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SURF Program Goes International

Maria Soledad Yanqui-Rivera jumped in the air, screamed for joy, and hugged her father upon learning she would be receiving her long-awaited J-1 visa from the U.S. Embassy in Guayaquil, Ecuador. With that final hurdle cleared, she was on her way to the United States and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at St. Norbert College.

As a medical student at Universidad de San Francisco Quito (USFQ), a partner institution with the St. Norbert study abroad program, Yanqui-Rivera was able to work with staff at both schools to make her trip a reality, and thus became the first exchange student to attend St. Norbert during a summer session.

Immersion in the English language was a significant side benefit of the visit, particularly as it pertained to the technical language of the lab.

“My mentor [Elizabeth Danka (Biology)] was very good with me in that aspect,” Yanqui-Rivera says. “I had to learn new processes in the lab. This was something I enjoyed because it is exactly something I wanted to do. It was even more than I expected. This was a program where I could participate in different activities and immerse myself in American culture.”

Making international connections
Christina Hankwitz and Gail Gilbert (Global Engagement) were instrumental in facilitating Yanqui-Rivera’s journey at the St. Norbert end. The only part of the process out of their control was the most important – obtaining the visa. A J-1 visa for research scholars is different from the regular exchange visitor J visas the staff usually encounters.

“We had to do a certain amount of research on our end to make sure we were doing the J-1 immigration piece of it properly,” Hankwitz explains. “Sol was the only student USFQ was allowing to travel during the summer because they knew she would be taken care of. Hopefully we can continue this and she is a trailblazer.”

Although Yanqui-Rivera filed the necessary paperwork with the embassy in April, it wasn’t until June 7 that she was able to book an emergency visa appointment reserved for academic travelers. By then, she was racing the calendar to get to campus in time for the SURF program.

“It was a very chaotic process,” Yanqui-Rivera explains. “I believed I was not going to make it at one point. Even when going to my appointment (at the embassy), I had this fear of not getting the visa because they can deny it. It was an exciting moment for me because I worked very hard for that.”

“It took a village to get Sol here,” Gilbert comments. “I don’t think most students could have done it. There was so much ambiguity about her travel, from her visa to the COVID realities here and in Ecuador.”

A virtual start to research
The success of her June 7 appointment meant Sol had to be ready to fly to Green Bay just three days later, after which she needed to complete a quarantine period before actually setting foot in a St. Norbert lab. She spent that time going reading through material provided by Danka.

“Unfortunately, Sol wasn’t able to get here until the second week of the program,” Danka explains. “We had virtual meetings almost every day while she was in quarantine. ... She’s super-smart. I gave her a bunch of papers to read and she raced right through them.”

Yanqui-Rivera’s research project centered on E. coli and the mechanisms these bacteria use in leading to urinary tract infections. Specifically, her experiments looked at the significance of a specific protein in the binding process to bladder cells.

Her lab partner, aspiring physician Jack Klahr ’23, appreciated the collaboration opportunity as well as Yanqui-Rivera’s input from a medical student’s perspective.

“We were working on different projects, but still able to work side-by-side and bounce ideas off each other,” Klahr says. “She gave me a different perspective into the research lab and health care experience.”

Deciding between research and medical practice
The research work at St. Norbert was the last step in Yanqui-Rivera’s undergraduate course at USFQ. She is in the process of completing a one-year hospital residency in Ecuador, after which she will make a decision concerning her career path.

“I’m still thinking about my ultimate goal. I really enjoyed the research experience,” says Yanqui-Rivera, whose mother is a nurse. “This medical practice year will be very good for me. It’s good that I already have the research experience so I am able to compare.”

She says she values the guidance provided by Danka and her generosity in sharing knowledge pertaining to the lab.

“I felt that I had a role in the lab, and I really appreciated that,” Yanqui-Rivera says. “My objective was to take in the research experience because in my college years, it’s been more theoretical studies. I’m doing my residency in a very big hospital, and now I feel more prepared to do that.

This is going to be an unforgettable experience. I’m thankful for all the people who helped me get through this.”

Aug. 31, 2021