After overcoming more than two years of pandemic-related delays, the University of Maryland Graduate School and the University of Costa Rica (UCR) have joined forces to create the Alicia and YaYa Global Fellowship in Aging Research, supporting students to conduct aging research abroad. The program is the result of a generous $300,000 donation by biotech entrepreneurs Marco A. Chacón, PhD, and his wife, Debbie.
Representatives of UCR, joining virtually via Zoom, and leadership from the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) gathered April 18 in the President’s Boardroom for a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) signing ceremony, celebrating the partnership and future collaborations of the two universities. The event marked the launch of the Alicia and YaYa Global Fellowship in Aging Research, made possible by the Chacóns’ gift. The donation was given to UMB in 2019 but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, launch of the fellowship program was delayed.
“Often as a university president, I sign memorandums of understanding between two universities,” UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, said. “Oftentimes I wonder what will become of them. In this particular case, I have no doubt of what will become of them, because it’s already becoming.
“We already have programs that have been going back and forth educationally, and I know that this will lead to research,” he continued. “A lot of the parts of this program are built, are working, are showing great hope. And I have great expectations.”
Jarrell’s counterpart at UCR also said he was excited about the opportunities for collaboration between the universities, particularly relating to ways to assist aging populations.
“The challenges of one country are often the same as those of others, and although our countries may be very different at first glance, the truth is that our populations may share many common desires and concerns,” said Rector Gustavo Gutiérrez Espeleta, PhD, MS. “This is one more example that neither language, borders, nor distance are real barriers to building joint projects.”
The Alicia and YaYa Global Fellowship in Aging Research is a collaborative effort between UMB and UCR to recognize and support outstanding predoctoral or postdoctoral students pursuing aging research and to reinforce diversity in aging research. The fellowship, the first collaborative program between the two universities, allows fellows from Costa Rica to spend six months to one year in Baltimore, and fellows from UMB to spend six months to one year in Costa Rica, engaging in an immersive experience at the host campus with exposure to research, education, culture, and leadership in science.
Carlos A. Faerron Guzmán, MD, MSc, director of the InterAmerican Center for Global Health-Costa Rica and an associate professor at the University of Maryland Graduate School, served as master of ceremonies, appearing from UCR, his alma mater, via Zoom.
“Today marks an important day for both institutions,” Faerron Guzmán said. “This ceremony is the product of a bit over three years of work on both sides of this virtual gathering, with some small hiccups, a lot of learning, and a pandemic in between.”
By encouraging direct contact and cooperation between their departments and research units, and within the framework of the MOU, UCR and UMB will explore joint research opportunities; the exchange of faculty and students for research, teaching, and study; and the coordination and mutual organization of academic meetings, conferences, seminars, workshops, and other activities.
Born in Costa Rica, Marco Chacón, founder and former CEO of Paragon Bioservices, Inc., came to the United States in the late 1960s to pursue an education. Through determination and hard work, he became a successful biopharmaceutical entrepreneur, dedicated to improving lives through science. He is the founder and current CEO of Irazú Bio, a drug development company headquartered in the University of Maryland BioPark.
The fellowship pays homage to two special women in Chacón’s life, his mother, Alicia Leandro, and his grandmother, or YaYa, Isabel Mendez.
“How wonderful it is to see two institutions that I love for shaping my otherwise scrambled skull come together in such a wonderful endeavor,” said Chacón, who attended UCR for a year and a half and, years later, the University of Maryland Graduate School. “I am convinced that this fellowship will have a remarkable impact on the lives and careers of its worthy participants.”
Chacón said basic and clinical research in gerontology and aging is imperative, as society needs to find ways to treat pathologies associated with advance age and improve quality of life in the elderly.
“It is readily evident to all, particularly in the more developed world, that people are living much longer,” Chacón added. “As my generation of baby boomers ages, we are faced with a tsunami barreling through and exhausting health care systems in the near future, while presenting a plethora of conditions, including neurodegenerative disorders and, with it, the nursing help challenges that will be required. I do not believe that we are fully prepared for this onslaught. Therefore, launching and sustaining a fellowship in aging research is of great relevance and timely impact.”
“The Chacóns’ extraordinary gift is coming at a time in our society when international engagement, study abroad, and cross-country research collaboration couldn’t be more important,” agreed Flavius R.W. Lilly, PhD, MA, MPH, vice provost, academic and student affairs, and vice dean, University of Maryland Graduate School.
Also attending on behalf of UMB were Jay S. Magaziner, PhD, MSHyg, professor and chair, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, and director, Center for Research on Aging, University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM); and Denise L. Orwig, PhD, professor, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, and co-director, Gerontology Doctoral Program, UMSOM.
“Having a fellowship that develops scholars who are conversant in global aging aspects is going to be really important going forward,” Orwig said, noting that 10,000 people in the U.S. turn 65 every day. “The purpose of the Alicia and YaYa Global Fellowship on Aging Research was to establish not only collaborations between our two wonderful institutions but also to take advantage of well-established aging programs at both universities that have faculty expertise spanning numerous clinical areas that are important for aging research now and in the future.”
At UMB, for example, the Center for Research on Aging, directed by Magaziner, encompasses not only research on gerontology and geriatrics but also research training and educational opportunities for students and health care professionals and enhanced delivery of multidisciplinary geriatric care.
Speaking from Costa Rica, Carolina Santamaría-Ulloa, PhD, ScB, director, Health Research Institute, UCR, praised the group for continuing to work together despite pandemic hurdles.
“When Dr. Chacón made this generous donation to start this fellowship program, we could not have imagined all of the challenges we would face with the pandemic,” she said. “Hope is restored when societies, institutions, and countries find venues to work on common goals, like what we are doing today.”
Applications for the Alicia and YaYa Global Fellowship in Aging Research are due by July 1, 2022. The first cohort of fellows will accept their offers in August and begin the program in January 2023.