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USM building on first-time exchange program with University of Iceland

Fridgeir Sverrisson knew little about Maine when he accepted the chance to leave the University of Iceland for a two-month-long exchange at USM.

"Everything I knew about Maine was that the state was one syllable," Sverrisson joked. He already knew it was in the American northeast. Then, he opened Wikipedia and read descriptions of pine trees and lobster.

He leaped at the adventure.

Sverrisson, 27, signed onto the first time exchange, titled The Samstarf Project.

He travelled to Portland and spent two months working with people in the Master of Public Health program in USM's Muskie School of Public Service.

Meanwhile, two of the USM program's students USM students Mary-Elizabeth Simms and Catherine Peranzi— Mary-Elizabeth Simms and Catherine Peranzi — journeyed to Iceland. They worked on several research projects and traveled the country before returning in mid-July.

"I have had staff in the office say, 'This was one of the best summers working here,'" said Judith Tupper, the managing director of population health and health policy in the Muskie School's Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy

The Samstarf Project, named after the Icelandic word for cooperation, has been a personal and professional success for everyone involved, Tupper said.

The exchange was built atop the growing relationship between Iceland and Maine, Portland and Reykjavik and USM and the University of Iceland.

This first exchange swapped students in the schools' graduate public health programs, which have complementary strengths. USM's program is policy heavy, with focus on analysis and improvements in policy. The University of Iceland's focus is on better understanding and leveraging its wealth of data concerning every citizen.

"It fit pretty good to send them over there and me over here," Sverrisson said.

During their weeks there, Peranzi and Simms individually worked on papers that examined second-hand smoke from electronic cigarettes and factors that might change the rates of pre-term births. Together, they authored a drug take-back policy brief.

The paper was shared with Iceland's surgeon general.

"Everyone we worked with was interested in talking with us," Peranzi said.

Sverrisson also found receptive scholars.

His focused on sharing his methods. He spent weeks showing people at the Muskie School that they can customize data using original programming. He worked in a language called "R" to show people how to squeeze more information from the available data.

It's something that's stressed in Iceland, where data exists on every person.

"We don't survey people," Sverrisson said. "We know exactly who is living in Iceland. We have data on everybody."

When he wasn't working, he ventured into the community. People took him to museums and parks and restaurants.

"I had a lot of different kinds of lobster," he said. "They are all good."

He found Americans, whether he knew them or not, to be chattier than Icelanders. But essentially, the people are the same.

"It's not that different from back home," he said, sitting in a campus office on a hot summer afternoon. "It's lots of small stuff."

When they weren't writing their reports, Peranzi and Simms managed to travel across Iceland and even met Sverrisson's parents in the town of Akureyri, several hours north of Reykjavik.

The two women were greeted warmly.

The experience of the trip taught them many of the kinds of lessons one hopes to learn by visiting another country and getting to know people, they said.

"There are things that I learned that will make me stronger in my professional life," Simms said. "Mostly it's just being adaptable in a situation and learning how to communicate."

Tupper is already working on replicating the exchange next year.

She is also working with counterparts in Iceland to enroll students in online courses at USM, something that could begin this fall.

"We want to build on the summer's success," she said.