Keeping up with the Fulbrights

A record 11 VCU scholars received Fulbright awards last year. We reconnected with six as they conducted research around the world.

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By Brian McNeill, James Irwin, Leah Small, Leila Ugincius and Tom Gresham


A record 11 Virginia Commonwealth University scholars received Fulbright awards last year — making VCU a top producer of Fulbright student scholars for 2016-17, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. VCU News caught up with six Fulbrights as they conducted research in Brazil, Canada, Greece, Mexico, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.


Kaelne Koorn
School of the Arts
Fulbright location: Mexico City

Koorn recently finished a nine-month residence to study the Asian marketplace in the city’s colonial Plaza Mayor. Her research endeavor proved to represent only a fraction of her learning experience.

The VCUarts alumna found that her immersion in Mexican society and culture was a source of perpetual discovery and surprise. She developed friendships, traveled throughout the country and experienced vibrant Mexico City life on a day-to-day street level, from the delicious food and overwhelming rush hour crush of pedestrians and vehicles to the spirited pop-up demonstrations and protests that seemed to materialize from thin air.

“It’s such a valuable experience to live in another culture for a while,” Koorn said. “I’ve learned so much from being here.”

Koorn’s academic interest in Mexico was shaped during her years as an undergraduate student, beginning with a pre-Columbian art history class that sparked a particular affinity for Latin American art and culture. Because she also had a strong interest in Chinese art, she became drawn to the period in the 18th and 19th centuries when an Asian marketplace thrived in the heart of Mexico City. Mexican artists eventually adopted elements of the popular Asian artworks, leading to the development of a unique and multicultural Mexican artistic style.

“I’ve always been interested in the points of contact of different cultures,” Koorn said.

She applied for a Fulbright to study this blending of cultures more closely. During her time in Mexico City, Koorn pored through libraries and museum collections and talked with scholars, who were unfailingly open and generous with their time. The experience made her a better and more confident academic investigator.

“I’d never been to archives before,” she said. “I’d never talked to museum directors before. I’ve made a lot of contacts in Mexico, and I’ve learned a lot about how to conduct research.”

Koorn is working on a paper based on her research that she hopes publish in an academic journal. She will use her Fulbright experience as a springboard to graduate school. Koorn starts a master’s program in art history in the fall at the University of Sevilla in Spain, focusing on the study of colonial Latin American art.

“It’s been fantastic,” Koorn said. “I’ve had a great experience.”


Ellen Korcovelos
School of Life Sciences
Fulbright location: Toronto

Ellen Korcovelos.
Ellen Korcovelos.

Korcovelos is working with a team led by Graeme Hirst, Ph.D., a leading researcher in the field of computational linguistics at the University of Toronto. The team is developing a computer algorithm with the ability to identify speech irregularities in patients with various forms of dementia.

The opportunity has been a dream come true for Korcovelos, whose grandmother suffered from vascular dementia.

“It was personal to me,” she said. “I’ve actually been interested in Alzheimer’s research since high school.”

Korcovelos found the disease’s effects on communication particularly devastating, as well as scientifically fascinating, when she was exposed to Hirst’s work in a class taught by Bridget McInnes, Ph.D., an assistant professor in VCU’s School of Engineering.

Korcovelos was intrigued by a 2009 study in which Hirst and his team performed a computerized textual analysis of selected novels written by Agatha Christie between the ages of 28 and 82. The researchers counted the number of repeated words and phrases, and the use of indefinite words such as “anything,” “thing” and “something.” They concluded Christie’s vocabulary declined significantly as she aged, which the researchers suggested was due to Alzheimer’s disease and not the natural aging process. Christie wasn’t formally diagnosed with the disease during her life.

Learning about Hirst’s study revealed a way for Korcovelos to combat memory loss.

“It pretty much changed my entire world,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the coolest thing!’ I didn’t know you could analyze text to study how people are developing different cognitive impairments just by the way they are speaking and writing.”

Now, she is assisting Hirst with the development of software that measures linguistic features in both audio and text data sets. The software has more than 100 measures that analyze features of speech and text, such as how often subjects use fillers such as “uh” in a sentence and whether they are using more nouns or verbs.

The software provides a more objective measurement for cognitive deterioration, Korcovelos said.

“Subjective tests such as how asking, ‘How many times have you forgotten your keys,’ have a lot of ambiguity. As a 23-year-old I fail that one all the time,” she said. “We are trying to find ways to more definitively diagnose people.”


Dylan Halpern
School of the Arts
Fulbright location: São Paulo

Dylan Halpern is examining the effects of São Paulo's 2006 Clean City Law, which banned advertising signage in Brazil's largest city. (Photo by Ian Gottlieb)
Dylan Halpern is examining the effects of São Paulo's 2006 Clean City Law, which banned advertising signage in Brazil's largest city. (Photo by Ian Gottlieb)

Halpern is examining the effects of Lei Cidade Limpa (the Clean City Law), which in 2006 banned advertising signage in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. Halpern is interested in the long-term effects of the law on people — as consumers and members of the urban community.

“I’m examining how governance affects the creative culture in the city — everything from tourism to shopping and social visibility,” he said. “It’s a nexus of economic, social and cultural questions that coalesce into this very public, controversial issue.”

Halpern is studying at the Visual Lab of the University of São Paulo Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism. One of his first steps was to catalog sets of before-and-after images, one of ads and one of street art.

His research will examine how the erasure of large-scale urban elements affects the city. Municipal employees, building on the efforts of the Clean City Law and under the direction of São Paulo’s mayor, João Doria, have been painting over street art and graffiti. At first, Halpern said, there was very little differentiation between the street art and graffiti. That has created a complex artistic challenge, he said. There is much that blurs the line.

“In theory you can put them in separate camps, but when deciding between a blank, gray surface and some graffiti that may have some visual, aesthetic value, it can be a tough decision,” he said.

Halpern has had informal discussions about the law and Doria’s campaign — with friends, Uber drivers and a few creatives in the city. He will be interviewing more Paulistanos in the coming months.

“I want to interview people from different socioeconomic groups and parts of the city,” he said. “I want to see what they think and how these things affect their daily lives and what they want their city to be.”


Fajir Amin
School of Education
Fulbright location: United Arab Emirates

Amin arrived in the UAE in 2014 to teach English, and was assigned to teach fourth-grade boys at a school on the remote Arabian Gulf island of Dalma. To get there, Amin had to undergo a seven-hour journey from the capital city of Abu Dhabi. She had no idea what to expect.

“Initially I was glad about [being assigned a fourth-grade boy’s English class], as I had taught fourth grade before in the United States, and liked that age group,” Amin said. “However, when people on the island and co-workers asked what grade I had been given to teach, I only got two reactions: They would either laugh and chuckle or they would have a somber look on their face and say something like ‘Aww, you poor darling!’”

The students in Amin’s class had five different English teachers the previous year, due to how “rough” the students were and because of the teachers’ inability to cope with conditions on the island. The boys pranked Amin frequently, messing with her water main, ringing her doorbell at odd hours of the night and running away, and engaging in all manner of classroom antics.

Eventually, however, as the students and their families got to know her, Amin’s class settled into somewhat of a rhythm. When the school year ended, Amin approached her principal and requested to “loop” with her students for the next academic year. She went on to teach the same students again in the fifth grade. The dynamic was notably positive, she said.

Having seen firsthand how “looping” benefited her students, Amin applied to the U.S. Fulbright Student Program to conduct a study on the effects of looping on the aptitude and attitude of elementary students toward English language acquisition in the UAE. Her hope, she said, is to observe looping classrooms and build on her own personal experience with the practice.

Amin credits her Fulbright experience to the boys on the island of Dalma.

“Without them, without the challenges we faced and overcame together, I would never have had the idea to even apply for the Fulbright in the first place,” she said. “I applied because I believed that they had such a blessing and positive energy in them that must in a way ripple across the Arabian Gulf and translate into a building block to contribute to the educational reform in the UAE.”


Levester Williams
School of the Arts
Fulbright location: Johannesburg

Levester Williams.
Levester Williams.

Since November, Williams has been creating sculptures and installations that engage with the politics and poetics of space and place in Johannesburg during its ongoing transformation into a post-apartheid city. He is exploring themes such as identity, memory and community in Johannesburg’s urban landscape.

“Twenty years since apartheid disbanded, I get to experience how citizens and government are trying to get beyond this part of history and how they themselves … are moving forward with that in mind — how this has formed these spaces,” Williams said.

Of particular interest to the artist is Constitutional Hill. Now a national monument and the seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the site once housed the Old Fort, which imprisoned famous political activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

“They wanted a site that has history and that was inclusive, and so the Old Fort had this history,” Williams said. “Because the Constitutional Court is there, the basic rights are written in law at that site. So this space of confinement became a space of freedom.”

While exploring the city looking for buildings and sites that remember and reconcile the past, Williams noticed that the city is also rich with materials between those spaces.

“I’m finding a lot of the materials I’m using to build my sculptures from the streets,” he said. “I’m buying from street vendors. A lot of people sell fabrics here. And a lot of fabrics [have] this cultural pastiche.”

Williams is also learning the language of the land.

“I’m learning more about the culture itself because I’m learning the language,” he said. “I’m seeing some of my biases. … To speak one language is to assume one culture and that language mediates our experiences.”

For instance, Williams said, when you greet someone in English with “Hello,” it’s like a declaration. “It’s like me telling myself and telling you that I’m here,” he said. But the traditional greeting in Zulu translates to something akin to “I see you.”

“Recognizing your presence,” he said. “You have a presence and I recognize that as my greeting, whereas me saying ‘Hello’ is declaring my own presence, things like that. I’m learning so much about the culture.”


Lynn Secondo
School of Engineering
Fulbright location: Thermi, Greece

Lynn Secondo.
Lynn Secondo.

Secondo is studying what happens in your lungs when you breathe in nanoscale particles emitted by a diesel fuel additive designed to produce a cleaner exhaust. She works with the Aerosol Particle Technology Lab within the Centre for Research and Technology Hellas in Thermi.

“Over the nine months that I am here, I am hoping to expose lung cells to the exhaust and observe biological changes in a set-up that has not yet been performed,” she said.

Secondo hadn’t considered applying for the Fulbright Scholarship until her Ph.D. adviser in the Department of Chemical and Life Sciences Engineering approached her with the idea.

“Honestly, it took me a while to decide that I wanted it,” she said.

In the end, the opportunities to experience her field in a new country, eat some great Greek food — “Let’s be real,” she said, “who doesn’t want to eat gyros and tzatziki nearly every day?” — expand her world view and share knowledge persuaded her to apply. The opportunities have been abundant, Secondo said. In Greece, she has met many diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. consul generals.

“Each month, I seem to have an invitation to an event due to my affiliation with Fulbright,” she said. “And when President Obama came to visit, we were all provided with the opportunity to see his speech. I don’t expect that this treatment will transfer when I return to the U.S., however, I do know that this scholarship is a big addition to my CV and I am grateful to VCU for helping me achieve it.”

At the end of her Fulbright term, Secondo will return to VCU to finish her Ph.D. She will continue her Fulbright project as part of her dissertation.

“Fulbright is not only an amazing opportunity to live in another country and experience their culture, but to meet other people from America within the Fulbright program, to understand how the world views our country, and to really start to connect with yourself,” she said.


The six scholars above worked with the National Scholarship Office at VCU to apply for the Fulbright Student Scholarship. The office provides support for VCU alumni, graduate students and undergraduates who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships. Interested students and alumni can contact the office at or 804-828-6868.