Research Abroad Opportunities Pave the Way for Exchange of Skills, Culture

Research opportunities for students in the UW–Madison Department of Biochemistry extend beyond the walls of the buildings in which the department’s labs reside. Through some of the department’s own study abroad opportunities, undergraduate students who have declared a major in biochemistry or who do research in a lab affiliated with the department have the option of doing research in labs at research institutions across Europe.

The department’s two research-based study abroad programs are the Summer Program to Research Experience-Germany (SUPER-G) and the Summer Cambridge and Oxford Research Experience (SCORE).

Students who wish to participate in the programs submit a cover letter and letters of recommendation. Those who qualify are selected for the interview process. From there, students who are selected are paired with a lab in either the United Kingdom or Germany for the upcoming summer.

Photo of Timothy Grant
Tim Grant

The programs were established by Marv Wickens, now an emeritus professor in the Department of Biochemistry. Tim Grant, the program’s current director, explains, “Marv and Judith [Kimble, also a professor in the Department of Biochemistry], both spent time in the United Kingdom and had many contacts there. Every country, the UK included, has a kind of different culture around research, around the ways people approach questions. So, Marv started sending students there not only to get research experience in the UK, but to have a different cultural experience in a lab, as well.”

Unfortunately, like all study abroad programs, both SCORE and SUPER-G were put on hold for years during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program’s pause also coincided with Wickens’ retirement. Now that travel restrictions have abated, Grant, who is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and an investigator at the Morgridge Institute for Research, is revitalizing the programs.

“Working in a research lab is such a good experience for students who are thinking about graduate school,” says Grant, “and working in a lab abroad can be a chance for our students to learn about the wide array of research possibilities. The programs are meant to give undergrads another perspective on research. Research everywhere is ever more international, and understanding that our research culture isn’t the only research culture is important for a career in research.” In Europe, for example, research groups tend to be smaller and there is more collaboration among groups compared to in the U.S.

Last year, Dev Desai, a senior majoring in biochemistry, became the first student since the onset of the pandemic to participate in the SCORE program. Desai, who works in the Hershey Lab in the Department of Bacteriology, was a 2023 recipient of a Mary Shine Peterson Award from the Department of Biochemistry. Desai used the award, which is available for undergraduate students entering or in their final year of study, to support his travel and living expenses while he worked at the Francis Crick Institute in the lab of Peter Rosenthal.

Dev Desai with postdoctoral research assistant, Eva Garcia Moro, who mentored Desai during his internship at the Francis Crick Institute in London
Dev Desai with postdoctoral research assistant, Eva Garcia Moro, who mentored Desai during his internship at the Francis Crick Institute in London

“I’m very interested in the field of structural biology, and that field is especially strong in parts of Europe,” says Desai. “The SCORE program gave me an opportunity to experience a new academic culture and gain experience in structural biology, which is really essential because I’m deciding what to study in graduate school.”

While in London, Desai also participated in a research collaboration between the Hershey Lab and Morgan Beeby’s lab at Imperial College. “I was very lucky,” says Desai, “because I got to experience two different labs. I could experience new kinds of research while also continuing to make progress on the kind of research I do here at UW.”

Research experience was only a part of what made the experience meaningful to Desai. “The Francis Crick Institute is just so different than it is here,” explains Desai. “Less student-focused, much more researcher-centric. Both environments have their advantages and as I think about what I’ll do next I’m glad to have had experiences in both places.”

Desai made the most of his time in London. In addition to working in the two labs, he explored the city with many of the other students who were spending summer abroad in London. “I got to live with students from various universities in London and we explored the city together,” recalls Desai. “I don’t think I even have to look at a map to get around on public transportation there anymore!”

Grant hopes that after last year’s successful resurrection of the program, he will be able to help multiple students find research opportunities abroad for summer 2024 and beyond. Financial support is available through the Department of Biochemistry’s undergraduate research awards.

Students who apply for the SCORE and SUPER-G programs should already have a strong background in lab-based research. “These programs aren’t so much about building a skillset,” says Grant. “Students are expected to be productive and beneficial to the labs that they’re placed in. It’s about building relationships and learning different ways to approach questions.”

Grant encourages students with a strong background in research and an interest in graduate school to consider applying. “It’s an excellent way to gain experience in research through cultural exchange,” says Grant. “Undergraduates often spend time in just one lab. If you think you will be interested in pursuing research in the future, this is another way to see how that world looks from a completely different perspective.”