Rotary International Group Study Exchange with Kirby Vandivort

Beckman senior research programmer Kirby Vandivort went on the trip of a lifetime to spend a month in Italy to learn about vocational practices, experience the culture, and, of course, indulge in homemade Italian pizza.

Kirby Vandivort, a senior research programmer with Klaus Schulten’s Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, participated in a Rotary International Group Study Exchange in northwestern Italy from mid-May to mid-June.

Rotary International is an association of business and professional leaders who provide humanitarian service, promote high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world. The organization sponsors the Rotary International Group Study Exchange (GSE) program, which provides travel grants for teams of young professionals to exchange visits between paired areas in different countries. For four to six weeks, team members study the host country’s institutions and ways of life, observe their own vocations as practiced abroad, and exchange ideas.

After a rigorous selection process, Vandivort was chosen to a part of a four-person team to travel to Italy for a month.

“I had heard about these trips from a Rotary member for years. But because of my work here at Beckman with renewals and proposals, it was impossible for me to even think about being gone for a month,” Vandivort said. “This year, however, we were in between critical time periods, so I applied for the exchange and I was accepted.”

“It seemed like an amazing opportunity” he said. “I had never been to Europe, and I really wanted to go to learn about the culture. Most of the trips I have gone on were related to scenery and cool places to visit, so I made the decision to truly immerse myself in the culture on this trip.”

The host Rotary district arranges the entire schedule for the visitors, from where they eat to where they sleep. The basic biographies of the Rotary team were sent to the district supervisors, and, from there, the supervisors selected places in the area that were aligned with the visitor’s interests and vocational practices. Vandivort had the opportunity to share information about his vocation as well as the Beckman Institute with many Italian researchers.

Some of the places Vandivort visited included: Proplast, a consortium of European plastic manufacturing companies; an alternative energy lab producing ethanol from waste biomass; the Mario Boella Research Institute in Torino; and the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, where he met with Walter Rocchia, an Italian researcher who uses the VMD Molecular Visualization software written and distributed by Schulten’s group.

“It was really neat to see our software being used,” Vandivort said. “It’s not a surprise that we have users overseas, but I was impressed that the local Rotary members had looked into my biography well enough to see that connection.”

Vandivort also learned about other aspects of Italian life and culture through visits to historical sites and governmental agencies. From all these experiences, he gained a greater understanding of the Italian culture, and believes this kind of experience makes the world a smaller, more accepting place.

“The highlight of the trip for me was a deeper appreciation for how similar we are as human beings,” he said. “Minor cultural differences aside, people can be passionate about their families, their research, their country, and their food no matter where they are in the world.”

This article is part of the Summer 2013 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.