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New Italian Exchange Program Encourages Scientific Collaboration and Understanding

February 27, 2020

Left to right: Claudia Albertini, Julia Farnan, Anthony DiNatale and Ottavia Tartagni at the DUniBo presentation Farnan and DiNatale held at Drexel this winter. Photo courtesy Olimpia Meucci.
Left to right: Claudia Albertini, Julia Farnan, Anthony DiNatale and Ottavia Tartagni at the DUniBo presentation Farnan and DiNatale held at Drexel this winter. Photo courtesy Olimpia Meucci.

“So much of science is driven by meeting people and making connections and starting projects with them. It’s about the fundamental aspect of science and the way we progress is through our interactions with other people and setting up those collaborations,” said Julia Farnan, a second year PhD student in the Pharmacology and Physiology program of the Drexel University College of Medicine.

Farnan would know. She and Anthony DiNatale, a MD/PhD student in the same graduate program in the College of Medicine, were the first two Drexel students to be hosted at the University of Bologna in Italy as part of a new exchange partnership. After spending five weeks there last November and December learning about their Italian counterparts and their research, they returned to the University to share that information with their colleagues and departments. By that time, Claudia Albertini and Ottavia Tartagni, two PhD students from the University of Bologna, were at Drexel for a similar five-week, getting-to-know-you mission, the results of which they would also publicize after returning to Italy.

And that was just step one of this burgeoning collaboration.  

This joint project, called “Outlooking Scientist,” was initiated by Olimpia Meucci, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology in the College of Medicine, and Renato Brandimarti, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Bologna’s Department of Pharmacy and Biotechnology.

“One of the major aspects and goals of this project is to push and promote students to look outside of their own areas of research and look for more opportunities for interdisciplinary interactions, which is why we named it ‘Outlooking Scientist,’” Meucci explained. 

“Outlooking Scientist” is the first project in the partnership between the institutions — called “DUniBo,”— and the end goal is to encourage students to develop and sharpen their ability to connect with colleagues from all over the world, not just in their own areas of research, in whatever ways the institutions can connect. Two different symposiums are in the works to be held in Bologna and Philadelphia in the next couple of months (assuming COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus, poses no risks at that time). And in the future, there’s potential for undergraduate students and faculty from a variety of different fields to embark on similar exchange or some other form of collaboration, like co-ops and internships (which Italy also has, called “tirocinio”), online classes (like Drexel’s Global Classrooms), intensive stand-alone summer courses and maybe even dual degree programs, a satellite site and accredited courses as part of a degree program.

A lab outing in Philadelphia in January with DUniBo participants and Drexel faculty and staff. Photo courtesy Olimpia Meucci.

The impetus to begin a formal DUniBo partnership officially began in 2017, when Meucci was awarded a senior fellowship position at the University of Bologna and spent a few months there gaining first-hand experience with the institution and its administration. But her interest in fostering such a partnership goes back much farther … and not just because she first began collaborating with Brandimarti in 2002, when he first visited the Meucci lab at Drexel’s College of Medicine.

“This is something I started for both personal and professional reasons. After spending so many years in this country, I wanted to reconnect to Italy in a meaningful way and make sure that Italian students could see this reality of working and doing science in America, and vice versa,” said Meucci, who came to the Unites States after receiving her medical and doctoral degrees in her native Italy and has been at the College of Medicine since 2000. “While in medical school, I had visited the NIH and other academic institutions in the U.S. multiple times, thanks to dean’s fellowships for outstanding students. These experiences were extremely valuable and enriching; they significantly influenced my career development and future choices. I know how critical it is to be exposed to different realities at these early stages and wanted our trainees to have similar opportunities.”

Meucci and Brandimarti have experienced how different it can be working in both countries while working together on research and new discoveries in the fields of neuroimmune pharmacology and neurovirology; they’re even working together on a joint research lab through the DUniBo partnership.

“I strongly believe that real knowledge, deep understanding and new solutions come from the ability to challenge ideas and hypotheses,” said Brandimarti. “And the best way to do it is by changing standpoint, and looking at the same problem from a different angle. From this perspective, the DUniBO project aims to establish an interactive platform that should facilitate and promote proficuous intellectual ‘contaminations.’”

Meucci and Brandimarti wanted their students to get a taste of those discrepancies as well, from broader cultural shifts related to scientific theory and formulating hypotheses to the varying speed of timelines for ordering supplies and planning experiments.

That’s why, in April 2018, Drexel and the University of Bologna signed a memorandum of understanding regulating student and faculty exchange between the two Universities. The “Outlooking Scientist” project was funded by the end of that year. A year after that, Farnan and DiNatale were on the ground in Bologna, where they lived in a dorm; met with faculty, principal investigators and students; and took enough notes to build a database so Drexel Dragons can know who is doing what research over there, and with whom.

“For starting so young in our careers, which can be expanded throughout the world, we’re going to know so many more people now in different areas and even different countries and universities, which makes it easier for collaboration,” said DiNatale. “There is a lot of compatibility with what we saw, so I do think that collaboration can come directly from the projects, pretty quickly.”

While in Italy (which both have visited before), DiNatale and Farnan met with Albertini and Tartagni, spending time with them off campus to try new foods at restaurants and even at FICO World Eataly, the world’s largest food park. And once back at Drexel, they reciprocated the favor by hosting Albertini (who had never been to the U.S.) and Tartagni (who had never been to Philly), hosting dinners at Farnan’s apartment and introducing them to local food — and yes, that included cheesesteaks.

In Italy, you have to do an experience abroad and it’s mandatory, but most people focus more on their type of research for it,” said Tartagni. “In this case, I think it’s a more unique kind of experience and you can have a different perspective for the approach to research in one part of the world compared to Italy.”

Both Tartagni and Albertini heard about the project from Brandimarti and wanted to become the University of Bologna’s “student ambassadors” to learn more about Drexel and start a similar database at their university.

Left to right: Ottavia Tartagni, Anthony DiNatale, Olimpia Meucci, Julia Farnan and Claudia Albertini during a meeting to plan the upcoming student workshop. Photo courtesy Olimpia Meucci.

“This is a completely different approach to science and it’s beautiful. Now we can share our experiences and everyone can know more about the data, expertise and ability to develop the kind of collaboration between the two departments,” said Albertini.

In addition to preparing and sharing what they learned on their fact-finding, overseas trips, the students are also working together for a workshop in Bologna, hopefully taking place this summer, related to the impact of social media on science and how science is communicated through different means. A workshop concluding the first DUniBo collaborative project is also planned in Philadelphia for this fall during Ciao Philadelphia, an annual festival hosted by the Consulate General of Italy to celebrate Italian heritage and culture. 

“We are still really at the beginning, and so far we are doing well,” said Meucci. “But we are eager to develop the program and include other disciplines and colleges as originally intended. Given the initial limited resources, we are going to keep doing baby steps toward our bigger goal, which we hope will culminate in a Drexel University site in Bologna and a UniBo site in Philly!”