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So much for best-laid plans. I was ahead of the game with my study abroad application, and since the start of 2020, I had meticulously scheduled all of my classes, undergraduate and graduate, to fit in a final celebration before graduation. I was bound for the Gold Coast in Australia, slated to spend my Spring 2021 semester abroad. That plan was almost immediately extinguished by the time my third year of undergrad came around, as COVID had resulted in stringent travel restrictions (and rightfully so).
Besides the cancellation of my study abroad program, COVID enforced additional limitations. In-person classes were a memory of the past, and instead, many STEM students had to learn lab procedures virtually. Internships and research opportunities foundered during the pandemic, leaving many STEM students, including me, with fewer ways to gain professional experience.
To counteract this, I decided to transfer my Gold Coast application to a summer STEM research program. My hope was that the pandemic would eventually dissipate as warmer weather rolled in. I also thought that immersing myself in a full-time internship would make up for my missing credentials, that it would demonstrate initiative. Like many upperclass students facing imminent graduation, I was afraid that I lacked crucial laboratory and professional skills. The summer STEM research program would be the cure-all for my anxiety.
Thankfully, I was accepted into the Dublin research program and received my preferred project, which involved work with E. coli antigens for a potential vaccine. I was the only Arcadia student in the program, with a multitude of other students from throughout the U.S. Many were younger than me. While this was an experience that would most likely not be their last, I was here, nearly at the end of my college career. I would be rooming with students who had recently entered college. On top of this newfound living situation, we were juggling a 9-to-5 research position, alongside occasional assignments.
While I was elated (and nervous) to learn from PhD students and experts, I was concerned about my soon-to-be roommates. I had learned little about them during our virtual orientation, and the pandemic had easily laid to rest the remaining social abilities I had possessed. What was I going to do?
We were all in quarantine the first week, bumping into each other in the common space, where we exchanged pleasantries. Mostly, we all kept to ourselves until our lockdown period was up. Afterward, we spent our spare days before our internships began familiarizing ourselves with Dublin and each other. We ended up spending most, if not all, of our free time together, exploring what Ireland had to offer, from its stunning scenery, fascinating history, and welcoming inhabitants. Sights like the Slieve League, Glenveagh National Park, Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, and Killarney (just to list a few) were highly recommended and wholly deserving of such high praise. A surprise place to visit was the small town of Enniskerry. This town was used as a set for the Enchanted sequel, an upcoming Disney film.
The start of our internships was a rude awakening for sure. Returning to in-person lab work was awe-inspiring and nerve-wracking. Many of us had been out of commission in our respective research fields for around a year, if not more, and we were struggling to situate ourselves in such high-caliber, fast-paced environments. Not to mention that a select few had total autonomy on their research projects, whereas the others, including me, were directly working with a professor and/or a PhD student.
I was both assisting my PhD student with his thesis work, as well as working on my offshoot project, which complemented his. These projects were crammed into a very short timeline of two months, giving us mere weeks to settle into a new country, set up our experiments, collect data, analyze, and ultimately report back in a culminating presentation. It was hectic, but the demanding, in-person environment was ironically comforting at times to me. I could physically see the results I was getting, the good and the bad, and any obstacles and frustrations with my project just spurred me on to do better. I was able to interact with so many bright and talented PhD students, and I’m grateful they gave me so much of their time and energy to assist me during my short stay.
By the end of the program, I was eager to keep in touch with my new acquaintances based at the University College Dublin, as well as my roommates. My project itself had inspired me to consider research as a potential career, rather than railroading myself to strictly pursue forensic science casework. The Summer STEM program was an entirely unpredictable and memorable experience that I will continue to treasure, not only for the people I met, but for the obstacles I encountered and overcame thousands of miles away from home.