Badger to Badger: UW–Madison students Brody Andes and Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez intern at GHI-One Health Center-Colombia

Welcome to this special segment of GHI News, where communications intern Kendall Buehl will share the amazing stories of UW–Madison students collaborating with the Global Health Institute.

By Kendall Buehl, GHI Staffer… Over the 2023 summer term, UW–Madison students Brody Andes and Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez put the Wisconsin Idea into global action. As part of the One Health Center Summer Research Internship, the two worked at the GHI-One Health Center-Colombia genomic lab in Medellín. GHI-One Health Center-Colombia is a collaboration between the UW–Madison Global Health Institute and Universidad Nacional de Colombia with funding from Abbott Laboratories. There, they found potential learning opportunities everywhere they looked, from interacting with the One Health scientific team to visiting Indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon region. Now, as a fellow Badger and UW–Madison student, I hope Brody and Natalia’s story inspires you to follow your passions, even if they are as big as changing the world. 

Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez, left, and Brody Andes, right, in the GHI-One Health Center-Colombia lab (photo from N. Betancourt Rodriguez)

Madison-raised Brody Andes graduated from UW–Madison in May 2023, with degrees in Neurobiology and Spanish and has already started his medical school journey at Saint Louis University. Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez, who will graduate in May 2024, with degrees in Biochemistry and Global Health, hails from Cali, Colombia, and is pursuing her Bachelor’s at UW–Madison through the King-Morgridge Scholars Program, which chooses students committed to addressing issues of poverty in their home countries. 

Although different, Brody and Natalia’s stories echo one common theme: passionate perseverance.

Brody Andes stands behind a Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) sign (photo from B. Andes)

“I think my story to medicine, in general, is related to my brother,” Brody explains when asked about his inspiration to pursue a medical degree. “He’s had pretty serious physical challenges in the past- lots of surgeries and in-and-out of a wheelchair, so just seeing all of the medical attention he’s gotten from some awesome healthcare teams, that was always my starting point for getting interested in medicine.” 

And building off of this spark, Brody playfully remarks it is helpful that his father, David Andes, MD, faculty member and chief of the Division of Infectious Disease within the Department of Medicine, “nudged” him toward a Medical Microbiology path. 

“It’s great to have him to bounce questions off of,” Brody shares. “I’m able to ask some of the technical questions you can’t always ask your mother or father about work.”

Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez in front of Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) Sede Amazonia (photo from N. Betancourt Rodriguez)

In Natalia’s case, she quickly became passionate about health inequity following a project during her senior year of high school, where she studied how traditional and modern medicine clashed among women in the city of Buenaventura. She explains that her hometown’s population is predominantly Afro-Colombian while the majority of doctors in the area are white, which she says perpetuates the health inequities she hopes to solve. Now, this gap in healthcare equity inspires her emerging infectious diseases work as she studies in GHI Director Jorge Osorio’s lab in the School of Veterinary Medicine on the UW–Madison campus. 

“Since I started working with Dr. Jorge Osorio at UW–Madison, I got into the world of infectious diseases,” Natalia describes. “I fell in love with it mostly because infectious diseases and communicable diseases are predominant in developing countries, like Colombia.”

Not many of us students can say we have “fallen in love” with emerging infectious diseases, but Natalia’s mission to help her community and her country drives her passion for global health so energetically.

While Natalia’s work with Osorio motivated her to apply for the One Health Center Summer Research Internship, Brody tells a different story. 

“I actually had a Spanish professor email me about this internship opportunity,” Brody reveals. Knowing Brody was interested in scientific research, his professor recommended he apply… and the rest is history. This truly goes to show the power of interdisciplinary connections and how students in any field can utilize all of UW–Madison’s resources to further their studies in eye-opening ways. Creating opportunities for interdisciplinary connections is the guiding principal and strong foundation of GHI.

Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez, left, and Brody Andes, right, and a member of the GHI-One Health Center-Colombia team stand in front of the One Health Consortium logo (photo from N. Betancourt Rodriguez)

Now that we know Brody and Natalia’s inspirations, let’s see how their lab experience in Colombia has broadened their perspectives on One Health. For Brody, he remembers his experience as one filled with thinking on his feet, and specifically, “thinking in the pathogen’s shoes” to better understand a disease’s evolution from start to solution. 

“The spontaneity of it all was really exciting,” Brody elaborates. “You never knew what was going on that day or that week, but you knew it was going to be good content.”

Natalia adds to this by reiterating the full-cycle process of it all. They would learn about the origins of new pathogens, how the lab came to that discovery, and how to determine the consequences of these pathogens.

“They’re looking at all the determinants of health,” Natalia specifies. “That’s what global health is, right?

Brody builds on this thought by sharing how the One Health Center-Colombia team is complementary yet collaborative. “We weren’t restricted to one focus area- the exposure to a wide array of lab techniques and people from a wide array of backgrounds makes us more aware,” Brody shares. “As students, we’ve expanded our perspective on the possibilities of research in the fields we’re studying.”

We now see science as a set of blurred lines since there are more ways scientists from different backgrounds can connect and inform each other on new techniques, discoveries, and overall knowledge than ever before. No one discipline needs to guard itself away to make all the change when cooperation is key. 

Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez, left, and Brody Andes, right, stand with a member of the One Health team on the colorful streets of Colombia (photo from N. Betancourt Rodriguez)

With cooperation comes friendship. And after seeing Brody and Natalia chat, I can confirm they have a strong one. 

Brody emphasizes how helpful Natalia was, especially since this was his first time traveling to South America. She “held his hand” throughout the trip, exposing him to new food, cultural practices, and linguistic techniques. And that was just the beginning. 

“Her family welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like a part of the family for those three days,” Brody affectionately recalls. “Natalia became what felt like family over there, and I think it’s going to stay that way.”

Natalia wholeheartedly agrees, and says it was not just one-sided. She admits that even though she’s Colombian, she needed his help when traveling to Medellín because Brody did so much research beforehand. With this mutual exchange of knowledge, Natalia and Brody appreciate their summer spent together.

“It was so nice to see a person fall in love with my culture as much as I did,” Natalia adds. “I feel like this is a friendship that will last a really really really long time, and it was just amazing to work alongside him.”

On the topic of relationships, Brody and Natalia highlight the connections they made while visiting the communities in the Colombian Amazon region. From the Amazonian city Leticia, a two hour boat ride took them to Puerto Nariño, a municipality located on the shore of the Amazon River. Brody tells us they met open-minded Indigenous community members and leaders who were willing to talk to the One Health team about their traditions, customs and beliefs, and some of the issues they are currently facing.

Brody Andes, left, on a boat ride through the Colombian Amazon region (photo from B. Andes)

“It was just mind-boggling how incredible these people’s stories are, and you could see the humanity in everything they said,” Brody remarks. “That was probably the most impactful trip that we took- it was about three days in Puerto Nariño where I was just constantly having to shut my mouth because of these jaw-dropping moments.”

Adding on to Brody’s thoughts, Natalia emphasizes the kind of relationship researchers and scientists should be having with Indigenous people and minority groups. 

“One of the big takeaways from this trip is that when you work with minorities, specifically with these Indigenous communities, it’s not like the Indigenous communities are your study subjects,” Natalia asserts. “You need to treat them as study partners.” 

Undervaluing the importance of Indigenous ancestral knowledge is detrimental to the research that scientists are doing, since so often local community members and traditional medicine practitioners know much more about a certain topic or issue than someone who has been in the location for a matter of days. Only by giving the Indigenous community that credit can researchers come to meaningful conclusions.

Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez and Brody Andes hold up the Badger ‘W’ with a member of the One Health team at a hotel in the Amazonian city of Leticia, Colombia (photo from B. Andes)

“I truly believe, since research is so oriented towards publications and papers, these Indigenous leaders should be in there,” Natalia advocates. “These projects wouldn’t be possible without them.”

To keep this heartwarming tone alive, let’s see what Brody and Natalia think of GHI Director Dr. Jorge Osorio and the rest of the One Health team. 

Brody and Natalia want to foreground how Dr. Jorge Osorio and the entire GHI-One Health Center-Colombia team made this summer one they will never forget. Natalia has grown especially close with Osorio, since she works in his lab at UW–Madison.

“Since I met Jorge, he’s been like a father to me because I had a hard time coming to the US and being alone for the first time,” Natalia shares. “We Colombians are very family-oriented.”

In addition, Osorio has helped Natalia open doors for different research opportunities. She notes he’s really passionate about action and truly making things happen. With a bright smile on her face, she says, “I love him, he’s the best.”

And although he hasn’t spent many hours with Osorio, Brody emphasizes he feels appreciated and cared for. Brody notes Osorio is a mentor, connecting students to the people and places they desire. 

“He has this optimistic and forward-thinking vision that’s infectious, in the most literal sense,” Brody describes. “It’s truly inspiring, and the people he attracts around him, like the entire One Health Center-Colombia team, are evidence of that.”

With more background on their experience, they both describe having moments where they became fully aware of the entire start-to-finish lab process.

Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez, right, stands with a member of the GHI-One Health Center-Colombia team (photo from N. Betancourt Rodriguez)

“Seeing the full cycle of what the One Health team is doing – going directly into community hospitals and clinics to collect patient blood samples, transporting samples back to the Medellín lab, and then seeing the analysis process in the lab – was really satisfying,” Brody explains. “I feel like I was able to get a really good grasp on what the lab was doing from a technical sense.”

In a similar vein, Natalia traveled to the Amazon region of Colombia with Dr. Osorio in January 2023, to collect mosquito samples, and when she received vials to analyze during the summer internship, she was shocked to see her own handwriting was on them. 

“So it was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ These are the samples I collected in January, and we’re analyzing them right now,” Natalia remarks. “It was really fascinating to integrate that fieldwork and laboratory work.” 

This is truly what One Health is all about. Natalia continues by summarizing it for us: “Looking at the cultural factors, the biological factors, the climate factors – it was really fascinating to see how they all came together to tell a story. It’s explaining how we got to this pathogen, how it came here, and what’s next. How are we going to help these people?”

As the GHI One Health Center – Colombia researches what’s next for solutions to these pathogens, let’s take a look at what’s next for Brody and Natalia. 

With her experience at the GHI One Health Center – Colombia, Natalia plans to continue lab work at UW–Madison as she looks forward to applying for a Ph.D. program. Specifically, she is interested in the work of Mostafa Zamanian, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathobiological Sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine, and a member of GHI’s Advisory Committee

Brody Andes and Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez enjoy a sunset (photo from N. Betancourt Rodriguez)

“It’s in my country, it’s for my people, so it would be great if I could give that little contribution toward the big project,” Natalia expresses.

With four years of medical school in Brody’s future, he knows there will be lots of learning and test taking. Yet, Brody told us he recently sent six emails to six different Principal Investigators (PI) whose research he finds interesting. 

“And I would note, relevant to the internship, they all are kind of centered around epidemiology and biostatistics,” Brody shares. “Without the internship experience of getting a really broad global perspective, I don’t think I would have been emailing the professors I was emailing last night.” 

With that being said, Brody and Natalia’s story won’t be coming to a close anytime soon. In true Badger spirit, they will keep learning about how they can change the world, taking the Wisconsin Idea with them everywhere they go. 

If you want to learn more about their experience or what they’re doing next, contact Brody Andes at bdandes@wisc.edu and Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez at nbetancourt@wisc.edu. Please reach out to UW-Madison’s Study Abroad program if you are interested in learning more about similar experiences at the GHI One Health Center – Colombia, or elsewhere in the world, to globally expand the Wisconsin Idea.