UW Medical Students Rave About Exchange Program

From the Capital Times:

Todd Finkelmeyer —  7/20/2009 10:19 am

Jason Chiang became sold on the importance of research exchange programs during his undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Although Chiang has traveled overseas several times to study over the past couple years, it was an experience a bit closer to home, an internship at Toronto Western Hospital in the summer of 2005, that first opened his eyes to the value of such an experience.

“I was only a sophomore and I was surrounded by these neurosurgeons who seemed to know everything,” said Chiang, who recently completed his first year as a student at the University of Wisconsin’s medical school. “Sometimes I didn’t understand what they were saying, but they really made me fit in as part of their group — part of their gang, almost. So every day I left the hospital I felt really refreshed. They just really inspired me to reach out to people and it totally changed the way I looked at cross-culture exchanges.”

Today, Chiang is not only continuing his studies abroad — he recently returned from a monthlong trip to Cairo, Egypt, during which he studied a novel tumor detection program in a clinical setting — but he is also helping bring international students to UW-Madison as part of an exchange program that operates through the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations.

Through the federation — which is run by students, for students — more than 500 medical students from more than 50 countries travel the globe to take part in basic science or clinical research projects under the leadership of a university faculty member.

For the first time under the federation program, three students from overseas are spending time this summer at UW-Madison. Chiang and UW-Madison undergraduate Kyle Swinsky are the federation’s local officers in charge of the exchange, and do everything from securing inexpensive housing for the international students to finding a lab for them to work in to arranging social activities.

Previously, UW medical school student Vasu Sunkara helped established one of the few local federation chapters on an American campus at UW-Madison. Sunkara graduated from medical school this past spring. But before moving on, he attended an IFMSA General Assembly this past winter in Hammamet, Tunisia, where he mingled with some 750 other medical students from around the world. Swinsky will be heading to the General Assembly in August in Ohrid, Macedonia.

“These General Assemblies are completely organized by students,” said Sunkara. “It’s remarkable. You see people who are probably going to be leaders in their country in the next generation or so, and to actually meet them and learn about their country in a different light, it really reshaped how I see the world. I used to view it in a linear, more detached way. And now I can actually place countries based on the people I meet and the faces I’ve seen and add context to the sterile descriptions I’ve heard about other places in the past.”

Chiang says that’s why he decided to get involved with the federation at UW-Madison.

“That’s the whole point of this program — to make it easier and to facilitate this cross-cultural exchange,” said Chiang. “When you’re doing internationally based research projects you have to communicate with people from different backgrounds, and programs like this really prepare students for those kinds of interactions. With most areas of research, and increasingly in medicine, I think there is the need for international collaboration.”

Annaick Desmaison, a 19-year-old from Toulouse, France, is one of the federation exchange students spending time in Madison this summer. Desmaison just finished her second year of medical school at the University of Toulouse-Purpan and is spending most of July and August working with mouse cardiac stem cells in the lab of UW-Madison Associate Professor Gary Lyons.

“In France, they always say that if you want to do research, you have to go to America,” said Desmaison, who basically gets to do the exchange program for free because she will be hosting students from both Russia and Mexico when she returns home.

Desmaison said she is hoping to build friendships during her stay in Madison and is trying to get a better idea of what America is really like.

“Not all stereotypes you hear are true,” said Desmaison. “But some are. If people come to France, they will find some that are true, too. I have noticed Americans eat a lot of food. That’s true. There is a different way of life. It’s not wrong or right, it’s just different.”

Rafael Alvarez, a 20-year-old who recently finished his second year of medical school at the University of Barcelona in Spain, also is enjoying his time in Madison as part of the exchange program. Like Desmaison, he said Madison “is very European.”

“It’s very relaxed and full of vibes and a cool place to live,” said Alvarez, who is spending most of July working in the lab of UW-Madison physiology Professor Richard Moss.

Alvarez was impressed by the sheer size and number of research labs on the UW-Madison campus, but added that some of the research he is expected to do back home in Spain is at a higher level than what he is doing here.

If Desmaison and Alvarez seem a bit young to be in medical school, it’s because many European nations have future doctors start medical school right out of high school. In America, students first complete an undergraduate degree before attempting to earn a spot in medical school.

Also unlike the U.S., both France and Spain offer government-sponsored health care.

When asked for an opinion on the differences between these health care systems, Alvarez said: “I went to the UW Hospital with my teacher and I saw how it works here. And it’s much different. Here the hospital is like a hotel — so you have to pay for it. The doctors have one patient per hour, which is kind of a joke. He just chatted for one hour about, ‘OK, how are you? Is the family OK?’ And they talked about movies.”

Conversely, Alvarez said: “In Spain, everything is free, so people just go there because they don’t have anything to lose. So there is a saturation of the health system because everything is free, and lots of British and German people come to have surgery because it is free. So maybe it’s best to have a balance between that and the U.S.”

It’s some of these differences that make the exchange program so valuable.

“So there are lots of differences between the students and how things are done,” said Chiang, a native of Torrance, Calif. “Yet every country and each lab has so much to offer. There are so many projects right now that are cross-disciplinary. You might have an engineering lab in Japan and then an epilepsy lab in Baltimore, and when you combine these experiences, you can find really, really neat things using two different lab skills.

“Different countries all have their individual strengths, so combining them is really helpful for discovering things. And a lot of grants these days require collaboration across different labs and different counties, and so these research exchange programs really help facilitate that.”