Undergrads explore the world through MCB's study abroad programs

MCB major Morgan McCarthy is one of several MCB students studying in Stockholm this semester, earning course credit, conducting research, and exploring the region. Photos courtesy of McCarthy.

For many students, going to college is like unfolding a corner of their map of the world they’ve never seen before. Amid these new experiences and settings, some University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students choose to pick up a new map and continue their exploration by studying abroad. The domestic and international shutdowns of COVID-19 forced a hiatus in everyone’s lives, but as study abroad programs resume, students are more excited and more supported than ever to continue expanding their educational experiences.

This spring semester, the School of Molecular & Cellular Biology has had three MCB majors and three biochemistry majors attending Stockholm University. While at the university, students have had the opportunity to take a research traineeship (research in a lab for course credit) and/or one or two other courses that count for advanced credit in MCB. Thanks to a new grant from the European Union, two MCB students were awarded scholarships to help defray the costs of attending the program.

Melissa Michael, associate director of curriculum and instruction who builds MCB discipline-specific study abroad experiences for the school’s students, collaborated with her counterparts at Stockholm University. They were successful in winning European Union funds to be awarded to UIUC students studying at Stockholm University and Stockholm students studying at UIUC.

Studying abroad “is an experience that enriches you as a person and makes you see life from a new perspective. Whatever life goals you have, I truly believe studying abroad can help you get even further,” said Morgan McCarthy, a pre-med junior majoring in MCB and studying in Stockholm this spring.

McCarthy almost did not study abroad because she wasn’t sure if she could fit it into her schedule as she worked to fulfill course and degree requirements and studied for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). “I am so glad I made this a priority because it has taught me so much about the world and about people,” she said.

In addition to the program in Stockholm, MCB also offers international programs in Newcastle, England; Pavia, Italy; and Vienna, Austria. Each one was designed with MCB and biochemistry students in mind. Pre-approved courses are guaranteed to count toward School of MCB majors, and programs offer special opportunities such as research traineeships in a lab or shadowing physicians and oral surgeons, and internships.

Kanika Leang, a junior majoring in biochemistry, said gaining research experience abroad was important to her.

“For students applying for graduate school, it can be a really enticing way to get lab experience. I am using it as a way to gauge whether or not I'd like to go to graduate school abroad. The work culture can be different in other countries and experiencing it firsthand for a few months is easily the best way to see if it’s the right fit for you,” Leang said.

The program at Stockholm University is academically rigorous, students said. Classes taught in English are usually master’s level courses, which translates to 400-level courses at UIUC. There is self-guided learning which comes from readings and giving academic presentations to peers plus groupwork and lab work.

Reflecting on her classes, McCarthy said her first one, Stem Cells and Cancer Cell Development Biology, was difficult but rewarding. In addition to attending weekly lectures and discussions, she read five to 10 scientific articles per week and answered review questions. Students also presented a scientific article to the class, usually on a topic related to stem cell research. Lab work focused on culturing stem cells and differentiating them.

“The biggest aspect of the course was the development of a research proposal. My partner and I had to create research goals on a specific area of stem cells, which in our case, was neural stem cells. We then had to create a specific approach to accomplish these goals,” McCarthy said. “Overall, this class made us apply our knowledge of biology rather than memorize information for exams. I learned so many laboratory techniques and assays and how to apply them to real questions. I learned how to thoroughly read and present scientific articles and how to develop my own research approach to answering scientific questions,” she said.

McCarthy has also found her research traineeship valuable. She conducts research in a lab that is investigating how insulin-independent mechanisms triggered by the release of norepinephrine increase glucose uptake in brown fat and skeletal muscle. She hopes her work with adipocytes contributes data about thermogenesis of these cells and ultimately improves treatment options for people with Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Alongside their academic responsibilities, students have kept themselves busy by exploring the cities and countries around them. McCarthy and Leang have visited Helsinki, Amsterdam, Dublin, Paris, and the Arctic Circle.

“The most fulfilling thing about studying abroad, in my opinion, is the freedom you feel traveling alone and experiencing new places and cultures on your own agenda. You end up learning a lot about yourself and that type of awareness is something you can take with you everywhere,” Leang said.

She admitted that prior to going abroad, she wasn’t sure if she was ready for the experience.

"I was afraid of committing half a year (maybe more!) in an unknown country, continent, and culture,” Leang said. “Not only was I ‘stepping out of my comfort zone,’ I was physically flying hours away from my safe space. Studying abroad can be a really exciting, but terrifying prospect. Now that I've been here for a few months, I can say that I was right to feel scared, and I was also right to power through that hesitation. I trusted myself to have the skills to navigate those unfamiliar situations, and even if I didn’t, to keep an open mind and learn how to for the next time,” she said.

Looking toward their future, both students said they possess the ability to internally navigate in any situation. And the fresh insight on their educational and personal development drives them toward their next steps. Leang intends to apply to graduate schools in the fall, and McCarthy begins her medical school application journey.

As they grow as students, scientists, and citizens of the world, Leang and McCarthy said they will never forget their study abroad experiences.

“The [The Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility] grant has helped me achieve all of the things I’m accomplishing,” McCarthy said. “It would not be possible for me to travel as much as I am or enjoy as much food and activities in Stockholm as I am. I am so grateful for this scholarship because it has helped me gain so many more experiences than I could have imagined, and I will hold onto these memories forever!”

Written by Eman Zwawi, MCB Communications.

May 02, 2022 All News