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Meet the 2021 cohort of students from Northern Ireland's Ulster University. The group will study in IU laboratories for 12 months while gaining enriching personal and professional experiences in Indianapolis.

Meet the cohort: Students from Northern Ireland will spend a year studying in IU laboratories

Five graduate students from Northern Ireland’s Ulster University have journeyed to Indianapolis to study in IU School of Medicine laboratories for the next year. Led by Anthony Firulli, PhD, the Ulster-IU partnership has brought dozens of students to the states over the years. Here, they work alongside some of the nation’s top experts and contribute to studies related to cancer, cardiac development, eye health and more.

“My hope is that the immersive experience in a lab setting gives them enough understanding to know if basic research is right for them,” said Firulli, who is the Carleton Buehl McCulloch Professor of Pediatrics. “The reason I have been involved is that I enjoy lab-based education, and the base training of these students is excellent. Working with motivated young people is always a joy.”

As a seasoned mentor, Firulli is heavily invested in enhancing professional development and opportunity for the next generation of researchers. He said that the Ulster-IU program does just that, and many former students have gone on to pursue doctorate degrees and/or research careers.

This year’s cohort has waited more than year to enjoy their status as honorary Hoosiers. They were originally set to arrive last year, but their plans were spoiled by the pandemic. Now that they’re settling in to the Circle City, they shared their hopes for enriching personal and professional experiences in the months ahead (while also adjusting to the many nuances of American English).


Megan Boner

Hometown: Co. Donegal, Ireland
Lab/Mentor at IU: Mark Kelley, PhD 
Research Interests: Cancer research

What compelled you to participate in this abroad program?

Travel has been in my blood since a young age, and I have always been longing to see the world and to explore new places. I felt that the opportunity to work alongside top research scientists in Indianapolis would not only allow for my own personal development, but it would also have a major beneficial effect on my knowledge in cancer research. I have always had an interest in medical science and I aim to become a successful research scientist. Therefore, I felt that the chance to further my education whilst experiencing 12 months working in a research training environment would allow me to expand my professional network whilst also improving my scientific skills.

Personally, I love to experience cultures and explore new destinations around the world. In the summer of 2019, I travelled to South-East Asia, Australia and the South Pacific for 10 weeks. I spent one month living in the Fijian Islands teaching school children ,which allowed me to develop endless skills, and also provided me with a diverse cultural understanding. I have a strong desire to succeed within the scientific industry as a whole and I believe that my determination and willingness to expand my knowledge will be of major use in the Kelley/Fishel lab and throughout my master’s degree.

What’s the hardest or weirdest thing about moving to another country for a whole year?

I think the hardest thing at first was going from having everything at home to fitting my entire life into one suitcase. (It also didn’t help when that suitcase ended up getting lost when I first arrived !!) It felt like I was starting from scratch all over again as I had to set up my bank account, apply for SSN, find the nearest grocery store and even just becoming familiar with the area. I was so used to being able to drive myself wherever I wanted to go, whether that was to see my friends or visit family, and now I have to rely on public transport to go anywhere.

I feel like you really get to know yourself when you move to another country because you’re always faced with some kind of challenge that you’ve never had to deal with before. Luckily I get to live with the other Ulster students for the year, so it’s nice to be able to relate to each other as we settle into our new home. Adapting yourself to a new environment can be tough but just like anything it gets better with time.

I come from a small town beside the sea in the northwest of Ireland, which is the completely different to Indianapolis. I miss taking my dogs for a walk on the beach but I definitely don’t miss the wind and the rain.

What do you enjoy doing outside the lab?

Back home in Ireland, I usually spend my weekends on the beach with my horse. I have been horse riding since I was 5 years old and have 2 horses at home. Throughout the 18 years that I’ve been on horses, I have competed in both individual and team competitions around Ireland. I’m also qualified to teach children in the Irish Pony Club, which I’ve done on a few occasions. I mainly compete in the show jumping and cross country disciplines of equestrian events. Of course I’ll have to take this year off , but thankfully my dad is looking after the horses who are enjoying their time in the field.

I also love sports and going to the gym on a daily basis. My fitness and health is definitely a top priority as it keeps me motivated and disciplined in all aspects of my life, including my work and studies.


Craig Lindsay

Hometown: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Lab/Mentor at IU: Weinian Shou, PhD / Deyong Xiao, PhD 
Research Interests: Genetic / Disease Epidemiology

What compelled you to participate in this abroad program?

I have always wanted to travel and work abroad ever since I was a young boy, particularly in North America. When I started my undergraduate degree at Ulster University, I was informed that this programme existed and straight away piqued my interest. From then, over the next 3 years I continuously read up on IU, the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research in which I now work, the mentors that participate in this programme, and the city itself and what it has to offer. You can say I don’t have a lot of luck, so when I applied and got through the multi-stage selection process, I was more than delighted. Obviously COVID put a scupper on things and delayed proceedings by a year, but it allowed me to develop as both an individual and a professional before coming here, as I worked as a Clinical Scientist for that time period. So I am somewhat glad it was put off a year so that I could hit the ground running when I got here.

Tell us about your research goals. How do you hope that your time at IU will help you pursue them?

I hope to achieve a deep understanding of working in a research setting laboratory, whilst further developing my current skillset. Personally the field of disease epidemiology and genetics are something that I find truly interesting. It is every scientists dream to study a field and make a discovery that has yet to be discovered, which in the field of medicine is both personally extremely rewarding but can also has life changing outcomes for patients, and that’s what matters most. The skills I am learning here at IU are at a world class level and to have the opportunity to learn under pioneering researchers at the forefront of their fields, is something that I will not take for granted. I am here to learn all that I can to help shape me into a better scientist and develop skills / critical thinking which I can carry with me to my career beyond.

What do you enjoy about research? What fascinates you most?

Research is unfortunately the less thankful part of medicine, as it mainly goes unseen (We need a show like Grey’s Anatomy!). A lot of people don’t realise that approximately +70% of patient diagnosis comes from the scientists that work in the hospital labs, or that without medical research, effective treatments would not exist. To have the ability to help contribute towards the benefit of not just an individual, but a whole population on a potentially global scale (e.g. individuals diagnosed with a certain disease), is something extremely humbling and rewarding. Cancer genetics is something that I would love to get the opportunity to study / work on in my future career as it impacts almost every person’s life on the planet, be it directly or indirectly. Having being diagnosed with cancer myself 7 years ago, I know the importance of medical research which has thankfully led me to entering remission and being cancer free. If I was born in the 50s/60s it could have been a very different outcome, but medical research has come leaps and bounds over the last several decades via technological advances and accessible education. However, still to this day not every patient has the same happy ending as I did. Therefore I wish to contribute all I can to the medical field to help better understand disease as a whole, in particular genetics. Something to look out for is the advancement of Personalised Medicine, that being treatment tailored to the individual based on their genetic / biological composition, as opposed to the current medical approach of ‘one size fits all’. I believe that in the decades to come, with the further advancement of research / technology, we can expect to see greater outcomes in patients across an array of fields via this approach.


Chloe Ferguson

Hometown: Antrim, Northern Ireland
Lab/Mentor at IU: Anthony Firulli, PhD 
Research interests: Medical and Molecular Genetics

What compelled you to apply for this program?

I found out about the program in my final year of my Biology Degree at Ulster University and was immediately hooked, as it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to work in a highly skilled research lab, to be able to learn new techniques and gain experience. As well as working in a top-end research lab, I am also able to complete my Master's Degree online with Ulster University allowing me to obtain an extra qualification to facilitate my research goals.

What do you enjoy about research? What fascinates you most?

The thing I enjoy most about research are the challenges that it brings and the rewards I feel when I overcome these challenges. In the Firulli lab, I am researching the roles that the bHLH Hand/Twist family of proteins play during heart development, making it fascinating to see how a change in the expression of these proteins can cause congenital heart defects.

Have you traveled to the United States before? Is there anything that has surprised you about the people or culture here?

This is my first time traveling to the US and since being here the thing that has surprised me the most is the different pronunciation of words and how some things have different names to what we would call them in Ireland. Every day I learn a new pronunciation or term for something from my colleagues such as tomato, aluminum and most recently, Adidas.


Abigail O’Sullivan-Duffy

Hometown: Belfast, Finaghy, Northern Ireland
Lab/Mentor at IU: Matthias Clauss, PhD / Roberto Machado, MD
Research Interests: EMAPII and WWOX and the role played in Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension

What do you enjoy about research? What fascinates you most?

The lack of predictability. Most of the time you are carrying out experiments that you know should have a certain outcome, or a set result, but that isn’t always the case. As well as that, often you are going to be the first person to try that experiment, on that protein, with that antibody. It’s unique and undiscovered, and generally the end goal is to provide a therapeutic strategy for a detrimental illness, in this case PAH.

What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab?

Most days I’ll head straight to the gym after work. I enjoy setting challenges for myself, both in my personal and professional life. I also play the violin, I’m only a grade 2 but I take pride in the fact that even though it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child, but never thought I could, or would, I’ve still made it this far, and love every second of it.

Have you traveled to the United States before? Is there anything that has surprised you about the people or culture here?

This is my first time in the States! I love it now that I’ve settled in, but it was definitely a huge culture shock at first. Everything here is huge! Back home a 20 minute walk would take you to a whole different town, over here it will barely take you from one side of campus to the other! Also, sororities and fraternities are a completely foreign concept to me, but they’re so influential here, it’s really cool but I thought it was something you only saw in movies!


Tiree McColgan

Hometown: Burt, Co. Donegal
Lab/Mentor at IU: Matthew D. Durbin, MD
Research Interests: Molecular biology and Genetics; Cardiovascular medicine; Developmental biology

Have you traveled to the United States before? Is there anything that has surprised you about the people or culture here?

It has now been a month since I first arrived here in the United States from my hometown of Burt, Co. Donegal in the Northwest of Ireland. There is a part of me that cannot believe that it has already been an entire month since then, but when I think of how accustomed I have become to living in Indy, it almost feels like I have been here much longer.

My friends back home have already called me out for becoming somewhat Americanised, having already referred to the shopping centres as “malls” and restaurants as “food joints” without realising. However, there are still some things that I have yet to adjust to. For example, I am not sure if I will ever get used to the number of times that I am told to “have a nice day” each day, and it pains me just a little when I have to write my dates in the wrong order. I do, however, find it quite amusing when I catch a glimpse of confusion on a shopkeeper’s face when I say a “fiver” instead of five dollars. Until now, I have always been a bit of a homebird, and home has only ever been about an hour-long train ride away. At times, I forget that I am halfway around the world from everyone back at home.

What compelled you to apply for this program?

My interest in participating in this joint programme between Ulster University and Indiana University School of Medicine was piqued in my first year at Ulster; my studies advisor at the time recommended it to me when I had mentioned that I was toying with the idea of a career in biomedical research. When I first heard of the programme, I thought that it was an incredible opportunity, but I didn’t think of it as something that I would ever get the chance to do. As travelling or studying abroad was never something that I had the chance to do growing up, it had always seemed something out of reach to me, which made the thought of moving to and studying in America seem like a surreal concept that would never become reality. Yet here I am, almost 4 years later, writing this from my bedroom in Downtown Indianapolis. And this is why participating in this programme means so much to me.

Following my undergraduate studies and experiences at Ulster, this programme seemed like the ideal next step towards a career in medical research. Being able to partake in such an immersive research experience within a high-class research facility such as the Herman B Wells Center whilst studying for my master’s degree is completely unique to this programme and is one of the many reasons that I was drawn towards it. Additionally, being able to work with and learn from many talented and knowledgeable individuals within the field feels like a blessing and will certainly encourage me flourish, both academically and personally.

Tell us about your research goals. How do you hope that your time at IU will help you pursue them?

I am truly excited to be able to partake in and contribute to ongoing research here at IU and as the research laboratories work so closely with the hospitals, the projects that I am and will be working on feel even more meaningful. I have been drawn towards a path in research since early-on in my undergraduate studies and my inclinations have not deviated far over the past few years. Being able to expand our understanding of the human body and the multitude of pathological implications that we face has inspired me to pursue a career in medical research. Building upon what has already been established, research allows us to face the challenge of elucidating the complex interplay between diseases and how they affect our health. The fact that there is still so much left to understand both fascinates and excites me.

For the next year I will be working with Dr Matthew Durbin, aiding his work in elucidating the molecular mechanisms and signaling pathways implicated in the development of congenital heart disease. I am truly grateful for this opportunity as it will allow me to refine my research skills and develop as an independent scientist, which will be a pivotal steppingstone towards a career in biomedical research. Having spent a month in the labs now, I can gladly say that I have enjoyed my time here thus far and I am looking forward to what the remainder of my time here will have in store.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Sara Buckallew

Communications Coordinator

Sara Buckallew works in the Dean's Office of Strategic Communications. As a communications coordinator, Sara supports internal and external communication needs for the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research and the Center for Diabetes and Metabolic...