A month ago the Fundación Consejo España-EE.UU. and the Fulbright Commission gave us a wonderful opportunity to participate in a 2-day program in which we visited several research centers in Madrid. This gave us the chance to meet Spanish researchers in each of our respective fields and re-connect with other Fulbright grad students.

We began on Wednesday morning with a visit to the Centro de Investigacions Biológicas (CIB). The CIB is a part of the Consejo Superio de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), which is the largest public research center in Spain. The campus that we visited housed research groups of a wide variety of subjects, in an attempt to promote more interdisciplinary collaboration—something that I highly respect and think should be emphasized to a greater extent within the scientific community.

Next, we visited the Centro de Investigaciones Energéticas Medioambientales y Tecnológicas (CIEMAT). CIEMAT’s on-campus incorporation of its own technologies was especially impressive to me—exemplified in the way they covered some of their own buildings in solar panels.

Later that afternoon we met with some Fulbright scholars who studied in the U.S. and are now a part of the Fundación BBVA. In Spain, it is more common for banks to fund scientific research, and the Fundación BBVA supports five areas of research—Environmental Studies, Biomedicine and Health, Economy and Society, Basic Sciences and Tehnology, and Culture—through scholarships, seminars, workshops, and grants.  The Fundación BBVA continues to contribute significantly to educational and research pursuits even in the midst of an economic crisis that has produced severe funding cuts in scientific research, and it was encouraging to learn about a foundation that still invests in the work of students and scholars in Spain.

The second day we went to the Instituto Química Médica (IQM). This was probably my favorite visit because we got to hear about several of the research projects taking place at the center. I was particularly interested in one group that is developing a new urine test for lactose intolerance by using a fluorescent lactose analog (which can still be cleaved by the enzyme lactase) and then measuring the amount that passes through the body unhydrolyzed. Another one of the presentations that stood out to me was about prodrugs, which are compounds that are transformed into their most active form after they are administered. These are important because they can improve the absorption and distribution of drug molecules or minimize their toxicity. This particular project at the IQM is working to improve water solubility in amine-containing drugs by linking them to peptides.

After a coffee break, we visited the Instituto Química Orgánica General (IQOG). Since I work in an organic chemistry lab, I recognized much of the equipment, and it was nice to be in a familiar environment. We were given a tour of the labs and learned about some of the highly sensitive equipment that they have on campus including Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, X-Ray Crystallography, and Mass Spectrometry.

Our last visit, another one of my favorites, was to Pharmamar, a company that develops antitumor drugs from marine organisms. These organisms offer a promising source of new anticancer medications because of the wide range of biodiversity, and thus a wide range of secondary metabolites with distinct modes of action, present in marine life. I work in a natural products lab, which seeks to isolate and synthesize bioactive compounds from plants, so this visit was the most similar to what I do on a daily basis. I was very impressed by the enormous library of marine organisms that they have compiled, the sophistication of their equipment, and the success that they have had thus far in discovering compounds with antitumor properties. Pharmamar has one drug on the market, Yondelis, which is used to treat relapsed ovarian cancer and soft tissue sarcoma, and four other compounds that they have isolated are currently undergoing clinical trials.

Of course, the program didn’t only include visits to research centers. As with all Fulbright events, good food and good conversation were an integral part of the week, and I enjoyed getting to know some of the members of the Fundación Consejo España-EE.UU. and catching up with other Fulbrighters.

I would like to express my thanks to the Fudación Consejo España-EE.UU. and the Fulbright Commission for organizing such a great program for us. It was a great chance to share ideas with other researchers in a variety of scientific fields, and I am very grateful for this wonderful opportunity.

Kala Ghooray and Rianne Stowell are US Graduate Students at Universidad de Cadiz &  Universidad de Sevilla