The Road Less Traveled
Student Grants for Independent Research Abroad
by Shayna McHugh
|Get a Fulbright and study in universities such as this one in Brazil.
Many college students see only two possible paths after graduation: getting a job or going to graduate school. When I began my senior year in college I was not thrilled about either of these options. As a chemistry
major, I knew that my chances of getting a job with only a bachelor's degree were slim. However, I wanted to get more experience in chemistry before committing the next four years of my life to the pursuit of a Ph.D. I felt stuck between a rock
and a hard place until I heard about the Fulbright Program.
Established by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946, the Fulbright Program aims to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries." Each
year, the program awards approximately 6,000 grants for its participants to teach, lecture, and/or do research overseas. Intrigued by the possibility of doing chemistry research in a foreign country, I submitted an application for a grant to
investigate marine natural products in Brazil. The Fulbright Program awarded me a 10-month grant that included allocations for travel, books, and relocation expenses, as well as a monthly stipend. While my friends were taking their first graduate-level
classes or settling into their new jobs, I was on a plane to São Paulo, embarking on what would be my longest adventure outside the U.S.
The transition was difficult at first. Although I had fairly extensive experience in marine natural products research, many of the procedures were done differently in the Brazilian laboratory. I frequently had
to ask my co-workers for help, and I still made lots of mistakes. The language barrier was one of the most frustrating problems: I knew all the chemistry terms in English, but I had to learn them in Portuguese in order to communicate. There were
also the challenges of adjusting to an unfamiliar city and a different culture; it took about two months for me to feel fully settled in my new surroundings.
Any initial obstacles, however, pale in comparison to the enormous benefits of doing research abroad. Since you develop your own project, you get to investigate a topic that really interests you. My research
involves exploring sponges and other sea creatures in search of chemical compounds that fight cancer, tuberculosis, and other human diseases. The work is complicated, but I find it intriguing. Other Fulbright grantees in Brazil are researching
everything from contemporary Afro-Brazilian art to the effects of Amazon forest fragmentation on monkeys.
In addition, living in a foreign country means that every day is a fascinating learning experience. I'm constantly discovering new things and new ways of seeing the world. Some of the differences between Brazilian
and American culture are big and overarching, such as the conception of time; I'm still trying to figure out which occasions require punctuality and which events tend to start two hours late. The idea of personal space also differs: Brazilians
tend to engage in more physical contact than Americans, typically greeting each other with a kiss on one or both cheeks. Other differences appear in the smallest, most everyday ways. Living abroad introduces you to traditions, perspectives, and
opportunities that you never encounter in your home country.
If the prospect of developing your own research project in a foreign country interests and excites you, I encourage you to apply for a grant to do research abroad. The sidebar that accompanies this article gives
sources of information on the Fulbright Program and other similar opportunities.
The Application Process
There are three important things you should do during the application process:
- Link with a local university or research organization at your intended destination. Whether or not this is required by the grant for which you are applying, such an affiliation will be extremely
helpful. Thanks to the widespread use of the Internet, it is now easier than ever to make contacts overseas. In my case, I simply emailed a chemistry professor at the Univ. of São Paulo and asked if I could join his research group if I
received the grant. He gladly consented. Not only does an affiliation with a local institution strengthen your grant application, it also gives you access to information, books, equipment, contacts, and other resources that will prove invaluable
to your research.
- Present a focused research proposal. All applications for research grants involve writing a research proposal. The proposal should target a specific area of investigation; most people err on the side
of making their topic too broad. For example, proposing to study "the role of dance in Brazilian culture" would be overambitious. The topic is simply too big to be covered adequately during the duration of the grant; most research grants range
from a few months to a year. Proposing to study "the role of samba in the lives of black Bahian women" would be more reasonable. The broad category of "dance" (there are dozens of types of dance in Brazil!) has been narrowed to the specific
style of samba, and the investigation focuses on a specific demographic—black women from the state of Bahia. If you start with a narrow topic, you can investigate it in-depth, and then expand your research to other areas if time permits.
If you begin with a broad topic, you will end up with only a shallow, superficial overview of the subject.
- Have a backup plan. The competition for research grants is intense, so it is unwise to count on receiving one. More than 100 people applied for 14 available grants to Brazil. I applied to graduate
schools so that I would have other options if I were not selected for the Fulbright Program. If you do receive a grant, you can simply ask the graduate schools if you can defer enrollment for a semester or a year. Don't worry too much about
turning down job offers or graduate school acceptances in favor of a research grant. You can always re-apply, and you will be even more qualified and experienced after your time abroad.
If You Are Selected
Congratulations—you're going to have an incredible adventure. Here are three more suggestions about doing research abroad:
- Learn the language if you are going to a non-English-speaking country. Even if you will be working mainly with other English speakers and you don't think you need to learn the local language, do
so anyway. Not only will it make daily life easier, it will also allow you to interact with the local people on a deeper level. I'm very thankful for my ability to speak Portuguese, as it has enabled me to engage in interesting discussions
and make friends. Try to take language classes before you leave home and seek a language teacher when you arrive at your destination.
- Be flexible and patient in your research. Don't expect to hit the ground running; it takes time to adjust to new surroundings. During the first six weeks, I was frustrated because my research was moving
at a snail's pace. However, things picked up once I got settled in and accustomed to the way things are done in Brazil. Having flexibility in your project is also important. You may arrive at your destination and find that you need to adjust
your project's goals and methods, so keep an open mind and be ready to adapt.
- Don't make your research your life. Given the limited time period of the grant, it can be tempting to dedicate many hours to your research in order to accomplish as much as possible. However, you'll miss
out on a lot if you're a workaholic. Outside of my working hours, I don't think about my project; instead, I play soccer, take Brazilian dance classes, and train capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art). Your life will be much more interesting
if you get involved in the local community: join a club, play a sport, or work with a volunteer organization. Take advantage of the opportunity to try something new that you wouldn't have the chance to do in your home country.
Web Resources: Study Abroad
International opportunities and study abroad programs for college and university students are too numerous to list. The following are comprehensive sites on which to start your search:
Academic Year Abroad / Short-Term Study Abroad (published by Institute of International Education (IIE). These are the most comprehensive and authoritative directories of study abroad programs.
Entire contents are available free online at iiepassport.org.
Transitions Abroad Magazine and Website. Visit TransitionsAbroad.com to order and to read articles from past issues. Extensive articles and resource listings are available on the Academic
Study Abroad page.
Shayna McHugh is from Bethel, CT. She completed her undergraduate degree in chemistry at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. She is currently conducting marine natural products research in Brazil with financial
support from the Fulbright Program.