A Comparative Perspective on Fulbright-Schuman Partnerships: Selecting a U.S. Host Institution

As a molecular geneticist, affiliated with the Department of Pharmacology in Oxford (UK) and later with the pharmaceutical biotechnology industry in San Francisco (CA, USA), I have been involved in research projects investigating how the human body responds to pharmaceuticals and other exogenous chemicals of everyday life (called “xenobiotics”). This knowledge is particularly relevant when assessing the efficacy and safety of new drugs, or when testing the hazardous potential of environmental carcinogens. Pharmacogenomics and toxicogenomics are modern scientific disciplines exploring how various elements in the human genome may affect our response to xenobiotics, mainly through complex metabolic systems mediating the detoxification and elimination of such compounds.

 

With my scientific work remaining primarily focused on the human/mammalian components of xenobiotic metabolism, I started wondering whether similar systems might also exist in other organisms. The explosion of Genomics providing immense opportunity for this kind of investigation, my group undertook systematic search of thousands of sequenced genomes and published a genomic survey in 2008. Around that time, Dr. Glenn (Plant Pathologist in Athens, GA) was characterizing the biological functions of the same components in the fungus Fusarium verticillioides, a maize pathogen. The timing was perfect and, by early 2009, Dr. Glenn and I had joined forces to study how plant-pathogenic fungi can exploit xenobiotic metabolism to overcome the chemical defenses of their hosts. These fungi cause multi-million losses to farmers and the food industry, by compromising crops and contaminating commodities with harmful mycotoxins. The fungal toxins represent a significant health risk of global concern, with the broader consequences being particularly grave for the developing world.

 

By 2011, the collaboration had flourished through the complementary expertise of the two partners and the exchange of short visits that also underscored the need for more substantial interaction over an extended period of time. The Fulbright-Schuman program seemed to ideally serve the purpose and we were delighted that our proposal was successful. The four months I spent working with Dr. Glenn at the USDA-ARS helped us validate new molecular targets that we believe will enable the development of effective and sustainable strategies to control plant disease on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. By working together in the lab on a day-to-day basis, we added significant value to an already productive collaboration, by advancing the project and by strengthening the bonds between the two groups. My interaction with USDA scientists was most inspiring and stimulating, and the exchange of know-how and ideas was constant.

 

I left the US with fond memories of very special moments with very special people I now consider my lifetime friends. Returning to the Greek Athens, it is only natural that its American sister now feels like home!

Here’s how Dr. Glenn describes the whole experience:

“In many ways this four-month fellowship represents the maturation of a research program that has grown significantly over the past four years.  What began as an email to address a scientific curiosity has now flourished into a dynamic and incredibly productive long-term collaboration that is a perfect example of modern scientific discovery, meaning that two scientists with very divergent backgrounds (a pharmacogeneticist and a plant pathologist) come together to coalesce their expertise around fundamental mechanisms in biology.  The result is not only a closer working relationship, but a scientific and cultural exchange of insight and experiences that enhances our productivity as well as our ability to transfer the gained knowledge to the scientific and industrial communities.  To this end we have initiated discussions with the US division of a Swiss-based agricultural biotechnology company regarding our project and its potential applications to reduce fungal diseases of plants such as maize and wheat, and to also limit the ability of these fungi to contaminate the commodities with harmful mycotoxins, which is of global concern.  Lastly, the experience of hosting Dr. Boukouvala as a Fulbright-Shuman Scholar has been one of the highlights of my scientific career. Furthermore I feel this collaboration, involving affiliations with Greek academia and a US federal research agency, successfully fulfills the program’s mission to promote US and EU relations.  I am sincerely grateful to the program for its support since it has facilitated what I hope will be many additional visits and personal exchanges with Dr. Boukouvala and her research group.”

 

SOTIRIA  BOUKOUVALA, Assistant Professor in Molecular Genetics
B.Sc. (U. of Athens, Greece), M.Sc. (Imperial College London, U.K.), D.Phil. (U. of Oxford, U.K.)

EU Affiliation (Greece)                                   US Affiliation
Democritus University of Thrace                                  Laboratory of Dr. Anthony E. Glenn
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics        US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Alexandroupolis, Greece                                              Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
Toxicology and Mycotoxin Research Unit
Athens, GA, USA