Mariacarla Gonzalez received the Fulbright Student Scholarship in 2019. Her plan was to go to Honduras in 2020 to conduct research on testing a low-cost device that would be used for cervical cancer diagnosis. Fate had other plans.
While in Honduras, Mariacarla visited the hospital she would have worked at and accompanied physicians who were performing cervical cancer screenings in a town outside the city where she was staying, but that was about all she was able to do.
“I left for Honduras February 1st with the intent of coming back December 1st, at the end of the 10-month grant period,” Mariacarla says. “Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, I had to come back March 15th since the program got cancelled for the year.”
Mariacarla attended FIU for her undergraduate work. She remained at FIU for her graduate work in Biomedical Engineering because she was aware of the high amount of research carried out by the University, as well as its ongoing efforts to grow. Additionally, she received funding from the NSF Bridge to Doctorate Fellowship, which allowed her to focus exclusively on classes and research.
A student in the Medical Photonics Lab under the mentorship of Dr. Jessica Ramella-Roman, Gonzalez’s research focuses on cervical health, specifically cervical cancer diagnosis in low-resource settings. She’s also studying the diagnosis of cervical cancer using Mueller Matrix polarimetry.
“This methodology allows for the quantification of parameters such as light depolarization and retardance, which will vary from healthy to dysplastic tissue,” Mariacarla explains. “Moreover, using machine learning, an algorithm providing a clear distinction between healthy and unhealthy tissue will be developed to complement use of the device by non-experts.”
In Honduras, Mariacarla would have been conducting research on testing a portable polarimeter for cervical cancer diagnosis. A polarimeter is an instrument that measures the rotation of polarized light as it passes through an optically active substance. Her interest in the topic is driven by the desire to reach individuals who cannot benefit from current medical technology, whether it is because of the setting’s infrastructure or high cost. “I would like the broader impact of my work to be the introduction of new, low-cost technology that aids in public health crises,” she says.
Mariacarla pursued Fulbright for her research funding because of the grant’s focus on conducting research in an international setting. “Since my research is focused on the development of devices for low-resource settings, I thought it would be a great opportunity to test the device in the field of intended deployment,” she says.
Mariacarla says there were a few key aspects that contributed to her winning application. First, she says, her research statement was concise, detailed her plan of action in Honduras, and communicated her enthusiasm for her project. Second, her personal statement demonstrated that she already had some experience with her proposed topic and that she held a significant interest in the intercultural and diplomatic aspects of the project. A third key aspect was that she received a letter of support from the physician she would’ve been working with in Honduras, which reinforced her plan of action while abroad.
“Applying for competitive fellowships is of the utmost importance during a PhD,” Mariacarla says. “The grant/fellowship writing experience allows you to view your project—and yourself—from a different light. You learn to view your project as a whole organism, helping clarify ideas of how to proceed with your research.”
Mariacarla believes that applying for competitive fellowships provides opportunities for valuable practice, as writing grants and reports will be part of the academic journey of all doctoral graduates, whether they choose academia, industry, or other paths.
“My advice for those who hesitate to apply for opportunities is that there is zero probability that you will receive a grant/fellowship you did not apply for, so why not increase those odds? The worst that can happen when you apply for something is you get told no, but with the experience you gain during the process, the next opportunity you apply for could become a ‘yes’.”