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RU biology student savors Highlander-In-Action research experience

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Biology major Cassie Bonavita takes a break from the heat before some appropriate local street art while collecting mosquitoes in for her undergraduate research project in San Juan, Costa Rica.

To many, culture shock is to be avoided. Cassie Bonavita, a Radford University senior biology major, relishes it.

"I need to culture shock myself now and then," she said. "It reminds me that the world is more than where I am now and what I know then."

Bonavita was reflecting on the impact of her five-week experience as one of five 2014 Scholar-Citizen Highlanders-in-Action. She studied peace and conflict resolution at the Universidad de Costa Rica in San Jose, the Central American country’s capital and largest metropolitan area. After the course ended, she took to the neighborhoods of San Jose for two weeks to collect mosquitoes for her undergraduate research project here at Radford.

The project is focused on exploring the link between the microbial combinations found in mosquito intestines and the presence or absence of the dengue fever virus. With faculty mentor Justin Anderson, associate professor of biology, Bonavita is looking in that microbial mix for a possible predictor of mosquitoes' susceptibility or resistance to the virus endemic to the area.

"It was both a chance to learn about people and how to help them as a scientist and researcher," said Bonavita, who is considering a peace studies minor to accompany her biology major. "It all connected for me."

As the daughter of a retired Air Force pilot, Bonavita had lived in Europe, so she welcomed another international education opportunity. She called her Costa Rican cultural experience both "beautiful and heartbreaking."

While Bonavita counted the Caribbean, the Pacific, the rain forests and a sloth sanctuary among the experience’s highlights, there was a stark contrast to Costa Rica’s natural beauty and the poverty where many still live in huts exposed to the elements, she said.

"Since I got back here, I have been motivated to see what I can do to help," she said.

Bonavita is developing a handful of social entrepreneurship initiatives for the upcoming semester that will combine two of her passions: helping the people of Costa Rica and maximizing her experience as a sorority sister.

"I really believe in the Greek system at RU and now I want to see if I can get my sisters and brothers here involved in helping other people live better," she said.

The goal of improving life underlies her scientific research as well. Bonavita spent 10 days with a four-person team combing the urban landscape for bats, mosquitoes and people infected by dengue fever. As the mosquito specialist, she trapped mosquitoes for subsequent dissection in the team's local lab.

"I now have scientific experience and contacts from an international collaboration that enriches my resume and skills," she said. "I have worked with viruses in different populations. I really appreciate the advantages that this experience gives me as a young scientist."

Her time in Costa Rica coincided with the national team’s Cinderella run to the semi-finals of the World Cup tournament in Brazil that provided a unique insight into the Costa Rican people and their enthusiasm and passion for "futbol."

"I have never seen thousands of people fill the streets and celebrate like they did when they played," she said. "Main roads were just shut down and people were so spirited. It was a national block party."

While now focused on her work in the RU Arbovirus and Medical Entomology Lab and as a server at a local restaurant, Bonavita recognizes the value of the experience.

"It all came together fast and was so worthwhile. It was as close an opportunity to do what I want to do as a career as I can imagine," she said. "I had my own project; I traveled, studied and learned with other scientists; I got to know other people and their culture and, hopefully, I will find a way to help."

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During her international education experience as a Radford University Scholar-Citizen Highlander-in-Action, RU biology major Cassie Bonavita (third from left) and classmates met Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis, a lecturer at at the Universidad de Costa Rica.

Aug 5, 2014