is hard for me to realize that I have experienced so much already and it makes me excited to find out what experiences lie ahead for me. Ate logo, everyone!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Belem, Port City

Founded in 1616 by the Portuguese, Belem is a port city serving as a gateway to the Amazon. It's a thriving city with a vibe similar to New Orleans.  The people are laid back, music plays on every other corner, and the smell of local eateries wafts through the streets as one walks from place to place.  Belem is my kind of city.

After weeks of excitement and anxiety about learning the language and packing I was finally at Gate E7 in Miami Airport with my pal Adewale.  Last time I had seen him, he was playing a hard bargaining Guatemalan unwilling to trade milk for food. Now he was looking just as nervous as me as we both realized we were hours away from being in the fabled country of Brazil.

Our flight was more or less okay. A layover in Manuas Airport gave us a good chance to adjust to the culture before being immersed in the Brazilian way of life. When we arrived in Belem we were greeted with the smiles of three lab members Mrs. Eliza, Ms. Letecia, and Ms. Isabella.  That's when it happened, I was slapped in the face by the heat of the tropics as soon as the doors opened but it was all good because I was in Belem, Brazil.

Our first week has been an absolute blast.  We have made many friends from Belem that are showing us the city inside and out.  We are also regulars at the mall so, we have friends at the different stores that want to take us out.  There is also a few Americans in the area and we have mangaged to find each other in the most random places.

Most important is our lab work.There is a great team of graduate and doctorate students here that are always willing to help.  Our project is for ocular physiology and the methodology for gathering data is very interesting.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bom Dia!
Greetings from the wonderful city of Sao Paulo Brazil!

This is the view from the balcony of my pousada (hotel). After a week I still haven't gotten tired of it This is truly a beautiful city.
 Here we have myself along with my new friend Victor. He is a 19yr old University of Sao Paulo student who has been working with my mentor for about 3 months. He was showing me the proper cleaning and safety procedures of lab. He speaks as much English as I speak Portuguese but we still communicate pretty well.

Here we have the brilliant Brazilian scientist ,my mentor, Christina Joselevitch! She was teaching me the proper way to dissect and prepare live retinas for cell examination and dye filling. She is strict, hard working, and is very passionate about her work. This past week has been tedious but I am happy and proud to call her my mentor!

Travels to the Gorgeous Ishaka

John and I reach our first international destination, Amsterdam! We had a four-hour layover in the beautiful city, which was plenty of time to travel. We landed at about 6:30 am and arrived in Amsterdam at about 8 am. Thus, the city was sleep except for the most interesting characters, which made the trip all the more exciting. Alas, we have to head to the beautiful country of Uganda, but will return to this city on our journey back to America.

After spending a night in Entebbe, we reach the capital city of Kampala. These four lost individuals are (from left to right) Jaja Susie, John (aka J-boy), Justin, and Amanda. We were searching for a coffee shop at the time and trying to avoid the sea of speeding and reckless driving simultaneously. We only stay for a few days in the city until Jaja, J-Boy, and I separate from Justin and Amanda to head to the gorgeous town of Ishaka.

This is our guest house. The living arrangements here are far better than our last two stops. It is located on the top of the hill at the Ishaka Adventist Hospital campus, which provides a gorgeous view that overlooks rolling green hills and a vibrant town. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the image below. I don't think I have ever seen a landscape more beautiful.

We are hard at work at the Ishaka Health Plan. There is a lot to do in less than two months. We are accompanied by our wonderful co-workers Susan and Isaac Newton. These two teach me something new everyday, ranging from cultural practices to words in the local language for insulting John and Susie. Our good friend Emmy was not here to join us. These will be months of a great amount of learning and experiences. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Brains, Beaches, and Buses

Oi todos, I've been in Florianopolis for just over a week and I still can't get over how unbelievably amazing it is here. Last weekend Adam, Britney, Erica, and I took a bus to Praia Mole, one of the two beaches (out of 42 on the island) that allows surfing. Despite it being "cold" here (at least to the locals), we walked for miles along the beach and through the forest that overlooks it, eventually reaching a giant pile of boulders that overlooked the sea. The ocean stretched endlessly into the distance, interrupted only by local fishing boats dotting the horizon; it was my first time seeing the ocean, and I still can't believe how beautiful it was.

A few days later, Britney, Erica, and I decided to try walking to an inland national forest, as we had only briefly walked through the forest near Praia Mole. Since bus workers across Florianopolis were on strike and the bus system was down, we decided to try to walk there. After over 6 hours of walking, we only managed to get lost in a few neighborhoods and climb halfway up a "hill" (which seemed more like a mountain to us) before giving up and heading home. Later that week, the buses were running again so it looked like our days of getting lost were behind us. However, on Thursday, thinking that I was getting on a bus headed to the university, I ended up on the other side of the island, closer to the mainland than my lab. After switching buses, getting off at the wrong bus stop, and walking 8 kilometers, I finally made it to my lab (only 3 hours late).

I'm currently working in a neurobiology lab in the pharmacology branch of UFSC, with my mentor Padua and three PhD students. Padua's lab uses a behavioral paradigm called olfactory fear conditioning to attempt to understand the body's natural stress response to threatening stimuli, rather than focusing on anxiety disorders. We spent most of the week doing stereotactic surgery on rats, implanting intracranial cannulas into specific brain regions which will allow us to alter the different phases of fear learning (acquisition, consolidation, expression). Between working in the lab, enjoying the boundless beauty of the island, and learning how to get around the island without getting lost, these first 10 days have flown by. I can't wait to see what is in store for us next in Florianopolis!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Tudo bom, tudo bom, tudo bom bom bom!

It is currently my ninth day in São Paulo, Brasil, and I must say that it has been a great experience so far. So, let me tell you a little about what has been going on.

First, the ride from the airport to the Pousada was very interesting. Of course, I was a little exhausted from the flight, but our driver kept me going. He couldn’t speak much English and I couldn’t speak much Portuguese, so we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the other was saying. It was a good thing that I had a pocket dictionary/translator handy. I found myself chuckling a lot during the ride because the driver was playing a radio station with R&B music in English. I had never heard any of the songs and the lyrics were quite hilarious.

The Pousada where JD, Aikeem and I live is very interesting. I had the hardest time carrying my luggage up the stairs when we first arrived…I literally struggled. The rooms are small and remind me of dorm rooms, but I like them. I will not comment on the bathroom haha! The kitchen is like the hangout spot for everyone in the Pousada.  All of the people that I meet there are extremely nice and I often find myself starting random conversations with them. It really helps me to learn/practice my Portuguese skills and it’s just fun in general to get to know new people.

I work in Dr. Britto’s lab and it has been muito bem! It can get quite busy sometimes because a lot of students come in and use the equipment in the lab. I work with really nice people who are very patient in teaching me different things. Sometimes we have difficulty with the Portuguese/English barrier but it all adds to the experience. We all burst into laughter when I jumble Spanish, Portuguese and English into one sentence. So far I have learned how to slice mice brains on a microtome and I have also helped out with a Bradford assay and Western Blotting. I have also learned some immunohistochemistry techniques.

Well, that’s enough for now! Até logo!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Greetings from Florianopolis!

I have been granted the amazing opportunity to learn far more than I can ever imagine, and this opportunity is further enhanced because this experience takes place in the beautiful state of Santa Catarina!
This is the beautiful view of Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (in the far distance) that I enjoy every morning, during my commute to the lab. The campus is huge!
This sign provides a warm welcome to all students and visitors of the University. It also serves as my reference point, Banco do Brasil (Bank of Brasil) to the left, and Dr. Cilene Lino-de-Oliveira's lab straight ahead!!
Dr. Lino-de-Oliveira's lab has such a warm and amazing atmosphere. It is a place that I immediately felt comfortable working in.

I am currently fulfilling my first task: create a proposal for Dr. Lino-de-Oliveira. This proposal will serve as one of many ways for us to collaborate effectively.
Florianopolis is far more beautiful than pictures can express! Hopefully, this picture can portray a portion of the beauty that this place has to offer.

I am enjoying my experience in Brazil! From my new friends in the lab to my outstanding teammates (Adam Goodson, Britney Lumbard, and Tim Oneal), this experience is already sketched into my memory. I am forever grateful for this opportunity and I am excited about the changes and impact that it will have upon my life.