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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.