Whenever I tell people I spent this past summer doing research, they usually wrinkle their noses over how boring it sounds. Maybe it is because I love science, or maybe it is because I did my research in southern France, but the past summer was easily one of the best of my life. Though Rice has hundreds of opportunities and internships on campus, all students should explore beyond the comfortable hedges - in my case, all the way in Europe.
Toward the second half of my freshman year, as I was deciding what to do with my summer, I promised myself that since I was still early on in my college career, I would try something new. Around that time, Rice University hosted a summer opportunities fair, which included dozens of Research Experience for Undergraduate programs, which are summer research programs funded by the National Science Foundation. Certain REUs have sites in foreign countries, and I thought it was important to gain a global perspective on scientific research. I was a little worried about funding an international trip, but I found out that REUs completely cover travel and living expenses - and give you a stipend for your work. So, I applied to and was accepted into Duke University's REU in nanotechnology, with a site in Aix-en-Provence, France, where I spent the summer researching silicon nanoparticles for
Working in another country proved more valuable and enriching than I could have ever imagined, but often in the most unexpected ways. The lab itself mostly used English as the working language, but other than strict science-talk, everybody held conversations in French. Prior to this summer, I had never been exposed to a drop of French in my life, and I refused to offend the country of France by constantly using English, so as a result, I felt extremely lonely at the beginning of the program. I love talking, and one of the worst parts of the language barrier was wanting so badly to spew all my thoughts but not being able to. However, by the end of the summer, I could often understand simple conversations and even contribute (albeit with a heavy accent) sometimes.
The work culture was also drastically different from what I was used to in the United States. I had been used to things like working through lunch staying late doing experiments, but in France, entire lab groups stopped all work at the strike of noon to eat lunch together and talk about their days. Important professors treated graduate students - and even me - as equals, often taking my thoughts and suggestions seriously. It was a very relaxed atmosphere that I certainly was not accustomed to but that I grew to love.
Living in Aix-en-Provence was perfect for my long stay. Located in the south of France, it is small but picturesque and is rarely flooded with tourists. I quickly became attached to the city as a second home. The bus driver started recognizing me and greeting me every time I boarded. I became used to spending lazy afternoons after work wandering through town, often stopping at a small bookstore to sit outside and people-watch. The woman at my favorite creperie, Crepes-a-Go-Go, quickly became familiar with ratatouille et fromage, ratatouille and cheese, as my crepe of choice. I also became familiar with the poverty that ran through the mostly rich city and started handing out small care packages of food to the homeless people that I ran into. By the end of the summer, I felt completely immersed in Aix, seeing familiar faces everywhere and associating certain parts of town with special memories.
Of course, one of my favorite weekend activities was traveling outside of Aix. Since public transportation is very developed in Europe, I was able to travel a lot - Marseille, Aubagne, Cassis, Nice, Montagne St. Victoire, Barcelona and Paris. I tried fresh mussels for the first time; parasailed into the Mediterranean Sea, ate my weight in tapas, crepes and pizza; slept in multiple hostels; watched the sun set from the top of the Eiffel Tower; carpooled with strangers; fainted underground in the Paris metro; and most importantly, met dozens of new friends, all with vibrant, interesting
The wonderful consequence of stepping out of your comfort zone is that many times, you find your boundaries stretch out a lot further than you think. I made a fool of myself more times than I ever have in my life trying to speak French, but I also gained more life experiences than I ever have before. I learned that most people in the world are kind and willing to help, no matter what. The academic lessons I learned in classrooms at Rice certainly helped me as I worked abroad, but it was the unexpected, intangible lessons - true independence, resilience and most importantly, a persisting sense of optimism - that would have been difficult for me to experience within lectures and seminars. So many Rice students excel in the classroom, but it is incredibly crucial to add a third dimension to one's studies to gain a more global perspective on work, culture and the human race. Though this was a short summer trip, the bold, adventurous outlook toward life I developed will certainly stay with me now, forever, as I take on the rest of my Rice career and beyond. Au revoir et