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Learning the international language of science

Undergraduates in scientific disciplines often face a particular difficulty because of their choice of major: the challenge of working valuable study-abroad opportunities into rigorous academic schedules.

However, a unique international program run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s bacteriology department offers a partial solution to this problem. For the past two summers, UW-Madison students have gone to Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand to work on microbiology research–and the program was recently awarded a $105,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to take 15 more students over the next three years.

“It can be difficult to find international programs that have summer options and provide biological science research experience,” says Jon Roll, a bacteriology instructor who heads up the program.

However, the bacteriology program, which grew out of strong ties between the UW-Madison and Wisconsin alumni and other partners in Thailand, places undergraduates with microbiology professors at Mahidol University for an intensive summer research opportunity.

Pilot programs were run in 2004 and 2005, with the UW-Madison and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences providing funding for two students each year. The success of those two years helped pave the way for a three-year grant from the NSF, which will fund travel, housing, food and a stipend for 15 students from the UW-Madison and the UW-Milwaukee over the next three summers. Before traveling to Bangkok students will receive an introduction to Thai culture and language.

Students’ projects vary depending on the interests of their faculty mentor, but in past years participants have done project ranging from basic molecular biology to research on how a certain species of snail influences transmission of the avian flu virus.

An international opportunity can be very important for students who may go on to work in industry or enter graduate school, says Roll.

“An international research experience is valuable because students get the chance to learn how [science] is done in another country, how scientists work together and interact, and what types of problems they are trying to solve. The value of the personal and professional relationships that are developed with this experience cannot be overestimated”

Roll says that additional plans are underway to bring Thai students to Madison on a research-exchange program.

More information about the program is available at www.bact.wisc.edu/ires.

For more information on connections between the CALS and Thailand, see the related sidebar.