Tips and tricks for research success abroad, Singapore Week 6

Hello World!

I have wrapped up my time in Singapore – I can hardly believe that I lived and worked in another country for six whole weeks! I’d grown quite accustomed to the Singaporean environment and will miss many aspects of my life there as I return to Champaign-Urbana. All the same, I miss being “home” and am excited to return to the University of Illinois!

Strolling past an ancient Chinese temple on my last day in Singapore.
Strolling past an ancient Chinese temple on my last day in Singapore

As I reflect on my international research experience at the National University of Singapore, I’m developing the colloquial “20/20 hindsight” and would like to write down some advice for student researchers aiming to travel abroad for research. I hope this will help me consolidate my own experiences, plan for future research experiences at other institutions, and spread my hard-earned knowledge with the world at large. Disclaimer: I beg pardon for any hackneyed clichés that may force themselves into my “tips and tricks” for international research success! Here we go…

Tip # 1: Finding an appropriate research match is crucial.
Find a lab whose research is closely matched with your own, but uses techniques and tools that don’t fall within the expertise of your local network. Vet your host lab carefully – have extensive planning conversations both with the PI and your mentor to make sure that your expertise overlaps with theirs enough to give you a common language but not so much that no knowledge transfer can occur. This is a delicate balance to achieve and the best way to accomplish this is to have honest and open conversations about your goals with your host PI.

Tip # 2: Match your research goals with your time constraints.
All research, but biological research in particular, is unpredictable and extremely time consuming. Six weeks is a very short time to expect to recreate experiments optimized in a home environment, implement new protocols, and get positive and statistically significant data. The research goals I had planned for this experience relied heavily on my recreating complicated living biological machines/devices that I’m used to fabricating in a very different environment. The many difficulties associated with this, including mundane issues such as reagent backorders and botched shipments, suggest that this goal would be more readily accomplished on a longer time frame – perhaps on the order of 10-12 weeks. In the future, if I am time constrained to a shorter research experience, I will focus my energies on learning and practicing protocols and techniques that have already been optimized in my host lab, brainstorm methods of translating it to my own research, and implement those changes upon my return to my home institution.
Our bio-bot research featured in O'Hare Airport.
Our bio-bot research featured at Chicago’s O’Hare airport!

Tip # 3: Keep your goals dynamic – think on your feet!
Research, as I’ve stated many times previously, is extremely unpredictable. When you throw in the time constraints imposed by an international experience, the unexpected twists and turns can lead you to very different ends than you had anticipated. Learn to think dynamically about your goals and readjust your priorities as new circumstances arise. Decisions should be made quickly with efficient follow-through, and you should always keep yourself open to going in a different direction than you originally planned.

Tip # 4: Make every experience count, and stay optimistic.
The fact of the matter is, things won’t ever work according to the optimistic schedule you set for yourself when you begin any research experience, short-term or long-term. However, it’s important to keep in mind that every experience is unique and valuable – keep your mind open to absorbing and learning about everything around you, not just the things you told yourself you would learn about. Most of all (and this is advice for life in general), stay optimistic! I had some very rough days in Singapore, and really… in graduate school in general, but I know I’m learning something new every day and recognize the true privilege of being a student researcher at one of the best universities in the world!
Some “wrap up” thoughts on Singapore… This experience provided me with truly invaluable immersive training by providing me with the ability to do research in an internationally acclaimed university and lab facility.

In addition to furthering some of my research goals, it helped me develop the academic and professional skills required to form and maintain connections with researchers in international institutions. I learned a lot about a broad range of topics ranging from international biosafety standards to the state of the biotechnology industry in foreign countries. I also learned about my own strengths, limitations, and abilities to adapt to new working environments! I believe many of the lessons learned during this experience will help me further my goals in graduate school as well as in my future career in academia.

By providing me with opportunities that very few other students are able to experience during graduate school, this component of my NSF IGERT traineeship has really accelerated my personal and professional growth, and provided me with the tools and information needed to succeed in an increasingly global and multidisciplinary research environment. Before I wrap up the Singapore section of this blog, I’d like to thank all the people who made this possible – the National Science Foundation, my advisor at Illinois, administrative staff for the IGERT program, my host PI/lab and university, my research colleagues, friends, and my parents! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to travel, learn, and keep broadening my horizons.