By Adrienne Sylver
As a biomedical engineering major at Florida International University, Rebekah Arias understands the value of working in multicultural groups. And after spending six weeks last summer at Kochi University of Technology in Japan, she returned with a sense of excitement about the advantages of collaboration on a global scale.
“It made me realize just how global research can be,” Arias said. “It doesn’t matter what country you come from or if you can speak the same language. If you have a common goal, you can help each other.”
Arias was one of six College of Engineering and Computing students who took part in the International Research Experience (IRES) program, designed to give undergraduate students an opportunity to perform research related to nanotechnology and learn more about the impact that a global perspective can have on technological advances.
The program, funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, is also intended to increase interest and enrollment in STEM fields, particularly among traditionally underrepresented students.
“Through this program, students had the opportunity to work frequently with faculty and graduate mentors and not only learned many new high-quality research skills, but they got a look at how people from different cultures and backgrounds solve problems. It’s really interesting to see how the thought process differs,” said Chunlei (Peggy) Wang, professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. She is co-director of IRES along with Nezih Pala, professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
International collaboration among research scientists has increased significantly in the last decade. According to the NSF, one-quarter of peer-reviewed published papers today have co-authors from multiple countries, up from one out of seven in 2000. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the critical importance of bringing the world’s experts together to quickly develop diagnostic testing, best-practice treatments and vaccines.
“I was very impressed by the science in Japan, particularly coming from a smaller rural school there,” said Vijay Paharia, who is in the accelerated degree program at FIU, pursuing a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in biomedical engineering. “This was a very specific research journey that led to me being in a publication and presenting in front of a scientific community in Japan. It was a life-changing event for me.”
For Lauren Hattaway, a mechanical engineering major, the IRES program allowed her to learn more about nanomaterials and zinc oxide film and made it possible for her to achieve her dream of studying abroad. “I play volleyball at FIU so a study abroad semester was impossible during the school year,” she explained. “When the summer opportunity came up, I thought it was awesome.”
The students worked on research ranging from mist chemical vapor deposition for nanomaterials synthesis to the production and control of reactive plasmas. At the end of the program, each of the students gave poster presentations on their research and faculty mentors assessed their performance using a common rubric.
In addition to their time in the lab at Kochi University, the students took Japanese language classes, joined other students from China, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Spain and other countries for cross-cultural programs and visited historically significant cities such as Kyoto and Osaka.
“We held a 4th of July party and cooked burgers for all of the International House residents, and we went to a middle school and had conversations with students who wanted to improve their English,” Hattaway said. “But one of my favorite times was when I played volleyball with a few girls. Absolutely none of them knew English so it was an interesting day. We were still able to bond over the love of our sport and it honestly showed me that sports are, in a way, a universal language.”
Paharia, who had traveled to Japan previously and hopes to return to further his studies, also had an experience outside of campus that will always stick with him. “I had expressed my interest in metallurgy and my lab professor took me to meet his friend, who was a knife master. It was a highlight of the trip.”
The cultural component of the program is as important as the research itself, said Wang, who added that the trip was the first study abroad experience for each of the participants. After their time in Japan, at least three of the students expressed interest in attending graduate school.
“We hope the students who participate will go on to become ambassadors for FIU and with international mentoring and training, they will be prepared for employment in a global industry or company,” she said. “Clearly the summer was very memorable and will stand out in their personal and professional development.”