Linda Ogwuazor, a Howard University student from Elkridge, packed her bags and boarded a flight to summer school this month. Her destination: Thailand, where she and other students from around the world are taking part in an international science mission.
Ogwuazor, 19, is one of the students in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines in Howard's Global Education, Awareness and Research Undergraduate Program — or GEAR-UP.
Funded with a $5 million National Science Foundation grant, the program began four years ago and gives students at the historically black college in Washington opportunities to conduct original research abroad.
Ogwuazor is among more than 32 Howard students from STEM fields who are traveling to eight countries for research. Her team is spending its summer exploring methods to treat scalp hair loss.
"I was interested because I always wanted to study abroad, and I haven't been out of the country since I moved to the U.S.," said Ogwuazor, who was born in Nigeria but has lived in the United States since she was 3, and grew up in Howard County. "I thought it would be a good opportunity and a good experience for me."
University officials say the noncredit program aims to increase the number of minority students and engineering graduates with experience in traveling abroad. University officials cite data from the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of Education that found fewer than a fourth of U.S. students traveling abroad in 2011-2012 were minorities.
The opportunity to travel abroad for the sciences greatly interested Ogwuazor, who said she gravitated toward biology after her interest was piqued while taking Advanced Placement classes at Long Reach High School.
She and others in the program were chosen after completing a questionnaire gauging their ability to adapt to an environment with cultural norms different from their own; university officials say it's the same questionnaire used by the Peace Corps. Students were also required to write essays outlining their career objectives and interests in performing research overseas.
"We chose programs based on our majors, and I chose [the hair loss study] because it was biology- and chemistry-related," said Ogwuazor, who added that she aims to become a pharmacist. She said she's still learning much about scalp hair loss en route to her research project.
GEAR-UP Director Lorraine Fleming, who is also interim dean of Howard's College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Sciences, said projects vary from year to year.
"This year, biology and chemistry majors were selected for Chulalongkorn University in Thailand," Fleming said. "Pharmaceutical science is a leading area of study at Chulalongkorn, which has an international reputation for using biochemical approaches in drug development."
In the world of science, following the process for discovery is key, and Fleming said Ogwuazor would see firsthand how such research is conducted.
"Research into drugs being tested for prevention of hair loss will assist our students in learning fundamental biochemical processes in drug discovery," Fleming said.
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Other Howard students are traveling to venues including Ethiopia to analyze biodegradable waste from kitchens; Chile to research cyber-security issues in cloud computing; and Mexico to develop a cost-efficient way to monitor the seismic risk of buildings. In each instance, students are partnering with students from universities in the countries they visit.
Fleming said the students' travels reflect relationships that Howard University has had with the host countries stretching back up to two decades.
"Another guiding principle," Fleming said, "has been our belief that students in engineering and science often gain a deeper knowledge of their disciplines when we select partners in developing countries, where carrying out research may be more challenging because of limited resources."
As she prepared to depart for Thailand last week, Ogwuazor said she could already envision how the experience would help her come the fall semester.
"I'm looking forward to getting more lab experience," Ogwuazor said, "and working with people that don't come from the same background, people with different experiences."