Spotlight on Our Students: Belize and Back Again

Evan Brooks, working in the lab.

When I came to NC State and became involved with University Scholars Program, I was exposed to broader views on world issues that challenged my way of thinking and allowed me to understand others’ perspectives.” 

In this edition of Spotlight on Our Students, Evan Brooks tells us about his adventures in Belize where he co-led a trip focused on cultural and environmental conservation and his summer research project. Evan is a Senior from Norlina, North Carolina majoring in Biological Sciences. He had an amazing opportunity to help other students learn about Belize during the trip and then returned to complete research that he later presented at a conference.

USP: Evan, welcome back to the states. First of all, Tell us more about your reason for visiting Belize. What was the focus of your time there?

Summer 2017 ASB Belize team.

EB: I first visited Belize in May 2015 as a participant on a two-week Alternative Service Break (ASB) trip that focused on biological and cultural diversity. After the trip I realized that I loved traveling, performing service, and learning from and working alongside people of other cultures. I also learned so much about myself during the first trip that I wanted to keep the trip going and provide others with the same opportunity I had.

For the 2017 trip, my co-leader and I decided to focus on ecological and cultural conservation. We were both interested in following up on the 2015 trip and working with organizations that work to preserve the diverse ecological resources and cultural traditions of the country, like The Belize Zoo and the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA). Belize is currently at a crossroads in its development as a nation as there is increased pressure to “Americanize” as tourism becomes a greater part of its economy while maintaining its identity as an independent nation and preserving its natural beauty. We wanted to explore how the zoo and TCGA are working to preserve Belize’s cultural and ecological identities with these new pressures. Even though I had been to Belize once before, I still learned lots about Belize’s cultural and ecological practices that I didn’t hear in 2015.

USP: Sounds like a really worthy cause. What was the most challenging aspect of being a group leader in a foreign country?

EB: I am a super “Type A” personality so I feel the need to have everything prepared to the smallest detail at all times. This was probably the first time that I truly felt that I was not ready for what was coming my way, even with extensive preparation through the yearlong team leader training course that I took. During the first week of the trip, we had several medical scares, including heat-sensitive bacterial infections and damaged EpiPens. The medical infrastructure in Belize is nowhere near as advanced as it is in the US, so we made several trips to hospitals and clinics that were in cities over an hour away from our work sites. During the second week, previous meal arrangements were changed and we had to make new arrangements while in-country. Also, everyone in Belize operates on “island time,” which can make things last longer or start later than expected when you’re on a set “American time” schedule and have certain tasks to complete within a day. I had to work with my co-leader, field manager, faculty advisor, and community partners to make quick changes that hopefully did not alter the trip experience too much for our participants. Overall, it was an experience that challenged my leadership more than I was expecting, but it made me a better leader in the end.

USP: So when I hear that, it sounds like flexibility was really important in your time there. What is one thing you learned about yourself from your experience in Belize?

EB: I realized that I have much more compassion for people than I previously thought. While I was in Belize, I realized that I paid less attention to

Working at the Toledo Cacao Growers Association.

my internal “introvert clock” and made the effort to talk to my team participants and the Belizean community members that I was working with as much I could. Additionally, whenever we had someone would fall victim to one of the elements of Belize (like rubbing against a poisonwood tree and getting a rash), I would make sure that they were taken care of as soon as possible and were comfortable as possible until their ailment healed. I think that I was doing this so much to where all of my team participants mentioned my compassion for people during the last reflection session where we reflected on each other’s’ characters, strengths, and weaknesses. I’ve always wanted to be involved in science education in some way, so this trip really affirmed that desire in terms of the compassion aspect.

USP: I’ve never heard the term “introvert clock”, but I’ll be using that in the future. How would you say your time in the University Scholars Program helped prepare you for this experience?

EB: Before coming to NC State, I never had much exposure to other viewpoints or thoughts as I grew up in a small town where minority groups were the majority of the population and everyone pretty much thought the same way. When I came to NC State and became involved with USP, I was exposed to broader views on world issues that challenged my way of thinking and allowed me to understand others’ perspectives. This came in handy during our nightly discussions on the trip where we would discuss topics like privilege and meaningful service. Everyone on the trip had different insights about the discussion topics and would sometimes even challenge each other’s’ perspectives. I know that I did not exactly agree with everyone’s thoughts on the trip, but I would make sure that I was actively listening and probing them with meaningful questions to truly understand their perspectives. I am grateful that USP allowed me to develop the critical thinking and listening skills to articulate my own thoughts and understand differing perspectives on many topics through events like Scholars Forum.

USP: Sounds like you are definitely paying attention to what we hope our students learn in our program – how to be committed, engaged, active members of society. Now to switch gears a little bit on you, can you also tell us a bit about the research you’ve been conducting this summer with the NC State Vet School? And briefly, summarize the results of your research?

EB: I currently work in the lab of Dr. Nanette Nascone-Yoder and we investigate the mechanisms driving the development of left-right asymmetric organs, such as the heart, using the African-clawed frog, Xenopus laevis. Studying left-right asymmetric development is critical as disruption of this process can result in a variety of birth defects, like congenital heart defects. These defects affect one percent of all human births every year and often incur substantial mortality in newborns. Additionally, congenital heart defects persist throughout one’s life and can result in complications later.

In the Nascone-Yoder lab, I am investigating the mechanisms of the initial rightward looping event in heart development. During early development, the heart begins as a straight tube that undergoes a symmetry-breaking rightward looping event. Previous studies have implicated that an extracellular matrix-rich region called the cardiac jelly in the developing heart tube may have roles in heart looping and the overall development of cardiac left-right asymmetry. Based on this, I was interested in understanding whether the development of cardiac left-right asymmetry is mediated by asymmetric changes in the cardiac jelly. This summer, I’ve found that this area is left-right asymmetric and that it is dependent on a signaling cascade that is important in the development of other organs. I’m currently working with Dr. Nascone-Yoder and my lab mentor on planning experiments that I will perform this upcoming school year that will tell us more about the cardiac jelly’s role in cardiac looping. I’ve already presented my results at the Society for Developmental Biology’s Annual Meeting in Minneapolis and I look forward to presenting this work at undergraduate research symposia at Duke and NC State later this summer.

USP: Now that is fascinating research – and so crucial it sounds like. To wrap things up for us, will you share with us the best advice you’ve ever received?

EB: The best advice I’ve received comes from my scholarship program director, Eva Feucht. She tells all incoming freshmen to “learn how to say no.” At the time, I thought it was somewhat silly because I was able to do everything that I wanted to do back in high school. It was definitely hard to say no during freshman year because I was that go-getter, do-everything student in high school and I was able to keep that habit up at the time. However, when I realized that I had way too much going on during my sophomore year, I had to let some things go. It somewhat hurt to let go of some commitments because I love being involved on campus. But, at the time, I had very little free time for myself so I had to drop some things. As I am going into my senior year, I am so glad that I learned to say no as the things that I currently am involved with on campus – research, mentoring, and dance to name a few – are things that I truly enjoy and would never say no to. I spend lots of time on those select activities while having a bit of free time and making good grades. I never thought her advice would resonate with me so much to where I tell incoming freshman the exact same thing when they ask me for advice about doing well in college.

USP: Well Evan, I really appreciate that you said ‘yes’ to the interview! Best of luck on your future research and leadership endeavors.

See more of Evan’s Belize adventure here.



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