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Passport To Science

Once outnumbered by humanities majors, science students are now studying abroad in force

by Linda Wang
September 4, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 36

Blending In
Gardner (back row) poses with schoolchildren in Ecuador after teaching them biodiversity games.
Gardner (back row) poses with schoolchildren in Ecuador after teaching them biodiversity games.

In May, Katie Lomberk graduated from Arcadia University, Glenside, Pa., with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and mathematics. She got her degree in just three years and still found time to study abroad, in London. Add to that Ireland, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, China, and Egypt.

Lomberk's globe-trotting adventure is not typical among chemistry students, but she is no longer the exception. As study-abroad programs grow in popularity, science students are finding ways to make it work for them.

Nonscience majors have traditionally consisted of the largest percentage of students who study abroad. According to a 2005 "Open Doors" report on study abroad published by the Institute of International Education, physical sciences, engineering, and health sciences accounted for only 13.4% of the majors studying abroad in the 2003-04 academic year.

"Most science students are afraid to study abroad. They think they can't do it," says Tomas Baer, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), and coordinator of the Trans-Atlantic Science Student Exchange Program (TASSEP), a large science exchange program in North America and Europe. He explains that many science students are worried they'll get behind in their coursework if they go abroad. "Our job as faculty members is to tell them, 'You can do it.' "

Studying abroad has clear advantages for science students. Overseas, they are exposed to different approaches to teaching and learning, they gain professional contacts, and they learn to solve problems on the fly. "A global experience is very important for budding scientists to have because they come back and think about what they are learning and how they're learning science in a very different way," says Preetha Ram, assistant dean for science at Emory University. "They're more accepting of the fact that they are going to be interacting with international colleagues and that the whole landscape of science is changing."

Robert G. Cluss, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and dean of curriculum at Middlebury College, in Vermont, says students who have gone abroad come back more grounded, more confident, and with a better perspective of the world.

Still, with their heavy course loads, and because of the sequential nature of these courses, science majors can feel apprehensive about being away for a semester or a year. All of the students C&EN interviewed, however, say that going abroad was one of the best experiences of their lives and that they were able to fit it in and still graduate on time. The key to making it work, they say, is to plan ahead.

Many chemistry faculty are helping students plan ahead by introducing them to the idea of studying abroad during their freshman year. "You cannot begin thinking and planning too early," says Cluss, who helps students interested in studying abroad plan a course of study.

Gregory C. Tucci, assistant director of undergraduate studies for Harvard University's department of chemistry and chemical biology and a concentration adviser, says that in the past several years, he has been asking every freshman concentrating in chemistry whether he or she plans on studying abroad. If so, he offers the student advice on how to structure the course work to be able to fit it in.

Searching Within
Lomberk (left in photo at top) and two friends emerge from the Boho Caves in Northern Ireland, where they observed stalagmites and stalactites; (photo below) students from Emory University watch a demonstration on glassblowing in Murano, a coastal island near Venice famous for its handblown glass.
Lomberk (left in photo at top) and two friends emerge from the Boho Caves in Northern Ireland, where they observed stalagmites and stalactites; (photo below) students from Emory University watch a demonstration on glassblowing in Murano, a coastal island near Venice famous for its handblown glass.

Some colleges, like Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif., have created road maps that list the sequence of courses science students need to take to fit in a semester or year abroad. Arcadia University does something similar, in addition to making sequential courses such as chemistry 101 and 102 available in the fall, spring, and summer.

The effort is paying off. At Emory University, only 7% of science students studied abroad in 1997. Now 20% do. At Middlebury, a quarter of chemistry and biochemistry majors study abroad every year. And at Harvey Mudd, the number of science students who go abroad has been growing every year.

Once a student decides to study abroad, there are many things to consider. For one, students must find out whether they can receive credit for the courses they plan on taking abroad. Arcadia addresses this by keeping a list of "approved" foreign universities. Arcadia faculty are stationed at each of these institutions to help students select courses that will transfer. "We don't want them just studying anywhere," says Chester M. Mikulski, professor and chair of the department of chemistry and physics at Arcadia. "We want them to study at a quality university."


Another consideration is cost. Studying abroad would seem expensive, but students who have done it say that it often does not cost any more than tuition in the U.S. Financial aid and scholarships are also available to help. At Harvard, Tucci says, many science students take advantage of Herchel Smith Harvard Undergraduate Research Fellowships to conduct research in labs in foreign countries. The Fulbright Program ( also provides grants for students to do research abroad. And the National Science Foundation offers a variety of fellowships for a similar purpose.

A strong study-abroad program is one way some universities are distinguishing themselves. In fact, Arcadia University is so well-known for study abroad that students choose the school for that very reason. "We were looking for something that would be very distinctive and that would make our university unique, truly different, and truly forward looking, and I think we've found it," Mikulski says.

Several dozen U.S., European, and Canadian universities have joined together under TASSEP to offer a structured study-abroad experience for science students. Unlike at many universities where science students take nonscience courses abroad, students participating in TASSEP take predominantly science courses.

TASSEP allows science students to be abroad for a year and still make progress toward their degrees, says Lani Stone, an academic adviser and coordinator of the TASSEP program for the University of Washington, Seattle. She adds that faculty science advisers are available at each of the participating universities to help students choose appropriate courses that will transfer.

Another unique aspect is that the program requires students to have language proficiency, and they will often take their courses in a foreign language. Jason Bischof, a senior at UNC-CH and a chemistry and biology double major, took chemistry and biology courses in French when he studied abroad in Grenoble, France, in his junior year. He said it took him several days to get over the initial shock of a completely different environment. Matthew Van Wingerden, a senior at the University of Washington, took physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and genetics in Spanish when he studied in Madrid in his junior year. "Even with different teaching styles, chemistry is just chemistry no matter where you go," he says.

Students who find it impossible to be away for a year, or even a semester, can find opportunities over the summer to study abroad. Since 2004, chemistry faculty at Emory have been taking 15 to 20 chemistry students to Siena, Italy, for five weeks over the summer. As part of their course work, students visit art museums to learn about art restoration and the chemistry of paints and pigments; they visit vineyards to study the fermentation process; they tour gold, alabaster, and glass factories to watch chemical transformations unfold; and they test for minerals in water samples at a nearby Tuscan town.

"It's important to tie in what they study with what they're seeing around them," says Ram, who has led several of the trips. "The classroom then becomes a place to discuss their experiences."

Jolyn Taylor, who went on the Siena trip in 2004, says the experience made chemistry come alive for her. "Everything we studied, we saw," she says. She notes that she also got to see how passionate her professors were about chemistry. "That kind of enthusiasm from professors is contagious," she says. "You can't often get that in a class of 200."

Regardless of how much time a student spends abroad, whether it's just a summer or an entire year, the experience makes a big difference. Scott Wallace, a graduate student in inorganic chemistry at Indiana University, Bloomington, studied in Italy as an undergraduate at Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, Pa. He says the experience has made him more sensitive to the struggles of international students. And of the international students in his own lab at Indiana, he says: "I'm sympathetic, and I'm patient. I know what it's like."

Van Wingerden came to a similar conclusion when studying in Madrid. "In American universities, there are so many foreign students that we just think it's normal; they should be able to survive on their own," he says. "But for each one, it's still difficult. I really learned to appreciate that."

Studying abroad influenced Shelly Krebs's decision to pursue a career in international public health. Krebs, who studied in Scotland and graduated with a bachelor's in chemistry and biochemistry from Bradley University, Peoria, Ill., in 2000, is now a graduate student in molecular and cellular biology at Dartmouth Medical School. She says studying abroad "changed her life."

For Brooke Gardner, studying abroad reaffirmed her love for biochemistry. Gardner, who graduated from Middlebury in May with a bachelor's in biochemistry, studied comparative ecology in Ecuador during the second semester of her junior year and got to visit a rainforest, the Amazon River, and the Galapagos Islands. Although she enjoyed what she was studying, she says there was never a doubt that her first love is for biochemistry.

The experiences students bring back have led to curriculum changes in some chemistry departments. Kurt W. Field, chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Bradley, says chemistry students who study in Europe often return with oral and written communications skills that are better than those of their peers. As a result, the department now requires that all seniors pass an oral exam to graduate.

International experience can make a student more attractive to graduate schools, medical schools, and potential employers, says Washington's Stone.

While students may get the most out of a study-abroad experience during their undergraduate years, Jay S. Siegel, director of the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, encourages students to consider doing their graduate work abroad. Siegel himself went abroad as a graduate student on a Fulbright scholarship and ended up doing a postdoc abroad. He says students who do their Ph.D. abroad will come back more aware of what's going on in the world.

Many graduate students, however, say they don't recommend pursuing a Ph.D. abroad because of the time commitment involved. They say doing a master's or a postdoc abroad would be more practical. "There's a lot of pressure on a Ph.D. student to get stuff done," says Arif Karim, a grad student who moved to Zurich from San Diego several years ago with Siegel's group. "If you get caught up in the culture shock, that's definitely something that absorbs your time."

Still, some students, like Lindsay Merte, are up for the challenge. Merte graduated from the University of Washington this year and studied abroad in Vienna; he's planning on doing his Ph.D. in surface chemistry at the University of Aarhus, in Denmark. The opportunity resulted from a contact he made in Vienna. Although he is concerned about being disconnected from the U.S. job market while abroad, he's "not worried enough to not do it."

Going abroad can be addictive. Emory's Taylor went on to study for a semester in Bolivia, where she helped to bring hand sanitizers to a rural hospital. And Lomberk plans to spend the next two years in Australia, where she will work on a master's in chemistry. But before she goes, she is taking a few months off to do something she hasn't done in a long time: spend a summer in the U.S.



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