A scientist studying abroad
Happy New Year!
A few months ago, I participated in a Twitter chat led by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (@afameducation) where we discussed the role of international education for black students. As an advocate and a recent participant, I shared some of my experiences:
I studied abroad the fourth year of my PhD program. It is highly uncommon to do so, but I had always regretted not studying abroad during my undergrad and I saw this as an opportunity to get an immersive learning opportunity. I really wanted to develop some of my quantitative and signal processing skills, so I took advantage of a French-American research collaboration supported through the Chateaubriand Fellowship, and an international supplement to my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. In undergrad, I was a first-gen student and that alone was a pretty overwhelming experience. I am from a working class family, the youngest of five (I’m more than certain I will do a collection of posts about this topic). I grew up with a full understanding of my family’s financial situation, so when I first heard about study abroad opportunity both in high school and college, I immediately assumed that there would be no way we could afford it.
Part of the discussion with the Twitter chat tried to address this very topic. More and more resources are being made available to help support students to gain an international experience. Spelman College has a wonderful, and ambitious Global Research and Education STEM program to encourage their STEM students to have a global engagement during their undergrad experience. I’m currently in discussion with their office to see how Mozilla Science Lab might be able to help with their efforts. I will try to follow up this blog post sometime with a list of resources to help point readers in the directions of opportunities.
Studying abroad isn’t just about going away to imbibe a culture, but it is about experiencing your connection to the broader world. We are of the generation that have grown up experiencing a virtual life without border. We have traveled, couchsurfed, developed friendships both with and without social media, with people and personalities across the globe. During my time abroad, I made such great friends and learned so much about the French culture. I had very frank, open and involved conversations about race in the U.S. and France, the state of the education system and academia, how we as scientists have to be active and engaged, that “science is not a spectator sport” to quote one of my high school teachers.
With the Chateaubriand fellowship, I joined a team of researchers who were not only pushing the field of cognitive neuroscience with cutting edge analysis techniques, but were also deeply committed to creating a community for fellow researchers to discuss, share, and improve open-source data analysis software. During my fellowship year, I was supervised by Alexandre Gramfort who is the project lead for MNE, a python package for MEG and EEG data analysis and visualization, and a core contributor to scikit-learn, a python package for machine learning.
I spent my fellowship year learning how to introduce machine learning into neuroscience of language research to better understand the relationship between eye movements during reading and their underlying brain responses. At the same time, I continued my involvement as an MNE contributor to improve its support and introduce new tools. This fellowship year, for me, was a necessary boost to my PhD studies. As a neuroscientist, Chateaubriand allowed me to collaborate with engineers, and learn new skills that weren’t offered in my department.
In addition to being a great place to learn, Paris is perfectly positioned [for] a researcher who likes to explore in their free time. Throughout my fellowship year, I would take the train on the weekends to explore France: I went champagning in Reims, I traveled to Chamonix to see Montblanc, I went down to Toulouse to go hike the Pyreenes with a friend, just to name a few. There are plenty of countries close by to visit too. The flights are quick and can be really cheap. Here’s a list of countries I visited: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.
Working toward a PhD is super hard. The Chateaubriand fellowship helped me be productive and master new skills all the while having some fun along the way.