Matthew Hurd: Braunschweig – Germany
What were the primary factors that influenced your decision to study abroad?
I never thought I’d be the kind of person who would study abroad. In fact, I never thought I would leave Richmond. I was becoming competent in the German language by practicing religiously on Skype with Germans I had met through a language exchange website. These Germans were all STEM students (a pharmacist, a mathematician, a chemist and a computer programmer). By learning about their experiences in Germany, I quickly became inspired by how the country has become a world leader in STEM education. I wanted to experience firsthand how the country operated and why it was so successful, so I decided to make an appointment with the study abroad office (GEO). The rest is history.
What program and destination did you choose?
What manifested from this decision to meet with GEO was something I never expected. I ended up studying abroad in Braunschweig, Germany for ten months. Technische Universität Braunschweig is an engineering and science university with a focus on practical, applied learning.
What classes did you take while abroad and how would you compare them to taking courses on campus at VCU?
I transferred back second semester Biochemistry, Ecological Biochemistry, and Plant Biochemistry. I also completed a Molecular Genetics laboratory course. The most challenging part was the lab work. German biology students are rather advanced in lab and analytical skills as their education focuses on intensive, hands-on approaches. I had to interact and write my tests and lab reports in German. It was extremely challenging at first because my German lacked the vocabulary to express scientific ideas, but I overcame this with the help of my German peers. As a result, my competency in the language skyrocketed.
Bachelor students in Braunschweig have an intensive curriculum. Their first year consists of biology, biochemistry, organic and inorganic chemistry, plant and animal sciences, genetics and microbiology. This is all with a laboratory experience, too. They only have to do one or two electives for their whole degree! This is quite different from an American Bachelor’s education in which the focus is more on liberal arts and theory. I was way behind when I started, but I worked hard to gain these skills and competencies in the laboratory.
Additionally, I attended German language courses and lectures in fields such as genetics, geomicrobiology, physics for biologists, and environmental toxicology. I even studied Spanish and Swedish! I was happy to study here. I think the laboratory, analytic and practical education complimented VCU’s theoretical approach. When I returned to VCU, I was able to take my new laboratory experience and use it in Dr. Wenheng Zhang’s lab.
What research did you participate in while abroad?
All biology students in Germany are required to do thesis work. In fact, the top German universities require such an experience for the acceptance into a Master’s program, so many foreigners (like Americans) may be excluded. Thesis work entails much more than your own project. You are expected to work nine to five every day in the lab for three to five months. Perhaps the most exciting part of my time in Germany was meeting a post-doc who invited me to do research for five months. Starting in May, I will work full-time in her lab assisting current research studies and undertaking my own research project. Her lab focuses on understanding and mapping specific pathways in the cell that are involved in the inflammatory response. Personally, I will research the cross-talk between Glucocorticoids and Interleukin-6 on the expression of a relatively unknown gene Redd1. I’m extremely excited to improve my laboratory and research skills and to work in a collaborative environment. My advisor is a biochemist, more or less. We will be using molecular biology and biochemical approaches to answer our questions. I’m thankful that I was able to take all the biochemistry and molecular biology and get the related lab experience for it in Braunschweig.
For you, what were the benefits of studying abroad?
I learned cross-cultural skills and experienced how another country operates, both culturally and academically. I became even more proficient in German and had the chance to travel around Germany and other countries including Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden. I experienced first-hand why Germany is an economic and scientific leader of the world. I don’t know what is in store for my future, but I know my study abroad and international research experience will help me in graduate school or professional work. I hope everyone reading this ignores your study abroad anxieties and make an appointment with the GEO office to discuss your possibilities. You never know what will happen.
What would you say to a student who is considering studying abroad?
For prospective study abroad students, I have advice for you based of my own experiences. My time in Germany wasn’t a cakewalk. I did have many set-backs and challenges.
- Start your research early. Due dates for scholarships and applications are usually way in advance.
- Work closely with your GEO and biology department advisor. Your GEO advisor will help you find programs and funding opportunities and help you navigate the logistics. Before you go make sure your prospective coursework will transfer back. Understand how your experience will affect your intended graduation date and discuss getting prerequisites done for classes you may take abroad.
- Find a way to make your experience abroad work FOR you! Although I had a semester left at VCU, I found work in Dr. Zhang’s lab. I was able to use my laboratory experience in genetics to assist in her lab. People with international experience stand out academically and professionally as well-rounded and motivated individuals.