By Doug Ramsey
San Diego, CA, June 17, 2005 -- A unique summer program that allows University of California, San Diego undergraduate students to do hands-on, information-technology research in Asia is expanding this year from three to four host countries, and the program is drawing more female students.
Thirteen students - five of them women - fly next week from the United States to their respective host sites in Australia, Japan, Taiwan and China, the newest site. The students are part of a pilot program at UCSD called Pacific Rim Undergraduate Experiences (PRIME), launched in 2004 to encourage global experiences for students doing research related to the global cyberinfrastructure.
Many of this year's recruits were introduced to the program by word-of-mouth. Shirley Lee is headed for Taiwan. "I heard about the PRIME program through a friend who participated in it last summer," said Lee, a biotechnology major in UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering, Class of '06. "We volunteer in the same bioengineering lab, so I was able to learn about his experiences in Osaka, Japan last summer."
"That is a very encouraging sign," concluded Gabriele Wienhausen, provost of UCSD's Sixth College and PRIME's principal investigator. "It shows that last year's students came away with very positive experiences from working alongside researchers in labs where the language and customs may be very different."
PRIME is supported by a grant from NSF (NSF INT 0407508) and from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). It is a partnership of Sixth College, UCSD's Academic Internship Program (AIP), the Pacific Rim Applications and Grid Middleware Assembly (PRAGMA), and the host institutions in Asia and Australia (see below).
In recent weeks, the PRIME students attended a series of meetings designed to give them a crash course in living and working in a foreign culture. The meetings were jointly organized with UCSD's International Center, and included a training seminar by University of the Pacific anthropologist Bruce LaBrack, based on his popular program for students abroad, "What's Up With Culture?"
"This year we tried to layer more of a framework of cultural competency on the research and ad hoc international experiences these students go through," said PRIME co-organizer Peter Arzberger, director of UCSD's Life Sciences Initiative. "We are also asking the students to answer questions on a weekly basis via email about how they are coping with their host cultures. This is a pilot program, and we're looking at any tools that might add value to the cultural component of these overseas research experiences."
"By providing a framework to understand different cultures and how people communicate, we are hoping that these students will better understand the culture of their host sites," added the International Center's William Clabby, who was involved in the cultural competency training. "These students will change as a result of this experience, and will need to change to better understand that culture."
Computer engineering junior Eric Wang was attracted to the different culture in Japan, where he will spend the summer. "The idea of being able to do research in a whole new environment was really interesting to me," said Wang, 21, "Not only will I be learning new things that'll help my career and help build relationships, but I get to eat and try to speak the language too!"
The quality of the students recruited for PRIME reflects the high barriers to entry placed on the program to ensure top-quality students and research. "The student must figure out a research project even before applying, line up his or her own faculty mentor at UCSD, and then seek out one of the participating mentors half-way around the world," noted Arzberger. "That's a lot of advance work compared to what it takes to land most summer jobs, so the students are fully invested in making the most of this opportunity."
The principal investigators on the NSF project, Gabriele Wienhausen and Peter Arzberger, will visit three of the four Asian sites in early July. They want to ensure that student researchers are fitting into their new environments and getting the support they need for their research both locally and from their mentors at UCSD.
"This year we worked hard to recruit women students, including a presentation to the UCSD chapter of the Society of Women Engineers," said Tricia Taylor Oliveira, Assistant Director of AIP. "In the end, five out of the 13 students going to Asia are women, and that is a much higher percentage than in the engineering school population overall."
Many of the women - and men - who applied for PRIME are Asian American. Wienhausen is not surprised. "We expected a higher number because they may be more comfortable culturally," she said. "Even if they never visited Asia before, some of these students have very personal reasons for going."
Shirley Lee has only been to Taiwan once before, as a tourist, but still has family there. "This will give me an opportunity to see all of my relatives again and also experience the culture in Taiwan," she said before leaving. "Last year I spent the summer in Boston participating in the Jacobs School team internship program there. That gave me my first taste of living somewhere besides California. For me, Taiwan is the next logical step."
For the biotechnology major, the summer in Taiwan is also a chance to do something different with her research. Much of Lee's work will involve computer programming - a far cry from the 'wet' lab work she is accustomed to doing. "I feel that a variety of experiences is important in undergraduate education," noted Lee, who turns 21 within days of arriving in Taiwan. "This is the time before you commit and specialize, whether you continue in industry or go to graduate school."
Laura Berstis agrees. "I applied because I wanted to experience different avenues of research and in general to explore possibilities for what I want to dedicate my life to," said the 20-year-old aspiring bioengineer, one of the few sophomores accepted into the PRIME program this summer . "Research abroad makes it a really full-bodied experience, extending far beyond the technical research experience."
[To watch PRIME 2004 videos, click here .]
Media Contact: Doug Ramsey, (858) 822-5825, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pacific Rim Undergraduate Experiences
National Science Foundation
What is Up With Culture
Academic Internship Program
UCSD International Center
Pacific Rim Applications and Grid Middleware Assembly
San Diego Supercomputer Center
Cybermedia Center of Osaka University
National Center for High-performance Computing
Computer Network Information Center (Beijing)