Biochemistry professor Marvin Wickens is the recipient of the 2019 College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) Award for Excellence in International Activities. Wickens founded and runs two research abroad programs for undergraduate biochemistry majors and other biological sciences students at UW–Madison. Now a decade old, his programs have sent nearly 100 students abroad to perform research at outstanding institutions across England and Germany, including Cambridge, Oxford, The Crick Institute in London, and the EMBL-Heidelberg.
“I had my own experiences abroad as a young scientist and they affected me in profound ways,” Wickens says. “I wanted to let our own students have something similar, and experience science as a career while living in a fantastic foreign environment.”
Wickens’ two programs — SCORE (Summer Cambridge and Oxford Research Experience) and SUPER-G (Summer Program to Experience Research in Germany) — provide students the chance to do research in very international departments and institutes, widely recognized for their commitments to scholarship. Students spend the summer immersed in a research lab, and learn not only valuable approaches and ways of thinking, but also how other cultures pursue scientific and cultural questions.
Wickens accepted the award at the 2019 CALS Go Global Symposium on Tuesday, April 9 from CALS Global director Sundaram Gunasekaran. Gunasekaran and CALS Dean Kate VandenBosch commented on how Wickens’ work fit perfectly into the symposium’s theme of “Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Through University Engagement.”
“I could not have created and sustained these programs without the help of CALS and its staff in International Programs,” Wickens says. “From the very beginning up until today, CALS has managed the logistics while I have been able to concentrate on the science and its history, and find ways to help the students realize their ambitions.”
VandenBosch put the programs in a broad perspective during the ceremony.
“Land grant universities like UW–Madison are expertly and specifically equipped to aid in missions like those of the UN,” she said. “On behalf of CALS, thank you to our many international staff, faculty, and students and those who support international exploration.”
Wickens mentors each student prior to leaving for Europe and carefully matches them with a lab based on their particular research interests or ideas. He said students are often happily surprised that he was able to identify their latent interests and open up chances for them to explore.
Students often report the program had a serious impact on them and their passion for research. The majority of students go on to graduate school or medical school, with some even going back abroad to continue their studies. These include recipients of Rhodes, Wellcome, and Fulbright scholarships, and one now seeking a faculty position in Australia.
“These programs provide students with at least three things,” Wickens says. “The first is helping them realize that science is not just science. It is all rigorous, and data is data; but research is global and takes place in different cultures. The second is that science and technology will no doubt be needed to accomplish the UN’s goals. Lastly, the experience often helps students understand their place in the world and so can enrich their lives, often in unanticipated ways.”
Senior Michael Palo studied at the Crick Institute in the summer of 2018 and says Wickens works tirelessly to ensure the program enhances students’ education.
“These programs offer students the extraordinary opportunity to expand their knowledge and skill set by exploring new research topics in an international setting, which imparts both scientific experience and valuable interpersonal and cross-cultural skills as we live and work with people from all over the world,” he says. “Marv genuinely cares for his students and is invested in not only making sure they have memorable periods abroad, but also in helping them find future success. For example, he also served as a mentor as I applied to graduate school by helping me to explore different programs and researchers.”
Wickens adds that one of the great perks of the program is getting to know these outstanding young men and women and help them along on their way.
“The exact experience a student will have is impossible to predict,” he says. “But I love opening that door for them.”
Read more about Wickens and research aboard programs in the UW–Madison Department of Biochemistry: