Story by Kathlynn Alba

Recent USC Biomedical Engineer Graduate Dillon McKinley from CSI-Cancer and Ph.D. Candidate Drahomir Kolencik from Charles University in Pilsen have more in common than their interest in cancer research. They became recipients of the highly prestigious Fulbright Foreign Student and Fulbright U.S. Student Programs for the 2019-2020 award cycle. The unique phenomenon about it? Dillion and Drahomir directly “swapped” into each other’s respective labs—an actual rare occurrence within the program.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program offers research, study, and teaching opportunities in over 140 countries to recent graduates and graduate students. Through this program, awardees reap the benefits of international cultural exchange and interacting with their hosts on a one-to-one basis towards mutual understanding all while conducting a study they are passionate about. For Dillon and Drahomir, that study was cancer research.

As chance would have it, Dillon recently came back to Los Angeles to attend a few medical school interviews and was available to sit with Drahomir to talk about their experiences so far in the Fulbright Program.

The Fulbright Program experience so far

“I wanted to do something unique for a gap year experience before medical school,” said Dillon when asked why he decided to apply to the Fulbright Program. After having studied abroad in Spain for two months as a freshman, he knew that experiencing more travel was on his list after graduating.

For Drahomir, he felt similarly as a personal dream of his is to live abroad for as long as possible. Applying to the Fulbright Program facilitated living out that dream.

“[The Fulbright Program] is part of the puzzle. I want to change the healthcare system in Europe,” said Drahomir who received his Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in 2018 from Charles University.

His interest in gaining more research experience led him to learn of his lab’s previous association with CSI-Cancer in Los Angeles. Likewise, Dillon’s interest led him to learn more from Jana-Aletta Thiele, the connecting collaborator that led them both to apply to the Fulbright Program.

CSI-Cancer vs the Pitule Lab

“My experiences [with CSI-Cancer] were very guided and overseen,” Dillon explained. “[Dr. Pavel Pitule] is a lot more self-directed.”

Drahomir notes the type of lab CSI-Cancer is “totally different from Czech since everyone has been so friendly and helpful,” referring to the cultural nuances he is experiencing. Drahomir was on the processing team back at Charles University, where everything is theoretical and practical. With CSI-Cancer he actually gets to analyze the data.

Beyond their research, however, both Dillon and Drahomir are also learning a lot about themselves being in the Fulbright Program. Dillon has lived in Southern California his whole life so moving to the Czech Republic meant being more comfortable being by himself.

“I went from knowing everyone to nobody,” said Dillon. Now four months into the program, he has grown fierce loyalty to Pilsen, the city where Charles University resides.

Drahomir, on the other hand, has spent the better part of the last 10 years in a different country every three months. He appreciates the Fulbright Program giving adults in their 20s and 30s a chance at these cultural exchanges.

“You have to get used to how people think,” Drahomir explained. While being well-traveled is part of European culture, this is his first long-term stay in the United States. He shared his most recent lesson involves how loosely Americans use the word “great” for everything.

The present and the future

While the majority of their time is spent conducting research, both of them have come to appreciate what their new homes have to offer. Dillon is trying his best to explore Europe with the time he has left in the Czech Republic. His favorite things to do right now include heading out to pubs and immersing himself in the surrounding quaint architecture. As for Drahomir, he is fortunate to be exploring the rest of Los Angeles with his girlfriend, preparing for a 5k, and improving his Spanish over the next few months.

When asked what they missed most about their respective homes, Dillon offered his up without hesitation—Mexican food. Drahomir took a moment to contemplate his answer and then smiled. “Mine would be playing soccer.”

Drahomir is looking forward to finishing his Ph.D. and wishes to experience business in the pharmaceutical industry. Eventually, he would like to move into the space of politics of the healthcare industry back home in Europe.

After finishing the Fulbright Program, Dillon McKinley hopes to attend medical school this upcoming August. While right now he wants to stay studying oncology, he would also like to keep his options open.

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