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BYU's Ben Stone Awarded Fulbright to Research in Estonia

BYU graduate Ben Stone in the city of Tallinn, Estonia
BYU graduate Ben Stone in the city of Tallinn, Estonia

Like many people, Ben Stone found his life upended when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020. Stone was serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Baltics and had only two months left when he was forced to return home early. “I had really fallen in love with this part of the world,” he says, “and was devastated to feel like my time had been cut even a little bit short.”

His love of the region and his desire to get back lingered as he finished his schooling. Stone was studying Bioinformatics with a minor in Computer Science at BYU, with a planned graduation date of April 2023. He plans to attend medical school, he says, out of “a desire to apply my background in bioinformatics and computer science to the medical field, where I believe I can contribute significantly to advancements in patient care and medical research.”

But as he neared the end of his undergraduate schooling, he decided that medical school could wait a little while: “I wanted to take a year before medical school to do more research in the area of artificial intelligence applications to medicine.”

Applying for Fulbright

He’d met several people who had received awards through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and who raved about their experiences, and he decided this could be the perfect way to do that year of research. “I knew it was a competitive and long application process,” he says, “but I thought I would take my chances.” He began working with the BYU Prestigious Scholarships office in April 2022, focusing on applying for a research award, which would give him funding to do research in another country for a year.

And when it came time to pick a country to focus on, the answer was easy, given his mission experience: Estonia. Though he’d spent most of his time on his mission in Latvia and Lithuania, he’d visited Estonia a few times. He also liked the idea of going to a place where the Russian he’d learned on his mission would be useful; Estonia’s official language is Estonian, but nearly a quarter of the residents are of Russian descent, and Russian is the most spoken minority language in the country. “Estonia offered a great combination of familiarity to my previous experience in the Baltics, while still being a new place to me,” he explains.

He was also excited by the research opportunities there: “The Institute of Genomics is a top research institute in Europe. The Estonian Biobank contains about 20% of the adult population of Estonia’s genetic data. As much of my research focuses on using large quantities of genetic data, this was an exciting opportunity.”

He used his connections with Fulbright alumni to find a connection with the Institute of Genomics—for Fulbright research awards, applicants are required to have an affiliation with an educational or research entity within the country—then polished up his application with help from the BYU Prestigious Scholarships Office and the Kennedy Center for International Studies’ scholarships coordinator, James Mayo. Then he submitted his application and settled in for a long wait: he completed his application in September 2022 and didn’t learn he’d received the award until April 2023. Then he spent the summer graduating from college, applying for medical schools, and preparing to move to Europe.

Life in Estonia

Stone arrived in Tartu, Estonia in late August 2023 and will stay until early June 2024. He rents an apartment across the street from the Institute of Genomics, which is located at the University of Tartu. Though the university attracts many foreign students, Stone is the only Fulbright student award recipient in the area. “There are 7 Fulbrighters in Estonia; however, we are fairly spread out,” he says. “The next closest Fulbrighter to me is an hour away by bus. Thankfully, Estonia has great trains and buses, so we are able to meet up fairly often to explore Estonia together.”

Though exploring the country is definitely a perk of his tenure in Estonia, the majority of his time is spent at the research lab at the Institute of Genomics. “It's like I am a normal member of the lab here,” he says. “I attend lab meetings, journal clubs, and institute seminars. I work closely with my fellow researchers, who have helped me with my project. Most of my research is done on the computer as it involves using the data from the Estonian Biobank.”

Like many Fulbrighters, Stone has frequent opportunities to represent the U.S. in his host country, in what he calls a sort of “unofficial diplomat” role: for example, “I have gone to local schools and given presentations on my experience at an American college and studying a STEM degree.”

He’s also had the chance to get involved with important issues in a more official capacity. “I was selected as a representative for Fulbright in the 2024 EU-US Young Leaders Seminar on the Security Implications of Climate Change in Brussels, Belgium in March,” he says. “I will get to meet other Fulbrighters from around Europe as well as alumni of European exchange programs to the U.S. to discuss the impacts of climate change and create plans to address it.”

When he’s not doing research or tackling climate change, he enjoys spending time in his new city: “I have loved getting to know the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here in Tartu. Although we are only a branch here and not a full ward, the members are incredibly faithful and welcoming.”

He’s also gotten involved in the community. “I recently started a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class that my coworker recommended,” he says. “This is a new sport for me, and definitely not something I expected to do here in Estonia. However, it has been really fun to try something new and also meet more people in the community. I also joined a choir here because singing is very important in their culture. All of our songs and rehearsals are in Estonian, so it really challenges me to add to my Estonian vocabulary.”

A Valuable Experience

“This has been the most independent experience I have ever had,” says Stone. “Even though I have lived in the Baltics before, this time has been very different. I am living alone in a new city, 7 time zones away from my nearest family members. My schedule is entirely my own.”

His time in Estonia has benefited him in ways that he hopes will continue to pay dividends in his future studies. “I have learned a lot of research skills that I am excited to apply in future projects,” Stone says. “I feel more confident in my ability to study new topics and methods independently and then apply them to the areas that interest me.”

But the value of his Fulbright experience has been more than academic: “I have met so many incredible people through the Fulbright program, whether that is the employees at the Embassy or other Fulbrighters. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and has such unique professional aspirations. I have really enjoyed being surrounded by a diversity of experiences and broadening my own ideas for my professional career.”

And the experience has broadened his horizons and encouraged personal growth. “It has really pushed me out of my comfort zone to try new activities where I can meet people,” he says. “It is intimidating going to these activities where they mostly speak Estonian, and I have to introduce myself to other people and get to know them. I think it’s the normal things people go through when moving to a new place, but adding in the factors of a different language and culture. I think this experience will contribute to my development as a compassionate and empathetic physician in the future. I know that I will have patients from all different backgrounds, and I hope that I can help each one of them to feel welcome and cared for in my clinic.”

Advice for Aspiring Fulbrighters

If you’re interested in learning more about how you could have a Fulbright experience of your own, check out the Kennedy Center’s page on Fulbright awards here. Interested students can get in contact with James Mayo, scholarships coordinator at the Kennedy Center, to learn about how to get started. Mayo, in conjunction with the Prestigious Scholarships Office at BYU, guides interested students through the application process and helps them fine-tune their essays.

To interested students, Stone offers the following advice: “Get creative with your application! You have the opportunity to go anywhere in the world and research anything you want. The more creative and authentic your application is to yourself, the more it will shine through.”

In conclusion, he emphasizes the amazing experiences that await Fulbright award recipients. “I have made incredible friendships with people in Estonia and with the other Fulbrighters here,” he says. “There are challenging aspects to putting together the application and actually moving to another country alone, but they have helped me to understand myself better and gain a better appreciation for lifestyles outside of the U.S.”