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Science Students Less Likely to Go Abroad

Why are so few science concentrators willing or able to study abroad?

By Tina Wang, Crimson Staff Writer

As the College continues its drive to send more students abroad, it is finding a conspicuous pattern among those who do go abroad, and those who don’t.

Among those who chose to go abroad over the past two years, non-science concentrators greatly outnumbered science students­—by more than five to one last year, according to the Office of International Programs (OIP) annual report.

And while this gap at Harvard is part of a larger national pattern, according to OIP director Jane Edwards and Associate Dean of the College Georgene B. Herschbach, administrators and faculty want to address the discrepancy.

“We have to redouble our efforts—and we know that—to gear toward students in the sciences,” Edwards says. “If you actually look at our scientists...they’re often travelling all over the world.”

But students in the sciences are not queuing up to go abroad—and many administrators and students say the reasons include tightly-structured concentrations, lab commitments, pre-med requirements and the nature of study in the science disciplines.

WHY STAY AT HOME?

About 85 percent of students who went abroad last year were in the social sciences and humanities, while science concentrators made up the remaining 15 percent.

This gap emerged as the number of students studying abroad during the last academic year increased by 28 percent to 451. And students studying abroad over the summer increased by 76 percent to 238.

The engineering and physical sciences concentrations, in particular, are lagging behind. To respond to this, Herschbach asked Edwards early in the semester to convene a working group of administrators from those departments to address the issue.

Many administrators and students in the life and physical sciences concentrations agree that a primary reason for the gap is the rigid set of courses required of science students.

“To get those courses out of the way, you have to start planning in your freshman year,” says Astronomy and Astrophysics head tutor Bryan M. Gaensler. “If you suddenly decide in your junior year [to study abroad], then chances are, you haven’t taken the right courses at the right time to go abroad.”

“It just takes a lot more planning and you have to be that much more committed to doing it,” says Laura A. Schoenherr ’08, a biology concentrator, who says that she is considering studying abroad.

“Studying abroad...would have meant postponing some of the required intro courses to senior year,” says Michelle Yang ’07, also a biology concentrator, who considered studying abroad but ultimately chose to work at a marine biology lab in Japan this summer instead.

Administrators also said the sequential nature of these requirements can make it more difficult for students to find convenient semesters to go abroad.

“A junior course, dependent on your sophomore course, will prepare you for your course in senior year,” says Mathematics Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) Peter Kronheimer.

Department administrators do say that they try to be flexible about granting concentration credit for courses taken abroad.

“In physics and chemistry, we certainly don’t discourage study abroad,” says Physics DUS Howard Georgi. “We are generally willing to give students concentration credit for courses that they take elsewhere as long as they find a reputable university.”

And Biochemical Sciences co-head tutor Richard M. Losick says he often helps his concentrators receive full credit for a semester abroad by having them join a research project in a foreign lab, which fulfills two course credits, and take two non-science courses at a local university.

But a factor limiting the international opportunities for science concentrators, Kronheimer says, is finding courses abroad that are “comparable” to those offered at Harvard.

“For humanities, it’s much easier to find courses abroad,” says Stanisa Veljkovik ’07, an astronomy and astrophysics concentrator who says he has been considering study abroad as an option in the spring. Veljkovik says science courses abroad may not cover the same material or be taught at the same level as those at Harvard.

“When I come back to Harvard I will most probably repeat two courses that I took here, just because the level of depth was not good enough,” Rishi Jajoo ’07, a physics concentrator studying at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay this semester, writes in an e-mail.

Language and teaching style can also be barriers.

“It’s pretty difficult to go abroad and complete science requirements in a country that’s not speaking English,” says Benjamin R. Robbins ’06, a physics concentrator who studied in Madrid through a Boston University program last spring and took all non-science courses during that time. “And actually in some of these countries, at least, there’s a whole different way they teach the sciences.”

Science courses may be taught at a faster pace in some foreign institutions where students only take courses related to their area of specialty, Robbins adds.

Furthermore, students who are committed to a lab or a thesis project may find it more difficult to be away for a semester.

“I think the bigger consideration is the amount of time you have to spend in a lab—it’s a bigger time commitment than study abroad,” Schoenherr says.

“A lot of people do research here as opposed to abroad and start earlier so they can work on their thesis,” says Jennifer E. Rood ’07, a Biochemistry concentrator, who worked at a microbiology lab in Germany this past summer. “I think that is another constraint. People find labs here and then they have to stay here.”

“In general, biology theses have been done in Harvard laboratories under Harvard supervision,” says Biology head tutor David A. Haig.

Administrators and students also cited pre-med requirements as a major obstacle keeping many science students from studying abroad—medical schools do not accept credit for pre-med courses taken abroad.

“It might be the breaking point,” says Haig. “I’ll say to students…the concentration will accept these courses. But the Med School won’t. And the student might decide not to go.”

UNIVERSAL SCIENCE?

Furthermore, administrators and students say science concentrators might have fewer academic reasons to go abroad than others.

“Study abroad isn’t integral to a [science] student’s concentration in the way it might be to someone in the humanities discipline,” Haig says. “The students I see studying abroad are wanting in most cases to expand their education outside of the concentration.”

Dillon Professor of International Affairs Jorge I. Dominguez says it is the “comparative” and “international” components of the social sciences and humanities that encourage other students to go abroad—aspects that Losick says may not characterize lab work.

“If you’re working in a lab in Paris or Germany or Lithuania or Cambridge or Boston, that could be pretty much the same kind of experience,” Losick says.

Robbins, who finished his citation in Spanish while abroad, says he was more interested in “the international experience than moving along toward my physics degree.”

And often, some say, the best place to do scientific work may be in the U.S., where labs may be more advanced.

In the sciences, professors “may know with great precision that it is better for a Physics concentrator to remain in Cambridge where the equipment is superior,” Dominguez writes in an e-mail.

But others point out that the site specificity of labs abroad can contribute to research.

“There’s certainly cutting-edge things going on in, say, South Korea, especially with embryonic stem cells....Every country has different sorts of regulations on the ethics of science,” Rood says.

And Kronheimer says, “Being exposed to different teaching styles and different expectations of academic work is as good a thing for mathematicians as for historians.”

MIXING SOLUTIONS

In order to encourage more science students to pursue international opportunities, Edwards says she has been working with the science departments to identify programs abroad that are appropriate for their concentrators.

Some departments have already posted lists of pre-approved programs on the OIP website.

But students say that if information and advising about science opportunities abroad were more centralized, science concentrators might have an easier time considering specific options.

“I found my internship through first Googling in Japanese and then shameless e-mailing,” says Yang. “The Biology Department itself does not post any opportunities for studying abroad on its website, but individual professors have their own contacts. A list of which professors to approach for advice will probably be helpful for future concentrators.”

The College has also sought to promote summer study and research abroad­—more of which, students say, should target science concentrators.

“I ran around to different departments and OCS and the Office of international programs, and it took me a really long time to actually pinpoint something,” Rood said of her efforts to find a summer internship.

Dominguez also suggests that effecting change in the number of science concentrators who go abroad may require advising to shift its focus.

“Something for which the Harvard advising system may need improvement,” he writes, is “how to help a science concentrator go abroad to study the non-concentration portion of her education.”

—Staff writer Tina Wang can be reached at tinawang@fas.harvard.edu

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