Wayne State University School of Medicine doctoral alumnus and Assistant Professor of Physiology Adrian Vasquez, Ph.D., was awarded a 2022-2023 Fulbright United States Scholar Award to Central America, where he will spend the first four months of 2023 working alongside faculty and students to teach and conduct research in Belize’s freshwater habitats.
The Fulbright program is administered by the Institute of International Education on behalf of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Dr. Vasquez was born in Belize. His project, “Training the next generation of Belizean molecular biologists using biodiversity research,” will serve a dual purpose -- teaching and conducting research in partnership with the Department of Science in the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Belize in Belmopan, the nation’s capital.
In addition to teaching research pedagogy in the classroom, Dr. Vasquez will conduct the first national survey of freshwater habitats in Belize, including rivers, lagoons, cenotes and subterranean systems, collaborating with local scientists and students using molecular techniques to study biodiversity and disease-causing organisms from vector-borne diseases.
Samples collected on field trips will be used to conduct experiments in the classroom for students to apply theory learned in class.
“My classes will be hands-on, with the students learning the skills needed for them to carry out their own investigations and remove doubt that they can do research just like scientists all over the world,” he said. “Exchanging knowledge to empower aspiring scientists to turn what might seem like disadvantages or limitations into opportunity or inspiration is always in the back of my mind.”
Advanced undergraduates taking the course will have the opportunity to participate in the research project, which will entail traveling the entire nation of Belize, sampling in all the major freshwater habitats. “Another exciting aspect of this opportunity is to work closely with my local collaborators to demonstrate how to sample freshwater habitats and how to detect organisms using molecular technology,” he said. “Training and education are important goals in my proposal, and aspiring Belizean scientists will be trained on the methods previously mentioned and included in the publications and other academic results from this work.”
Research objectives include characterizing biodiversity of freshwater invertebrates that are biological indicators of aquatic environmental health, with an emphasis on water mites; use of molecular tools to detect diseases in mosquitoes and ticks and determine diet constituents; and mentoring and training Belizean students, faculty and researchers on the use of molecular genetics, specifically DNA barcoding, to study biodiversity and molecular detection of pests of human pathological importance.
Vasquez lab members previously traveled to Belize and Mexico in 2015 for a research and education trip. This Fulbright experience will establish a connection between the University of Belize and Wayne State University, and expand his lab’s relationships in Belize and the greater Latin America region.
“This has been something that I always wanted to do, where a nexus of research and education innovation could be established in Latin America. The global pandemic showed that collaboration needs to go beyond national borders so that the improved knowledge can in turn improve the livelihood of communities,” Dr. Vasquez said. “The techniques that I use in my research will be exported to Belize and customized with the input of local scientists and stakeholders. This will result in new areas of research that will ultimately benefit Belize. The goal is to improve access to the full benefits of research by Belizeans. This will also strengthen my area of research and education because I will now have the experience doing both things outside of the U.S. The experience of writing the grant was also important and will be useful as I write other federal and state grants to continue funding my research.”
Dr. Vasquez, director of the Lake St. Clair Healthy Urban Waters Field Laboratory, was mentored by Professor of Physiology Jeffrey Ram, Ph.D., as a graduate student at WSU.
"This Fulbright Scholar opportunity may be a life-changing experience for Dr. Vasquez, opening up new vistas of research for him and strengthening potential ties between Belizean institutions and Wayne State University," Dr. Ram said.
Dr. Vasquez joined the WSU faculty last December.
“I feel excited and blessed to have received this Fulbright award. It is very competitive, with an acceptance rate of 20%. I look forward to the many intangible rewards that will come from having completed this award,” he said. “A Fulbright Scholar is regarded as an ambassador and an interface of cultural diplomacy and I am looking forward to fulfilling that aspect of the program.”