Exploring Science, and the World

Just a train ride away: The author at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Just a train ride away: the author at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Hiking in the Thuringian Forest, making Stollen, learning to speak German, joining a soccer team: none of these activities are a traditional part of an American ecologist’s life, but they are all part of mine as a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany this year. And increasingly, intercultural and international adventures like these are a part of the lives of young scientists around the world.

According to the Institute of International Education, the total number of US students participating in study abroad programs is at an all time high. Approximately 289,408 American students studied abroad between 2012 and 2013, while only 174,629 did so just ten years earlier. And in 2013, STEM students jumped to the forefront of these studying travelers for the first time: they made up 22.5 percent of all US students studying abroad, followed by 22.1 percent studying the social sciences and 20.4 percent pursuing business and management. So why is studying science and doing research abroad becoming increasingly popular? The reasons are manifold and depend partly on the field of science studied and the student’s educational level.

Darcy Mishkind and other Carleton students doing cool science in Australia. (Courtesy of Darcy Mishkind)
Darcy Mishkind and other Carleton students collecting data in Australia (courtesy of Darcy Mishkind)

Unique Environments

For ecology and environmental science students, a major draw of foreign study programs is the chance to be completely immersed in studying wildlife and ecosystems that are strikingly different from those in the US. Darcy Mishkind, a Carleton undergraduate student who participated in the 2013-2014 Study Abroad for Biology in Australia and New Zealand, says that “we could go out on a hike and see the bower of a magnificent bowerbird, find an echidna on the side of a path, or stand a foot away from the highly venomous common black snake. Some of the excitement is of course due to the fact that it is simply different from the US, but the dynamic nature of the wildlife meant that we were instantly engaged.” In addition, the ability to “learn about a concept by reading primary literature on it, then go out that same day to work on developing experiments” on unique ecological interactions made her experience one that would be impossible to have in a US classroom.

Cultural Exploration

No matter the area of study or the level of education of the student, studying abroad allows scientists to explore new countries and different cultures. Some research fellowships openly encourage these opportunities: as a Fulbright Student, one objective of my ten months in Germany is to engage with the community outside of the research lab and promote cultural exchange between the US and my host country. For some, this is a particular positive; Joshua Chao, a PhD student in Ireland, says that “the absolute range of researchers I interact with — from all different cultures, languages, scientific backgrounds — really broadens my horizons and forces me to step outside of my comfort zone. Learning to communicate effectively with others and opening my mind to explore the various opportunities presented to me are just unparalleled elsewhere.” And as a scientist, says Chao, international interactions can be important for more than just expanding worldviews: doing research on projects that are partnered in international consortiums and training networks lets researchers establish collaboration opportunities with their peers for both the present project and, hopefully, future ones.

Experiments in the greenhouse of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology
Experiments in the greenhouse of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology

World-class Science

Naturally, studying or doing research abroad offers more chances to work at world-renowned institutions or with professors who are international leaders in their fields than are available in the US alone. Dartmouth graduate Laurel Anderson, who is currently doing research at Cambridge, was first attracted to research opportunities in Britain by the fact that her childhood idol Edwin Hubble was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. She cites being impressed by Cambridge’s distinguished history of high-level physics research that continues up to the present as the major reason she applied for and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Physics there. Even recently-opened research institutes abroad can have the exciting new projects, the funding to support them, and the scientific leadership to attract US students. Chao decided to seek a PhD position at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (founded in 2003) when a faculty mentor during his senior year recommended that he conduct research with an “internationally-renowned” biomaterials professor there. He says, “The pace at which many countries such as Ireland have excelled their research programs is really incredible. You begin to see that there is a critical mass of biomedical researchers around which world-class research centers have been built.”

For those interested in earning graduate degrees outside of the US, differences between foreign and US-based programs are essential to think about in addition to the specifics of the research and the lab. In Europe, particularly in the UK and Ireland, graduate programs are shorter: one year for a Master’s and three to four for a PhD. Chao says that “both the principal investigator of the lab and the funding agency expect students to publish and defend within that time period, so the pressure can be quite intense. Yet many students view this as an advantage over doctoral programs back home in the US where the median length of a PhD in the life sciences is 6.9 years.” As Anderson adds, though, that also “depends on how lucky you are with your experiments actually working.”

Academic Focus and Development

Especially for undergraduates and no matter the exact subject or environment, studying abroad offers the added benefit of a much greater focus on science alone. The distraction of typical college life is absent, letting students explore more topics more deeply. Many undergraduate programs also allow students to work directly with professors on a daily basis. I participated in the Dartmouth Biology Foreign Study Program in Costa Rica and the Cayman Islands as an undergraduate and found that my professors actively encouraged us to question them as much as possible. We had long conversations about everything from choosing the correct statistical test to the evolutionary origin of tapirs. Such an open dynamic let the student-professor relationship develop into one more resembling that of peers, making me more comfortable when engaging with and questioning other researchers now.

This complete immersion and new dynamic made studying ecology far from home the most academically exciting part of my life as an undergraduate, and it convinced me to start looking for other chances to research abroad after college. As Mishkind says, “Instead of just learning about an idea part of the time, you’re living with it.”

This post was edited on February 3rd, 2015 to reflect that Edwin Hubble and all Rhodes Scholars study at Oxford rather than Cambridge.

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder (http://orcid.org/0000-0001-5816-9771). I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see http://klymkowskylab.colorado.edu).

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