Crossing Borders: For undergraduate researchers, the world is their laboratory
Article by Jeri Rowe
Each summer on the Greek island of Kea, classical studies professor Joanne Murphy sees the look on her students’ faces when they get off the plane. It’s the wide eyes, the slow walk, the body posture that seems to say, “Oh my God, what have I done?’’
But then, Murphy watches the transformation. The students work in the field, work in a lab, live in cramped quarters and eat family-style meals with other participating students from the University of Akron.
“For these kids, it’s like a Zen meditation,’’ Murphy says. “It’s already inside of them. You just need something to pull it out.”
“I learned I could do things on my own and go out in the world,’’ she says. “I had never been anywhere without my mom, and here I didn’t know anyone except Dr. Murphy, and it was great to know I could handle it. If I want to travel when I get older, it’s nice to know I can be thrown into another culture and be able to communicate with people and learn about them.’’
Taking undergraduate students abroad to conduct research is beneficial for all. Professors find out firsthand how invaluable their students’ curiosity — and energy — can be. Their research takes shape. New information is discovered, data accumulated. As that happens ever so slowly, students get acclimated to seeing their world in a new frame.
Different spots on the globe become their classrooms. Some students learn more about chemistry. Others learn more about archaeology and anthropology. But mostly, they learn a lot about themselves, about who they are and what they want to be.
In 2007, Brittany Burke lived in a two-room flat, in the village of Penipe in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador and ate rice, beans, chicken and cuy – guinea pig.
Meanwhile, she talked to Ecuadorians about a volcanic eruption the year before.
It changed people forever. It changed her, too.
Burke now lives in Busan, South Korea, teaching English to students who range in age from 5 to 17.
“The further away from home I go, the more I feel I owe it to my opportunity to work and study abroad,’’ she wrote in an email.
That is why research scientist Eric Jones goes after grants from various foundations to cover the costs of the month-long trips.
Sure, it’s the research. But it’s also the reaction – and growth – of the students involved.
“One of the powerful experiences in cultural anthropology or any ethnographic field is to remove yourself from your cultural framework, figure out a new one and realize yours is not the only one that matters,’’ Jones says.
For seven weeks in Bristol, England, Daniel Nasrallah spent countless hours working on creating an anti-smoking drug. In the lab, he lost track of time in his white coat and purple gloves.
That always happens to him at UNCG. But he can only spend 12 hours a week in a lab in the Sullivan Science Building. At Bristol University, on his research project coordinated by longtime chemistry professor Dr. Terry Nile, he could stay all day.
And he did until the very last minute of the very last day.
On that day, he leaned on his bike, taking a break and saw hot-air balloons rise at dusk.
“It’s kinda surreal,’’ he says. “You hear music. It’s dark and the countryside lights up when these 30 to 40 hot-air balloons start rising. They look like little grapes, little jellyfish in the distance. Just floating away.’’
When Nasrallah talks to chemistry friends about his trip to Bristol, he tells them: “You have to apply for this program. It’ll change your perspective on chemistry, on UNCG and open your eyes to the possibilities.’’
Read the full story in UNCG Research magazine.
Photography by David Wilson, University Relations