Monday, August 27, 2012

The Unexpected Joys of Oyster Shucking and Undergraduate Research - A Student Reflection

Kristina Lam, Biology major in the Verrazano Class of 2015, shares her story of how she got started doing undergraduate research during her first year of college. 

Kristina Lam, Class of 2015
The Verrazano School
Last year as a freshman, wholly uninterested with doing anything but attending my classes at the College of Staten Island, I never would have thought that I would end up in a disposable lab coat and playing with highly concentrated acids in my spare time. From the beginning, I entered college as undeclared, meaning that I did not have any idea what subject I wanted to study or the career I wanted to pursue. I knew that I liked science and math, so when I was given the option of applying for a STEAM scholarship (STEAM is an organization on campus that awards students with scholarship and grant money for scientific research), I did not hesitate at the opportunity for free money. As warmly as the STEAM professors treated me, their primary message seemed like, “here’s $1,000, go do some research and make your college proud!”

From then on, I went searching for a mentor that was willing to take a person with little to no experience in laboratories. Somehow, I managed to find contact information on a PhD student working in the biology department. To my surprise, she was very much interested in marine biology, a branch of biology that I have been interested in since childhood; the focus of her research was oysters.

After she accepted my proposal to aid her in her research, I became content with labeling vials and organizing samples, but a few weeks later she handed me a dissecting knife and taught me how to shuck an oyster. From that experience alone, I learned the different tissues of the oyster, what kinds of organisms live off the oyster’s shell, how oysters grow, and when they are ready to spawn.

I oftentimes tell many of my peers the reason why I volunteered my summer vacation time in a laboratory is that it’s not only the work I get to do that keeps me coming back -  it’s the people I interact with. When finals were steadily approaching and my stress levels reached all-time highs, the other members of the lab would find ways to cheer me on. They would ask me how I was doing, how the class was progressing, and told me that should I need extra help in my work I could always come to them. I found myself looking forward to working in the lab; the atmosphere calmed my nerves and helped me relax from my course load. Like when other students say that their clubs are a way to escape the pressures of class, going to the lab is my secret club.

So now, whenever I find someone interested in science, I always encourage them to do undergraduate research.  That's because even though I did not have any idea as to what I personally wanted to research, there will always be projects that are looking for a extra set of hands. What have you got to lose, right?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Unforgettable Month in Spain

Mark Kavanaugh, English Literature major in Verrazano Class of 2013 and a Verrazano Study Abroad Scholarship recipient, shares highlights and reflections from his summer study abroad experience in Spain.

Mark by the gate of the walled city of Hondarribia
It has been a couple of weeks since my arrival back in the United States. It is certainly good to be home, even though I will miss Santander immensely. It is peculiar how coming home was almost as much of a culture shock as arriving in Spain was! Even so, those four weeks were incredible and unforgettable.

This study abroad venture was a unique learning experience for me. First of all, almost no one in Santander spoke English (it was a smaller city), and this forced me to rely on the Spanish skills I already had whilst bolstering them at the same time. A lack of English gave me the opportunity to communicate with Spaniards in their own tongue, effectively learning from them directly. It also gave me more insight to the dialectal differences within the vastness of the Spanish language. I daresay my accent and vocabulary will now have a distinctively Cantabrian flavor.

The Duomo in Milan

Studying abroad in Spain was also a great opportunity to travel. Europe is smaller than people think, and traveling between countries can be cheap and quite simple. During my month in Spain I was able to visit Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country, which sports a Guggenheim Museum as well as other impressive architecture. I also spent a weekend in Milan, Italy, where I saw the Duomo, one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever visited. For my final weekend, I traveled to a smaller city in the Basque Country called IrĂșn, where I crossed the River Bidassoa into France. It had always been a major goal of my trip to walk across the French border, and I was ecstatic that I was able to do it.

Bridge marking the Spain/France border

It wasn’t all weekend traveling, however. There was plenty of coursework involved in my sojourn to Spain. What surprised me was that language classes in Spain are strikingly similar to ones here in the United States. We even had homework! The coursework was fairly challenging, and I felt as though my Spanish skills were really being tested and improved upon. In this way, life in Spain was kind of similar to that in the United States. My daily routine was waking up, going to class, catching a bite to eat with some good friends, heading to the beach, and sightseeing around Santander. About a week in, a tone of normalcy and pleasant routine began to set it. In short, I felt comfortable.

Plaza de Toros, Santander

In spite of this, I still feel as though I did some amazing things. I saw several new countries, ate great food, saw beautiful art, and met people from halfway across the globe. This experience has shaped me. I have learned that sometimes you need to throw the map away and get lost. I have learned to accept that I will never see everything the world has to offer, but what I have seen is wonderful. I have learned to give myself wholly to new experiences, even when they are a bit intimidating.

Writing about my experience makes me a bit nostalgic because there are things I miss already. I miss the food, certainly. I miss the European friends I made. I miss the city of Santander, full of music all the time. I miss hearing Castilian everywhere I go. However, like I said, I am glad to be home.

I recommend the program in Santander to any hispanophile, Europeanist, or travel hound. I recommend it to anyone who wants an unforgettable month full of learning, laughter, and life.

Mark in Bilbao

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Summer Study Abroad: A Taste of Paris, France

Alicia Jimenez, Verrazano Class of 2013, received a Verrazano Study Abroad Scholarship to spend four weeks studying in Paris, France this summer. Read below for her post from abroad.

Before departure, the professor and faculty supervisor of my program cautioned us not to judge Paris by our first days. Indeed, those first two days were hectic, weighed down by jetlag and very long travel experiences, plus the discomfort of getting used to a new place, new people, and functioning in a country where everyone speaks a different language. But the Parisian magic still worked its way into our jetlagged lives, quickly and thoroughly. From the first bite of a croissant at the café down the street, I was hooked.

I feel like I have done so much in the short amount of time I have been here, and yet to list it all, it doesn’t seem like that much in retrospect. Everything I’ve done so far has had such an impact on me that it feels huge in my mind, and I have enjoyed so many of my experiences that it’s hard to remember those first, slightly sour days. My trip to the Luxembourg Gardens has so far been a definite standout. Very close to our dorm, centered in a colorful neighborhood that’s peppered with lovely shops and charming, quirky restaurants, the Gardens boast huge, beautiful flower arrangements and large shaded areas in which my classmates and I can bring our schoolwork and enjoy the outdoors. We sit in the comforting shadow of the Senate building and buy crepes at a little stand, where the batter is spread and cooked in front of us.


We also took a class trip to the Rodin Museum, which was my first museum experience here in Paris. This museum also had an amazing outdoor component, where all of Auguste Rodin’s famed sculptures stand nestled among fantastic shrubs and colorful floral arrangements. I have never been to an art museum that is so accessible, friendly and welcoming; The Thinker towers above us but does not seem so apart from us, and the stunning textures of Rodin’s work make them seem very human. This museum, with its determined accessibility and cheerful openness, has definitely redefined the way I think about art collections. I am excited to see how other museums in Paris compare!

Paris is a walking city, and so much of my time here has been spent just getting lost in the streets, sometimes using the Metro to feel around for interesting places to eat or shop. We stumbled upon an international marketplace and spent a wonderful day there picking through stalls, talking to people from all over the world who had come to Paris to share their crafts and goods. We found Shakespeare and Company, a fantastic and historically famous bookstore, by accident, and it was one of the best accidents I’ve ever had. Eating out and trying new foods was something I was first intimidated by, but now I’m starting to get more comfortable (though I am still mystified by the fact that French fries seem to be served with almost every meal, whether they complement the food or not), and tasting new dishes is now a real thrill for me.

First impressions are tricky things, especially when they’re coupled with circumstances of travelling. But Paris has already made a huge impression on me, and it’s definitely a positive one. I cannot wait to continue collecting experiences to help shape that impression into something lasting and unique.