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Tackling the Amazon

Tackling the AmazonSchool of Medicine Fogarty Scholars Marjory Bravard, Catherine Hooper and Colin Robinson discuss their wild ride down the Amazon River in Peru's annual raft race.

Boston [10.10.08] There are a number of challenges facing your average third-year medical student, but in most cases they don't involve paddling 132 miles down the Amazon River.

For Tufts Medical School students Marjory Bravard, Catherine Hooper and Colin Robinson, however, that is exactly how they initiated themselves into their new lives as Fogarty Scholars.

The Fogarty International Clinical Research Scholars Program gives graduate-level students the opportunity to pursue clinical research abroad for one year. For these three globally minded medical students, the chance to race down the Amazon was just one more international pursuit not to be passed up.

The Amazon Raft Race, first held in July of 1999, is considered the world's longest raft race. This year's race began in the town of Nauta, Peru on Sept. 19 and ended in Iquitos, Peru three days later.

Hooper says the trio, who are currently roommates in Lima as they complete their fellowships there, heard about the race only two weeks before the event. Their colleague had boasted about it as "the most amazing thing he had done, but would never do again."

Competing against more than 40 other teams, the group was greeted at the launch site the day before the race for a reception, followed by several hours of raft building.

"In the afternoon we went to the site where we were going to build our raft and we tried to pick out the right logs and tools," Robinson says. "We didn't have the most success getting it together the first time, but luckily there were some really nice local kids who kind of just walked up to our area, looked at where we were and understood we needed help, so they took over and built it with us."

"We wanted a clever name that had to do with elephants, but we thought that wouldn't help us float, so our team was Brains Over Brawn," Hooper says. "But we definitely had Jumbo cheers going down the river."

Upon finishing their raft, Hooper says the team spent the first 45 minutes submerged in the water before lightening their load and getting it to float. Each day consisted of at least eight hours of rowing, with minimal breaks.

"Marjory is a sailor and Colin and I have some experience on the water so that helped," Hooper says. "We had thought we would be drifting down current the whole time, but that wasn't the case, so we would strategize together to try to figure out where the current was and paddle really hard to get there so we could paddle down current."

"It was fun, in that grueling sort of way," Bravard laughs. "It was just constant paddling, and the first hour of each day you just had to work on trying to get the soreness out from eight hours of paddling the day before."

Despite struggling at times throughout the race, the team was able to make a strong push in the last quarter mile, paddling against the current to cross the finish line among the top 20 teams.

"I never saw the raft again, and I'm all right with that," says Bravard.

For added incentive, the three used the race as an opportunity to raise more than $1,000 to benefit Lima Kids, an initiative founded by Tufts alum and past Fogarty Fellow Joe Donroe (A'98, M.D./M.P.H., '07).

"Lima Kids helps at risk children in Lima learn sportsmanship and other skills that will hopefully help to get them off the streets," Hooper explains. "Marjory and I met Joe Donroe through our Tufts' Global Health Interest Group, so we had heard about Lima Kids long before we knew would live in Peru, and it just immediately popped in our heads when we realized we could raise money and donate it."

Both Bravard and Hooper have extensive experience working in international projects. Bravard, a native of France, spent the summer after her first year of medical school working in urban and rural health clinics in Panama, and Hooper worked on a public health program for teens at a university in Tanzania, where she also established a way for students there to correspond with Tufts' students.

While they are completing their scholar programsin Lima, the scope of their research is global. Hooper, working with TUSM/Fogarty adviser, Dr. Christine Wanke, is currently doing gastric cancer research through Johns Hopkins University, studying why the infection H. pylori, which is dominant in Peru, leads to cancer in some patients and not in others. Bravard, working with Dr. Harris Berman as her adviser, is researching tuberculosis transmission, determining the length of time it takes after treatment before a patient is no longer infectious. Robinson, also working with Wanke, is trying to correlate a stronger picture of the world's asthma problem through research conducted in both Lima and northern Peru.

"One of the interesting things I have learned is that when people talk about global health there is a really big difference between coming down somewhere and working in a hospital or clinic for a while and coming down and doing research," Bravard says. "I think that is something worth emphasizing and I am not sure if it is emphasized enough."

After having some time to rest after the race, one question remains: will "Brains Over Brawn" compete next year?

"I think the record of the trip speaks for itself," Robinson says. "Of the 50 or so teams, only two or three had done it before. It's one of those things you do once and have great pictures and stories, but you probably don't do it again."

Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

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