SEPTEMBER 27, 2016 – FORT MYERS, FLA. – After 20 hours, four airports, three airplanes, and a nine hour layover, two Florida SouthWestern State College students found themselves in a part of the world they had never even dreamed they’d see.
This summer, FSW students Cassidy Cousins and Pedro Ramirez traveled along with FSW Biology Professor Dr. Robert Furler to Durban, South Africa where they attended the 2016 International AIDS Conference.
Over 8,000 people attended the conference, and FSW’s own found themselves alongside some of the top HIV/AIDS scientists and researchers, celebrity activists including Charlize Theron and Elton John, and international diplomats including Prince Harry of Wales, all with the goal of eradicating the AIDS virus.
Cousins and Ramirez spent the last year researching the AIDS virus under the instruction of Dr. Furler where they used cancer cells and proteins found in the virus to safely study how these proteins interact with T-cells in the hopes of coming closer to a cure. The conference allowed them the opportunity to learn how other scientists are researching the virus.
“The scientists all had different ways of researching the same things with different approaches and research methods,” Cousins said. “It was a good lesson on what science is and how to take your research from the lab and communicate it to other scientists.”
The conference also left a lasting impact on how the HIV/AIDS virus affects different parts of the world in an area of the conference called The Global Village.
“The global village allowed activists to display their opinions and experiences culturally through artwork, music, singing and dance displays,” Ramirez said. “It gave the personal view and the human experience of the virus along with the science that was presented during the conference.”
“The virus is much more prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Dr. Furler said. “Everyone there knows someone with HIV/AIDS. In the U.S. we have become more complacent about it because we have treatments and even pre-exposure medicines now that are not available in the much of the world. But we shouldn’t be letting our guards down. Florida is one of the states with the highest number of new infections.”
The students also had the opportunity to engage in global learning and experienced some of South Africa’s natural and cultural offerings. They visited an aquarium, went on a safari, and experimented with the different cuisines from the region.
“The strangest food was the crocodile steaks, and the best was the curry,” Ramirez said.
The research and trip have inspired both students to continue on in the sciences. Ramirez began his biology degree this fall at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and plans to become a veterinarian. Cousins also plans to begin her biology degree at FGCU next year.
Increasing undergraduate research opportunities for FSW students has been a goal of Dr. Furler’s over the past few years, resulting in the construction of a new biosafety level 2 lab funded through an academic research grant.
“Many of our students don’t normally have the opportunity to participate in the higher-level research projects that students in universities do,” said Dr. Furler. “This will not only expose them to new ideas, but for some it will encourage them to continue on in the sciences, opening them up to possibilities they might not ever have thought were possible for them.”
The trip was just one of many international, faculty-led learning opportunities coordinated by FSW’s Center for International Education. Upcoming faculty-led trips will take FSW students to countries including Nicaragua, Ireland and Ecuador.
Florida SouthWestern State College is Southwest Florida’s largest and one of the most affordable institutions of higher education. Annually serving nearly 22,000 students globally, FSW offers a variety of nationally-ranked, career-focused academic programs with two- and four-year degrees, and professional certifications. Students are also active in clubs and programs catered to their interests. FSW debuted its intercollegiate athletics program in January 2016. Visit www.FSW.edu for more information.