Not every student will go skydiving while doing research abroad like biochemistry undergraduate Meng Lou. However, they can take a plunge by making the decision to travel to a country they’ve never been to and perform research there in a scientific laboratory.
In 2016, Lou traveled to Germany’s European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), located in Heidelberg, to perform research in a laboratory for the summer through an abroad program run by UW–Madison biochemistry professor Marvin Wickens. Called SUPER-G (Summer Program to Experience Research in Germany) the program sends a few students each summer to EMBL. It is one of two programs Wickens leads. SCORE (Summer Cambridge and Oxford Research Experience) sends students to those two prestigious British universities for the same reason. This year he is also piloting a new program to send students to London to study at the newly established Crick Institute.
Wickens’ programs are a decade old, and have sent more than 75 undergraduates to Europe to perform research at these highly respected institutions of scholarship and research. Upon coming back, students say they have an increased understanding of not only their interest in research as a career but also the larger global enterprise of science.
“Going to Germany was not something that happened and is now over,” Lou says of his experience. “Going to Germany was another step in my own self-discovery. It was the most eye-opening personal and research experience I’ve ever had.”
Wickens says the inspiration to start the programs came out of his own experience studying abroad as an undergraduate student. While at UC-Berkeley, he had always dreamed of studying in Europe and so applied to a program that took him to Scotland for an entire academic year. But in the spring, he realized he wasn’t quite ready to leave. Instead, he was accepted to a program that then took him to London for the summer before returning home — an experience he remembers as transformative.
“I am trying to give our students that same experience I had,” he explains. “That requires being in a rigorous academic environment, and for more than just a couple of weeks. An entire year can be difficult to do but a summer is enough time to experience research abroad. That’s why this program exists.”
The Department of Biochemistry also houses many other study abroad opportunities. Professor James Ntambi sends students to Uganda for courses such as Agriculture, Health & Nutrition and UW Mobile Clinics & Health Care. The Khorana Program and Bose Scholars Program, both run by professor Aseem Ansari, are intellectual and cultural exchange programs with India.
Students apply for SCORE or SUPER-G in the fall semester and then Wickens interviews a collection of finalists. He inquires about their research interests and if they are selected, he places them in a specific lab they will enjoy. Wickens suggests students start thinking about these education abroad opportunities as early in their undergraduate career as possible.
The labs the students are placed in work broadly in the areas of biochemistry, cell biology, developmental and molecular biology, and genomics. The research they do covers an enormous range of topics. Students have performed research on everything from protein structure using x-ray crystallography to developmental biology using plants or flies as model organisms.
“This is very different than many other education abroad programs because the focus here is really on the research, as well as the international experience,” Wickens says. “I don’t just want them to go to Europe. I want to get them into a fantastic lab and that’s why we send them to places like Cambridge, Oxford, and EMBL. If students put energy into their lab work, they will get a lot out of the experience. The same with their cultural experience. If they are receptive to embedding themselves in the culture they learn to think differently about science and society.”
Students are encouraged to explore their summer home. Although they work roughly 40 hours per week in the lab, they get to explore the castles, countrysides, and history of Europe.
“When I was initially accepted into the SCORE Program, I did not think much about how my experience in the United Kingdom would impact my perspective on the world, my future, and myself,” says Ban Dodin, a past participate who graduated from UW–Madison in 2017 and has now returned to Cambridge for a post-graduate degree. “To say those two months changed my life would be an understatement. Not only do Cambridge and London have a special place in my heart, the people that I met there, especially my lab mates, also mean a great deal to me.”
Lou says his experience in the lab at EMBL was phenomenal. Others in the lab treated him with a lot of respect and challenged him, while also understanding he was an undergraduate student. Lou graduated from UW–Madison in May 2018 with degrees in biochemistry and computer science, as well as a certificate in stem cell research, and will perform research for two years at the National Institutes of Health. He’s ultimately interested in an M.D./Ph.D. program.
In a biophysics lab at EMBL, Lou used cutting-edge tools to study neuron development, using zebrafish as a model organism. Specifically, he used a biological technique called optogenetics, which uses light to control living tissue in cells genetically modified to be affected by the light. Cells, such as neurons, must transport cargo for different purposes and Lou was investigating how cargo transport affects neuron development.
He adds that EMBL has phenomenal imaging technology he was able to utilize in his research to learn many techniques he had never done himself before. For example, he would set up an experiment that would run overnight and in the morning would observe cell dynamics over time, seeing clusters of cells begin to become neurons and organs.
“Many of the students are finding they really like science and doing research, more than they realized,” says Wickens, adding that financial constraints often hinder students’ participation but gifts to the program can help. “Even though they are in an environment where they get to explore a new city and even continent they still have a lot of time to spend in lab doing focused research. They get to experience what life would be like as a graduate student and career researcher.”
Several students, like Dodin, returned to Europe for their graduate work, and have received prestigious Wellcome and Rhodes Scholarships to do so. Wickens says it’s not for everyone, but one of the unspoken goals of the programs is to open students’ eyes to the breadth of what they can achieve.
Lou’s experience in and out of the lab culminated in deciding to go sky diving. A self-described adrenaline junkie, he used his abroad experience to reinvent himself and explore areas of himself in a brand new environment.
“Just go for it,” Lou says. “That’s what I would tell people interested in doing research abroad in SCORE or SUPER-G or those that are reluctant. It’s like sky diving. Yes, you are afraid and yes you are free falling but you just have to do it. Take the leap and embrace the fact that you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Wickens says he’s confident the view will be spectacular.
Read more about undergraduates and abroad opportunities in the UW–Madison Department of Biochemistry: