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USF Health expands its borders

USF Health expanded to Panama earlier this month. The new health sciences academic center will offer classes for locals and USF students, in addition to conducting research already in progress by USF faculty.

The foundation opened June 2. Called the USF Health International Foundation, it is the only health sciences academic center in Ciudad del Saber, a former U.S. military fort. Ciudad del Saber translates to “City of Knowledge.”

Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health, said Panama is an ideal place for a health sciences academic center because it is centrally located in the Americas and is an easy place for people to get to.

“Panama itself is one of the most ecologically bio-diverse places in the world,” Petersen said. “It has a number of different ethnic groups and indigenous populations. For a country that is as small as it is, it has very dense urban areas, rural areas and remote tropical areas. So it’s a fascinating place to do research and work.”

The foundation’s existence was three years in the making.

“With Panama, it was more of an evolution because of a pre-existing relationship,” said Deborah Sutherland, president of the foundation.

The idea started in the College of Public Health. A doctoral student from Panama said there were many opportunities in Panama for USF to expand global health education and convinced some faculty members to travel there, Petersen said.

“What happens when you go, (is that) you see what’s there and you see the opportunities,” she said.

With the support of faculty members, the college decided to expand to Panama, creating opportunities not only for research but for its students.

“After 9/11, of course, it is harder for international students and international researchers to come to the United States,” Petersen said. “So we thought, maybe we need to go to a place where we can meet and is easier for them to come to.”

The foundation has one doctor and an assistant. Little funding is allocated to it right now, Petersen said. Funding for the foundation comes from the College of Public Health.

The plan is to generate income from programs such as continuing education courses and certification training for Panamanians. Petersen said there is a high demand in Latin America for training in the basic sciences of public health and clinical research.

“The goal is for it to be self-supporting in two to three years,” she said.

In the future, the foundation wants to expand its research on tropical diseases. It has already started research on malaria.

Sutherland hopes the foundation will not only work with the College of Public Health, but expand to other colleges.

“We are hoping to have an exchange program for residents interested in global health,” she said.

USF nursing and public health students have already studied in the country with the University of Panama. There are also business students there with the study abroad program, Petersen said.

Christine Doherty, a USF nursing student, spent three weeks in Panama for a community health clinical class.

“I thought going to Panama was a great experience to learn about another culture and see how they do things differently,” Doherty said. “I learned a lot about their community.”

Petersen said studying in Panama provides a valuable experience for students of various disciplines.

“We really see it as a great opportunity for students who want an international experience,” she said.