NIH-Oxford MD/DPhil Scholar Jude Tunyi Discusses His Fulbright Experience in Finland

In recognition of the opening of the 2022-2023 Fulbright Award application cycle, this two-part interview highlights two Fulbright recipients currently in the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program. The Scholars Program is an accelerated, individualized, international doctoral training program for outstanding students seeking their PhD or MD/PhD in biomedical research –  many of whom have been Fulbright grant awardees.  Much like the Fulbright Program, the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program encourages intellectual freedom and collaboration leading to increased innovation and creative problem-solving.  

The International Biomedical Research Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose sole mission is to invest in and accelerate the development of the future leaders in biomedical research through the NIH Oxford-Cambridge (OxCam) Scholars Program, asked two current OxCammers, who recently completed their Fulbright year, to talk about their experience.  Our second and final interview here is with Jude Tunyi, an NIH-Oxford MD/DPhil Class of 2021 Scholar, is at the National Institute of Mental Health working with Dr. Bruno Averbeck and at Oxford’s Wellcome Center for Integrative Neuroimaging working with Dr. Nils Kolling. Jude will be studying dopaminergic neuronal reinforcement learning pathways involved in non-human primate populations as they undergo different behaviors including foraging and scavenging.  This interview explores Jude’s Fulbright experience and inspiration to pursue his MD/DPhil. 

How did you learn about the Fulbright Fellowship? What motivated you to apply? 

Jude Tunyi (JT): I was very familiar with the Fulbright Program by the time I applied because part of the reason why I was able to immigrate to the US was dependent on the Fulbright Program.  My mother received a Fulbright to come to the United States and study at the University of Washington in Seattle.  I was already appreciative of the Fulbright program for giving my family an opportunity to pursue the American dream.  After my NIH post-baccalaureate experience, I decided I wanted more experience in my future field of biotechnology so I sought out a Fulbright.

How did you choose your study/field and country? What did your project entail?

JT: During my time doing research at the NIH, one of my mentors told me about how he had spent some time in his post-doc at the University of Tampere in Finland.  He highlighted the amazing opportunities to grow as a researcher and learn innovative techniques in the field of biotechnology.  He also spoke very highly of the people of Finland and the Finnish culture as a whole.  I decided to look at the University of Tampere and got more interested in studying in Tampere, Finland. It is about an hour and a half north of Helsinki, the capital. It was one of the larger cities in Finland due to the university being there and definitely had opportunities for exploring the beautiful Finnish natural landscape and getting immersed in the Finnish culture.  A huge part of the Finnish culture is the sauna culture.  One of the first experiences I had during my orientation to Finland was going to the sauna with my fellow Fulbright scholars.  It offers the opportunity to get to know others in a more relaxed, friendly environment.  After the sauna, part of the tradition is to go swim in the freezing Finnish lake by the sauna even in the middle of winter. Needless to say, my first time I was not too excited for this icy plunge but I decided to partake and am definitely glad I took part. 

It just turned out that this year, 2019, was the first year that the Finland Fulbright Foundation had a partnership with the University of Tampere which would allow two US students to study there at a master’s level.  It seemed like the stars aligned when I found out that fact.  I decided to apply to study in the field of biotechnology with a specialization in bioinformatics.  This would entail taking courses in the fields of machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer vision and processing, etc.  I was also getting set to undertake a bioinformatics project studying and classifying different biomarkers in cancer.  Unfortunately, this project got cut short due to COVID-19.

The Finnish culture, to the outsider, might seem cold and unwelcoming as people tend to be more reserved, quiet, and keep to themselves.  But once you get to know them, they are very friendly and become friends for life.  I joined a debate club and can confirm that Finns can be very loud and emphatic when they desire.  I witness this not only at our debate competitions around Finland but also at our group trivia nights, our hikes through the beautiful nature, our winter holiday parties, and of course our sauna celebrations.

Did your Fulbright prepare you to undertake your PhD and/or MD/PhD in the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program? Did your Fulbright project correlate with your future thesis work? 

JT: My Fulbright was directly related to my future DPhil project.  I actually spoke to my future DPhil advisor and asked him for recommendations for courses to take during my Fulbright year that would strengthen my graduate career.  I took courses that I believe would advance my OxCam DPhil, especially in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence.  I plan on bringing back some of the skills and techniques that I learned back and apply them to my graduate projects. Of course, there are some courses in my biomedical technology studies that aren’t going to be perfectly related to my future thesis work, but even these courses still helped me grow as a scientist and researcher.

How did the culture of your Fulbright country impact your research? 

JT: The culture of Finland definitely impacted my work because I had to learn to respect the separation that people had between their home and work lives.  People would leave work at 5pm and would be unreachable until the following day.  Weekends were protected time meant for doing things one enjoyed, and during the summer months of July and August most people took the months off for vacation.  I learned to be efficient during my work hours but also enjoy my time outside of work.

What is your overall career goal?

JT: I intend to obtain my MD and DPhil as part of the Ohio State College of Medicine medical school and NIH-OxCam Program.  After, I hope to attend a research residency continuing research in neuroscience.  I hope to be able to do research and see patients one day either as part of a government, academic medical center, or perhaps even a biotech company.

Did you learn anything about yourself during the Fulbright that changed the way you think today?

JT: From my experience during my Fulbright, I have grown in my ability to communicate with people from very different backgrounds than my own.  I have learned how to find common ground and start building a foundation from there.  My course was half-Finnish and half-international.  We had students from all over Finland, from different parts of Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa all in class with one another.  We had to learn to get along with each other and respect each other in our agreements but especially in our disagreements.

I joined the debate club of my school and we were often put in difficult situations where we would have to disagree with each other and defend our positions in a respectful manner.  I didn’t always win my debates, but I always took a lesson away from each debate.  I learned to communicate my point in a clearer and more effective manner.  This is going to be an invaluable skill going forward as science sometimes tends to be very insular.  People in the same field tend to only interact with those doing similar work as them.  General conferences are being usurped by more specialized and particular gatherings where everyone is speaking the same language and oftentimes looks the same.  It is challenging enough for an entrant into the field to get accepted into this group let alone someone from the general public to get information into the latest happenings in specific fields. 

As someone who is underrepresented in science and medicine, I aim to make an impact in my field but also feel a responsibility to reach back and support other underrepresented youth who follow me to be able to succeed in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and medicine.  I believe (as I witnessed firsthand in my Fulbright) that through inclusion of a diverse group of people and with improved communication including translating complex science jargon to the general public, we can face any challenge that is presented unto us. 

What was your biggest take away?

JT: The Fulbright offers direct benefits to my future research in my DPhil as the courses I took in machine learning and artificial intelligence will be used to advance my research.  Other than the direct benefits, my biggest take away from my Fulbright year is the importance of cross-cultural partnerships and relationships.  Without the agreements and cooperation between the US Fulbright and Finland Fulbright Foundation for over 75 years, there would be no opportunity for me to partake in such a wonderful experience.  I will take this experience in the NIH OxCam program as a successful partnership between all institutions is paramount to a successful DPhil project.  This will also impact my future as a physician scientist as I look for collaborators.  I will seek to form cross-cultural partnerships as these often lead to the best scientific and medical breakthroughs. 

About the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program

Created in 2001, the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program is a collaboration between the NIH and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to revolutionize the way in which the most talented biomedical PhD and MD/PhD students are trained. Participants in the program receive accelerated training and work on their own collaborative research project to address critical biomedical research problems.  Trainees graduate in an average of 4.2 years with a PhD degree.  To learn more visit www.oxcam.gpp.nih.go.

About the International Biomedical Research Alliance

Founded in 2005, the Alliance’s mission is to support the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program and associated global PhD and MD/PhD training programs based in the Intramural Research Program of the NIH, America’s largest biomedical research organization.  Our goal is to assure the financial viability and scientific excellence of the Scholars Program by supplementing government funding.  The Alliance supports the annual research workshop, awards, and career developed initiatives designed to enrich the Scholars Program and broaden the perspectives of its students as they train to become the next leaders in biomedical research.  For more information, please visit www.biomedalliance.org.

About the Fulbright Program

The Fulbright Program is the largest national exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study and advanced research.  The primary source of funding for the Fulbright Program is an annual appropriation by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  From its inception, the Fulbright Program has fostered bilateral relationships in which citizens and governments of other countries work with the U.S. to set joint priorities and shape the program to meet shared needs.  The fundamental principle of this international partnership – sharing knowledge around the world and collaborating on projects that improve the world – remains at the core of the Fulbright mission. The Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually in all fields of study and operates in more than 160 countries.  To date, more than 390,000 Fulbrighters encompass the Program’s diverse and dynamic network, including 86 Pulitzer Prize winners, 75 MacArthur Fellows, and 60 Nobel Prize winners.