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UA Fulbright scholars meld science and sociology

By Jay Dirner
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
May 1, 2000
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Graduating senior hopes to pinpoint life on Mars

As summer vacation fast approaches, most seniors are concerned with graduate school or careers.

But several UA graduating seniors have different plans - they will prepare to leave the country after receiving Fulbright scholarships.

Fulbright scholarships, awarded worldwide to 4,000 graduates every year, allow students to study abroad for a year after graduation, although many do not study at a structured college or university.

About five University of Arizona seniors nabbed the award this year, said Wayne Decker, Honors College director of scholarship programs, although the total number is not yet finalized.

Devon Burr, a UA geosciences and planetary sciences senior, said she will spend next year studying Iceland's flood patterns in order to pinpoint the possible location of life on Mars.

"On Mars, we see evidence of flooding," Burr said. "The floods appear to be very recent - anywhere from 10 million to 500 million years old, which may not sound very young but is very recent in geological terms."

"It's interesting because that might indicate where life might be on Mars," she added.

Burr said NASA's search for Martian life is based on the location of water.

"The goal of the NASA Mars mission is to look for life on Mars," Burr said. "Their stated path is to follow the path of water, since most life depends on water."

Ben Martel, a May 1999 UA graduate in molecular and cellular biology, used his Fulbright scholarship to travel to Uganda.

"My ultimate goal was to practice medicine in a region of the world that lacks adequate conditions in order to better relate to the people who live with them," Martel stated in an e-mail interview.

Martel - who has been in Uganda since September and returns in July - said he has always been intrigued by the public health conditions of developing nations, and his experiences since September have taught him things he could not have learned in the United States.

"In a classroom, I could never hope to understand just how difficult it is to convince someone who has had no education that they should wash their hands before handling food," Martel said

In addition to learning about Uganda, Martel added that he has learned much about himself.

"I have learned that I am not as strong or as tough as I thought I was," Martel said. "Before I came here I assumed I could live in any conditions and make any sacrifices and be content. I did not understand how difficult the life is that many people here lead."

Burr said a tough aspect of the Fulbright scholarship was broadening her research proposal beyond science.

"It (the scholarship) took a lot of work and a lot of integrating my plans," Burr said. "I don't think the Fulbright is particularly designed for science research, so I wanted to integrate the sociological aspects with the science aspects."

Burr said she hopes her Fulbright research is not her last exposure to Icelandic culture.

"I'm really psyched to go," Burr said. "I think science is a great way to cross cultural and language boundaries, and I'm hoping to go back and work in Iceland. One of my major goals is to learn Icelandic."

Burr said she would also like to travel to Mars.

"What can I say - I hope to go to Mars," Burr said, laughing "It's supposed to happen sometime in the next 30 years, and I think it's very possible it will."

Martel said the Fulbright experience will smooth his transition into his field of international public health, and will make medical school easier to endure.

"I already am very excited to start learning how to help the suffering people I have encountered while I have been here," Martel said. "I know that when school starts getting tough the excitement will wear off, but I hope I will not forget why I am studying."

Decker said he was very impressed with Martel and Burr's research proposals.

"These are people who are dreamers who have the guts to pursue a dream," Decker said. "It's about the best use of United States tax money that I can imagine."

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