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2024. 06. 10 -

A great opportunity for pupils, students and researchers: why apply to the Baltic-American Freedom Foundation?

Dr. Arūnas Stirkė. Photo from personal archive
Would you like to go to United States university of your choice for a year to conduct research, gain valuable knowledge and contacts - all for free?
The Baltic-American Freedom Foundation (BAFF), an initiative born across the Atlantic to promote cooperation between the US and the Baltics in the fields of science and economics, offers such an opportunity.
Dr. Arūnas Stirkė, a researcher at the Department of Functional Materials and Electronics of the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology (FTMC), has tried it out. The BAFF Alumni Council member says that this fund gave him the opportunity not only to do an internship in the US, but also to discover a promising new field of science - working with microalgae - which he has successfully transferred to the FTMC.
The chemist talks about his experience in America, the advantages of the BAFF and invites all interested parties to contact him - no matter what kind of scientific institution you are from.
(Dr. Arūnas Stirkė. Photo: Hernandez & Sorokina / FTMC)
What is the Baltic American Freedom Foundation? Many may be hearing about it for the first time.
It is based in the USA and funded by money from the USA.
Interestingly, the BAFF's board of directors is made up of Americans with parents or grandparents from the Baltic States. These people today have good businesses and usually work for large companies. The board manages the money in the fund: the initial seed money came from the US state, but now it is grown by the people in the fund themselves, investing in different markets and earning money from it.
BAFF's mission is to support young Baltic nationals by providing cash scholarships and awards for internships and apprenticeships in the US state of their choice. Their activities are focused on talented young people and they offer five different programs, which can be found on their website. Depending on the programme, they are open to people ranging from an 11th grade student to a very mature scientist.
Funding is also available to bring an American expert to the Baltic States for a short period of time (the Baltic-American Dialogue Program). Everything is funded: the guest's flight, accommodation. This is very useful, especially when organizing scientific conferences in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia. It is no problem to ask for a more serious person to come along.
You yourself have participated in one of BAFF's programs called the Research Scholar Program. How was the experience?
In 2018 I went to Arizona State University in Phoenix. It's a very cool university, one of the coolest in America in some areas, and is dedicated to innovation. 
I worked on campus, on a huge 10 hectare site. They are developing technologies for growing unicellular microalgae and finding ways to get something good out of them. I went there as an electroporation specialist.
Electroporation is a technology that allows electrical pulses to permeabilise (change) the membrane of the microalgae, thereby extracting the desired substances, which are usually proteins and fats. The University has focused mainly on fats, with the aim of extracting biofuels from microalgae.
(Dr. Arūnas Stirkė. Photo from personal archive)
I worked in a huge laboratory in a former military campus. Half of it has been demolished, there is a recently built research center, and in the surviving part of the campus I had the opportunity to live in one of the old barracks. It was like in the movies of the 1980s - a simple "paper" house in the desert (laughs).
There was also a military airfield where civilian planes used to fly on weekdays and military planes only on Sundays, and a brewery nearby. You get a pint, go to the gates and watch the planes take off. And on Sundays, there were military pilot exercises. Very fun! You stand behind a tiny fence and watch everything. Of course, the sound is terrible, and on Sundays you can't do anything, so you go and watch the planes.
So I worked with microalgae. I was assigned to an American company called Diversified Technologies, which manufactures industrial electroporation devices. I had the honour of working with the founder and owner of the company. He came several times and we even did experiments together.
It was this company that commissioned the research. Interestingly, unlike in the Baltic States, in the US, the main sponsors of research are private companies. This is normal practice for them. Companies wait almost half a year in a queue before they get the opportunity to experiment at that research center at Arizona State University.
Two different companies cannot work there at the same time?
They can't, to avoid information leaks. I worked in a kind of service laboratory, which is very necessary for those laser and optical coating companies.
(Microalgae grown in the laboratory. Photo from the personal archive of Dr. Arūnas Stirkė)
You do research and you know that it will have very specific applications? That they won't just end up in articles.
Yes, it is the other way round - if it was possible to publish the results of experiments, this is something atypical. Because normally all the data is not published: the research was paid for by the company, the experiments were done using the company's equipment - so the results are their property.
I have carried out several studies in this way. For example, we have found that microalgae grown in aquaculture become infected with various parasites. One of these is paramecia. You may remember them from your school days when you used to do experiments with a microscope. Teachers would usually draw water from a puddle and introduce you to protozoa during biology lessons.
So, here's the thing, paramecia are a big problem, because they gnaw on the microalgae. And we have managed, using electroporation, to "kill" the protozoa and keep the algae alive.
Electrocute them?
Yes (smiles). That's selective disinfection.
You have both microalgae and paramecia swimming in the same water, and you were able to make the electricity only affect the paramecia?
Yes, that is the uniqueness of electroporation. By selecting the right parameters of the electric field, it is possible to "kill" some organisms and keep others alive. Here, size and shape are among the most important parameters. The paramecia are much larger than the microalgae.
So it was while working there that I met (and later became friends with) the scientist Henri Gerken. Our main collaborative work is on microalgae electroporation, coexistence of algae with bacteria, etc. My PhD student Kamilė Jonynaitė started working on this topic practically as soon as I came back from America. So it was from the USA that microalgae research came to the FTMC. I had nothing to do with this field before.
You only became interested in it in 2018, when you went across the Atlantic?
Exactly. The very good thing is that BAFF allows the freedom to do what is relevant to the researcher. After all, most of the time, once you start working on one topic, you stay there. But if you are curious, it is natural to wonder a bit: what is being done in other themes?
So, whether you do an internship in an area you know, or whether it's a new one where you're newbie, it's completely irrelevant to the Foundation. You go wherever you want. As a biophysicist, you can go to study philosophy. Of course, you have to have a reason why you are going - and why you should be accepted.
This is an awsome opportunity, because if it wasn't for the BAFF and an internship in a semi-industrial laboratory, I would never have worked with microalgae. And before that, all my science was about yeast.
Just like my FTMC colleague Dr. Povilas Šimonis: he was doing other things before, but after winning a BAFF scholarship and going to the USA, he started doing astrobiology.  And he continues to do so now that he is back in Lithuania. The Foundation allows people to try to find different paths.
(Dr. Povilas Šimonis and Lithuanian journalist Ignas Kančys talking about astrobiology research. Screenshot from the "Mokslo sriuba" Youtube podcast)
So BAFF helps you find an internship and funds everything?
First of all, there are calls for applications, there is a selection process, and you have to submit a lot of documents, but not too much. What I really like is that you only need one A4 sheet to fill in the application form. You have to write where you are going, what you will do. Usually, this is understood by scientists as 'how many papers you will write'. But for the Foundation, this is not important. The money given is an award. BAFF does not ask you to write a report or to write articles. Nothing. You got the money, you left, you came back - voila.
So, if you get selected, there are a few interviews, which normally require some preparation. After the selection, there is a one-day event in one of the Baltic countries before the flight to the US - the winners are briefed on the procedure that awaits them, they are prepared. The Foundation buys the plane ticket, but asks that you have some cash for small items when you leave the airport in America.
In 2018, financial nuances were a problem for me myself. Many people know that opening a bank account in America is a challenge. BAFF is very helpful here, writing mediation letters to banks. But it takes time. In my case, I came to Phoenix, they took me to a hotel (because I didn't have a place to stay yet) and I stayed there for a month. It wasn't much fun, because hotels cost money. During that time I had to open a bank account in a hurry, because otherwise you can't rent a place there. But what is good is that the foundation paid for the hotel later.
So as soon as you open a bank account, the Foundation transfers the money, you get the grant. In Phoenix, I was getting $1,000 a month. Renting a house (including utilities) was $1,000 a month - yes, it's expensive, but the other $1,000 is yours and you can do whatever you want with that money. I managed not only to survive, but also to save a lot of money.
It is worth saying that BAFF is very friendly. If you talk to them, write to them, they will always look for solutions, help you, even call the hotel manager... A very warm and cosy communication.
(Dr. Arūnas Stirkė. Photo from personal archive)
What was the second time you won the BAFF grant?
The second time was an opportunity for alumni of the Foundation. And everybody becomes an alumnus when they come back from America. By the way, there is a rule that once you finish your internship in the US and come home, you cannot emigrate for two years. If you fly abroad for conferences, trips, short-term internships, no problem. But you can't live abroad permanently for those two years.
For example, couldn't I give up everything and go to Norway to pick strawberries when I come back from that internship?
Then you'd probably be prosecuted and have to pay back the money. This rigour is needed to make sure that you use the knowledge you get for free in your own country.
And that's what happens: for example, BAFF alumni include many entrepreneurs and people in the financial sector, so the Foundation encourages development in Lithuania, helped by the connections made in America.
So, in June 2023, three BAFF alumni - Artūras Jukna, professor at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VILNIUS TECH), myself and Vilma Petrikaitė, professor at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences - decided to work with terahertz radiation at the University of Rochester in New York State. We were there for three weeks.
We did different experiments. I am currently developing injectable patch technology with colleagues. We were interested in studying how this dressing absorbs water in a wound. Using university equipment, we have been looking at how water penetrates the hydrogel material of the injectable patch. The experiments were successful and we are continuing our work. I hope to publish our scientific paper on this in the near future.
(One of the developers of the injectable patch technology, FTMC researchers Dr. Wanessa Mello and Dr. Arūnas Stirkė. Photo: Hernandez & Sorokina / FTMC)
You are a member of the BAFF Alumni Council. How did you become one and what are the responsibilities?
As I mentioned, everyone becomes an alumnus automatically when they come home from the USA. We now have about 900 such people. We are always thinking about how we can involve alumni in the Foundation's activities, how we can work with them to improve BAFF's programs so that they are more in line with the expectations of the participants.
So the Alumni Council is an evolving body. Membership of the Council is for 2-3 years. Elections are held for its members. It is a voluntary, unpaid activity.
A few months ago, there was an election, I took part, and I won. The Council's activities range from finance to science. I am currently part of the Program Development Committee.
About once every quarter of the year, there are live meetings of the committee. One was recently in Riga, and on 30 June, there will be a meeting of the whole Council in Vilnius. And there are also trips to America by Council members.
So what should a scientist, student or schoolchild interested in BAFF know?
The main calls for participation in BAFF programs take place in the spring and autumn. So, the spring calls are already over, but I recommend that you prepare in advance for the autumn. 
Each programs has its own rules. One is open to pupils (as long as they have good grades), another to PhDs, another to those with at least a Bachelor's degree and so on.
You can contact me directly, by text, email or in person. Or to my colleague Dr. Šimonis. Such a conversation can help you get a grip on the documents you need to submit and improve your cover letters. You can write to us from any educational institution, no problem. And not just from Lithuania - in this case, as an alumnus, I represent all the Baltic States.
Written by Simonas Bendžius
Dr. Arūnas Stirke:, Messenger
Dr. Povilas Šimonis:, Messenger
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