Reflecting on a Summer Abroad

Fall 2017

Madeline Shred

Schulich Leader at University of Waterloo

Working in a research lab all week and travelling to a new country every weekend… it sounds like a dream, right? But this past summer, it was my reality.

From May through August, I lived in a small town in Germany and worked in a local research laboratory. I worked on an enzyme engineering project under the supervision of a PhD student as a part of the RISE Germany program. I characterized, mutated, and tested the activity of an enzyme to screen for an improved variant. It was an opportunity to apply my molecular biology knowledge to the real world and gain technical lab skills. When I wasn’t in the lab, I was biking around town, spending time in the cozy city center, or taking weekend trips.

At the expense of sounding like a cliché, I want to share how this experience changed my life. I developed a passion for lab work that I hope will become a career, but the real magic happened outside of the lab. My travel allowed me to grow immensely as a person. I remember when I participated in the Shad Valley program, they taught us that to grow, you have to step out of your comfort zone. In Germany, I was always slightly out of my comfort zone. I was living on my own in a country with an unfamiliar language. Even simple things like shopping at the grocery store or trying to catch the right train can be a challenge when you don’t know the language that well. I was immersed in a new culture and across an ocean from my family and friends. Despite, or perhaps because of this, I had amazing experiences that allowed for immense personal growth.

During my stay, I traveled to nine different countries (mostly) on my own. A few years ago, I wouldn’t even think of going to the mall by myself, but this summer I found myself staying in hostels, visiting museums, and hiking in the Swiss Alps on my own. My confidence and independence has soared from navigating foreign countries and facing challenges on my own. I gained new interpersonal skills, connecting with the diverse group of people in my lab and communicating my experiments and results to my supervisor. I had experiences that I will never forget, like taking a spontaneous weekend trip to Venice and enjoying an authentic German Volksfest with my lab mates. I was thrilled and excited each new day, whether it was working on my project in the lab or exploring a new city.

I had a summer full of growth and discovery and I want to encourage any student who’s interested in research to apply to the RISE Germany program. Gaining research and language skills are only the tip of the iceberg of benefits that this program provides. Even if research in a foreign country isn’t for you, I encourage you to try to find another way to step out of your comfort zone. Like me, you might be surprised and proud of how much you can grow.