First Person: From Atwood to Abroad

“I got the chance to see more countries in these five months than Fluorine has electrons”

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View of the Cathedral from a Christian monastery’s garden in the heart of Salamanca. Photo by Juan Cisneros.
View of the Cathedral from a Christian monastery’s garden in the heart of Salamanca. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

By: Juan D. Cisneros (Emory College of Arts and Sciences)

Entering my penultimate year in the College, I signed up to spend a semester in Spain through Emory’s Center for International Programs Abroad (CIPA). Choosing to major in both chemistry and Spanish at Emory has given me the opportunity to develop two vastly different ways of understanding and appreciating the world around me. My original thoughts on a semester abroad were that it would be spent adjusting to cultural differences and touring historical monuments – learning in a pleasant yet unscientific manner. However, when I spoke to former CIPA enrollees, they detailed their experiences in a fashion strikingly similar to that of a young researcher presenting their work at a conference for the first time. Adjusting to, and incorporating yourself within an entirely new academic setting seemed not only daunting, but dependent on the spread of skills and applied knowledge. Deciphering a restaurant menu would be one thing, but integrating myself within an academic community and excelling among newfound peers would be another. It would be a chance to apply what I’ve learned in my language and culture courses in an analytical fashion. Their enthusiasm resonated with me and so my decision was made. I landed in Madrid the first week of 2016.

During my five month stay, I was enrolled at the Universidad de Salamanca, just two hours west of Madrid. Founded in 1218, it is the oldest standing Spanish university and overflows with jaw-dropping buildings and a rich and royal history. Most of my classes were held in the Palacio de Anaya, a neoclassical palace just steps away from the Cathedral (pictured above). Whether on foot or on my motorcycle, I always enjoyed the to and from commute to class. It did take some time to acclimate to the very different Spanish undergraduate routine – classes splattered throughout the day from 09:00 and 22:00.

In one of my courses within the Department of Philology, titled Scientific Research Writing, I developed a cross cultural analysis paper on Green Chemistry over the length of my stay. The idea originated when I had to drop the course Bromatología: Analytical Chemistry in Food Processing due to a conflict in my mandatory course schedule and longed for some basic science learning. The paper itself was partly informed by my research on the current standards of research labs in certain European and South American countries and their efforts towards more sustainable chemistry. The analysis was based on a survey I developed of Principal Investigators and post-docs from these labs as well as current literature. Writing science in another language proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated, but with the help of my tutor and the faculty within the Department of Chemical Engineering and Philology at USAL, I was able to complete my work and gain valuable insight on how the perception of sustainable chemistry and engineering in foreign countries is formed and processed. One surprising difference is how some European nations that are not part of the EU have less interest in funding these types of labs and how scarce undergraduate involvement in research is across Europe compared to in the U.S.

My faithful two wheeled companion on many weekend adventures. Photo by Juan Cisneros.
My faithful two wheeled companion on many weekend adventures. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

In addition to my coursework, I worked remotely for the National Hansen’s Disease Program TravelWell Clinic at Emory Midtown Hospital. My job was to organize data flowing in from a recent pilot on a developing project involving associated disability variables of Mycobacterium leprae. I first got involved in this project during the fall semester but it was not until I was in Spain that the vital pieces of data began to emerge. With bi-monthly Skype calls and some dedicated research time, I was able to move the project along and submit an abstract to the 2016  American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene National Conference for an oral presentation, titled “Preventing Mycobacterium leprae – associated disability: Identifying social and clinical factors associated with nerve damage in an endemic area of Brazil.”

Tasting hydro-alcoholic solutions in Porto, Portugal. Photo by Juan Cisneros.
Tasting hydro-alcoholic solutions in Porto, Portugal. Photo by Juan D. Cisneros.

When I wasn’t working on these aforementioned responsibilities – often from my unofficial office in my favorite Café-bar – I got the chance to see more countries in these five months than Fluorine has electrons. I could fill 6.0221409×1023 posts with all the pictures and videos I took but some of the highlights were touring the Spanish countryside on a motorcycle, hiking Portuguese mountains, cliff-diving in Majorca, running a half marathon through the streets of Athens, and doing a lap on the world famous and adrenaline-inducing Nürburgring. I am very grateful for my study abroad experience and am excited to be back home, bringing with me a broader understanding of how sustainable chemistry, and science in general, is viewed in foreign cultures as well as treasured memories. I am eager to be back in lab this summer as a visiting scholar in the lab of Professor Dan Mindiola at the University of Pennsylvania.

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