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Visiting Brazilian scholar conducts biology research

Renata AlittoRenata Alitto, a visiting doctoral student of biology from Brazil’s Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP), will spend six months conducting research at Lamar University as part of her Ph.D. defense in Brazil.

“I’m so excited and happy to be here. It was a dream to me to study abroad in a new country. It’s a good experience and not just professionally, but personally,” Alitto said.

She will spend her time in the United States studying ophiuroid taxonomy with LU’s Ana Christensen, associate professor of biology and Alitto’s academic sponsor and research supervisor. Alitto’s work involves observing echinoderms at a genetic level to clarify their taxonomy and resolve misunderstandings from improper early taxonomy efforts.

Echinoderm is a common name given to all marine animals of the phylum Echinodermata, known for their usually five-point radial symmetry. Examples are sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers.

Ophiuroids, or brittle stars, are echinoderms closely related to starfish that belong to the class Ophiuroidea. Their long, thin arms used for locomotion are “brittle” and often break and regenerate.

Alitto and ChristensenThe two scientists began correspondence several years ago when Alitto saw Christensen’s work online.

“In 2013, I saw a paper Dr. Christensen published on a site called Research Gate, and then I thought I’d like to get to know her, so I sent an email,” said Alitto.

A master’s student at the time, Alitto was interested in Christensen’s field of work, especially the area of genetics.

“I received a lot of help from the amphibian genetics lab in Brazil, which was essential, but everything that I didn’t know, I asked her. I wanted to come here to expand on everything I learned in Brazil,” Alitto said.

Alitto will learn from Christensen, work alongside the professor in her lab, present her research at LU and to academics across the country and explore American culture. Christensen says Alitto’s time here is a period of mutual growth.

“We both have different techniques, so we are both going to be learning from one another. It’s not like the classroom—it’s more hands-on for tactile learning and you figure things out as you go along. You get to learn the person a lot better, too, and I’m going to learn a lot about Brazil and Brazilian culture,” said Christensen.

OphiuroidBesides researching with Alitto, Christensen will act as a mentor to help her establish connections with other academics. Alitto has already presented her work at the North American Echinoderm Conference and will travel to study different specimens, including collections at the Smithsonian and Harvard and echinoderms native to the gulf coast.

According to Christensen, Alitto’s study arrangement is unique because she approached Christensen through a non-traditional source on her own accord instead of joining LU through a formal exchange program. Christensen says her department expresses growing interest in visiting scholars like Alitto because they also benefit LU students.

When these scholars approached the department, they sought the advice of Jeff Palis, LU study abroad director, and said, “‘How do we do this?’ He was able to work with us to make it happen,” said Christensen.

“Now, our students here are going to be exposed to more cultures and see doctoral students at work. Some of them wonder what they’ll do after they get their degrees, and they’ll see the path it takes to get where I am. This may encourage them to go further on with their education,” Christensen said.

In 2017, Times Higher Education Magazine ranked UNICAMP the No. 1 university in Latin America. Palis said it’s an honor for Lamar University to host a successful scholar from UNICAMP.

Renata AlittoThe visiting scholar arrangement is one of many programs offered by the Office of Study Abroad. Since academic year 2014-2015, the Office has added 14 new programs in an effort to expand access to innovative educational opportunities that prepare learners to succeed in and contribute to a dynamic global society.

The Office of Study Abroad encourages and supports students to participate in programs that allow them to earn academic credit while broadening their cultural horizons. Students who study abroad benefit through personal growth, increased self-confidence, respect for diversity, improved communication skills, and more.

The Universidade Estadual de Campinas is a public research university in the state of São Paulo, Brazil occupying 860 acres. UNICAMP’s dedication to research is evident by its high ratio of graduate to undergrad students; it offers roughly twice as many graduate programs as undergraduate programs. Multiple international and national organizations rank UNICAMP among the best universities in the world.