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Bailey College of Science and Mathematics

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Building Cultural Connection: Biology Faculty Making International Impact Through Fulbright

Nick Wilson

        Inspired by tales of captivating educational experiences abroad in the U.S. Fulbright Program, Cal Poly biological sciences Assistant Professor Jean Davidson soon will head off to a foreign country where climate extremes include only about two hours of daylight, heavy snow and temperatures that dip well below freezing — with three young children in tow.

        Davidson will serve in a faculty role in bioinformatics at University of Akureyri located only about 60 miles from the Arctic Circle.

        Her six-month exchange runs from August through December, concluding in the heart of winter with some of the shortest days of inhabited land on the planet.

        After hearing about the highlights of the U.S. Fulbright Program from fellow Biological Sciences Department professors, Nishi Rajakaruna and Ed Himelblau, Davidson's interest in Fulbright was sparked.

        Fulbright is a prestigious exchange program that strives to improve intercultural fellowship between the United States and other countries. The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State, supports more than 800 U.S. faculty and professionals annually to teach or conduct research in over 135 countries worldwide. Davidson’s fellowship is through the Fulbright Commission Iceland, resulting in her application being equally reviewed and supported by both Iceland and the United States.

        “University of Akureyri is a smaller, very applied university with a really strong marine science focus,” Davidson said. “They emphasize hands-on experiential learning especially in areas of climate change, resource management, and biotechnology. When I found out about their academic focus, I said, ‘That's what we have here. Our motto is ‘Learn by Doing.’”

Venturing abroad with a purpose

        Davidson will foster collaborative partnerships with Cal Poly and help to build a program capable of analyzing genomic traits of fish, bird, moss and lichen species native to the Icelandic region.

        “They have wonderful genome scientists studying endemic species,” Davidson said. “There’s interesting ecology in these climactic extremes.”

        Davidson specializes in using computational tools to examine gene expression, the process by which a gene gets turned on in a cell to make RNA and proteins. Gene expression ultimately affects phenotypes or the traits of an organism.

        Davidson said computational modeling of genomics could help answer interesting questions such as “How do organisms survive with 22 hours of darkness?” and “How do birds find Iceland?”

“Their faculty and students want to take ownership of this research that is local to make discoveries, give back to their country, and to feel engaged as they contribute to general scientific knowledge. They have a unique and fascinating study site, and I can’t wait to make contributions to understanding how it all works so well,” Davidson said.

        As Davidson lends her faculty expertise overseas, Cal Poly students will use computational modeling technology back home in San Luis Obispo to collaborate from afar.

        “We use genomic tools to answer questions around climate change and stressors on a regular basis,” Davidson said. “I want our students and theirs to use their data and to work on academic journal papers together. Cal Poly and Akureyri will forever, hopefully, make connections and send students back and forth and share in research and learn from each other.”

        On a personal level, Davidson said that it will be a thrill for her children (ages 6, 8 and 11) to experience a new country, culture, language and climate, with long days of summer light and chilly, dark winters. Northern Iceland is home to spectacular natural settings, including hot springs and volcanos.

        Davidson’s husband, Trent Johnson, who is employed at Stanford University, is fortunate to be able to work remotely and join the family in Iceland.

        “This is the perfect window where the kids are at an age to not be bored in this 18,000-person town,” Davidson said “They're adventurous and excited about the snow and Northern lights, a little nervous about the fermented shark.  It's an outdoorsy town with a strong community which we are excited to be a part of. We're all really looking forward to this adventure.”

        Davidson said that her children in “10 to 15 years will think back and tell people, ‘I spent a half a year in Iceland because of my mom's science.”

Championing the program

Rajakaruna, who has completed previous program stints in Sri Lanka (2016-17) and South Africa (2022-23), encouraged Davidson to consider the program. Rajakaruna has served in Fulbright research and teaching roles connected with his expertise in the study of plants and lichens found on serpentine and other harsh soils.

        And Rajakaruna will return to South Africa from July 1 through Aug. 12, 2024 as part of the Fulbright Specialist Program. Rajakaruna will resume research that he previously conducted in South Africa regarding restoration of contaminated land areas using plants that absorb metals, as well as lead seminar and workshop events.

        Rajakaruna has informally championed the program around the Cal Poly campus since 2017. As of this year, he formally advocates for Fulbright as a US Scholar Alumni Ambassador from 2024-26.

        His new role involves promoting the program nationwide and encouraging others to apply, participating in speaking events, conferences and making “myself available to anyone who reaches out to me to find out more about the US Scholar Program over a cup of coffee or a chat over Zoom.”

        “The world is becoming smaller and more inter-connected,” Rajakaruna said. “We live in a world where collaboration is the key to the paths forward, not the exception. Fulbright offers life changing and world changing opportunities here and abroad and I am honored to be tasked with the role of promoting this amazing global exchange program to my Cal Poly and US colleagues.”

        Rajakaruna said that there is a “Fulbright for everyone,” including opportunities for university students, faculty, administrators and staff members.

Through his US Scholar Award in South Africa in 2022-23, Rajakaruna helped coordinate a visit from Cal Poly student T.J. Samojedny (B.S. Biological Sciences, Landscape Architecture `23) who shared his knowledge with South African students about an X-ray device used in studying heavy metal content in the leaves of dry herbarium specimens. Plants capable of accumulating high heavy metal concentrations can be used in mine restoration efforts.

Rajakaruna said students naturally become involved in Fulbright when faculty participate, furthering global bonds, and that he is excited to inspire more faculty at Cal Poly to apply for Fulbright US Scholar Awards.

        “Fulbright US Scholar Awards can be up to 10 months long and are an excellent way to establish new international collaborations or teach your favorite course abroad, and ideal for those considering a sabbatical," Rajakaruna said. “I want to support anyone interested in exploring opportunities offered by the Fulbright Program. Fulbright is about connecting the world through global exchange, and helping us see the world through other lenses, and thereby increasing mutual understanding among peoples across nations.”

To contact Rajakaruna to learn more about Fulbright, email him at

Photo by Alexis Kovacevic

(Nishi Rajakaruna (left), Jean Davison (right)

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