By: Priska Taarea
I am currently writing this while flying over the Atlantic Ocean on my way back home to Canada after spending the past 3 months living in Lyon, France. I had the privilege of participating in the Ontario Rhône-Alpes (ORA) Summer Research Program which gave me the opportunity to work abroad in a structural biochemistry lab overseas. With a scholarship of $1500 given to me by the ORA program and a monthly stipend of 560€ from the lab, I was able to spend my weekdays gaining valuable lab experience and my weekends dedicated to exploring Europe – it was truly the most amazing experience!!
My search for a research position began early last fall. I knew how hard it could be to find a research position, so I began reaching out to professors who shared common research interests as soon as possible. Through the different university websites I began emailing French professors in late October, however, I’d recommend starting even earlier if you have the time. Creating unique cover letters for all the professors was a lot of work – I had to sift through many different labs to find ones whose research focuses really interested me. After receiving many rejections, I had nearly given up until someone finally replied interested in having a skype interview the day AFTER McMaster’s deadlines for applications. Thankfully the Exchange Office was kind enough to extend my deadline and after a successful interview, I finally secured a lab position!
Once I received my acceptance in early February, I was well on my way to France! The ORA program provided some support along the way, but it was primarily my responsibility to arrange my stay. Upon my arrival in Lyon, I spent my first day settling into my residence and exploring the city. I began work the day after and was introduced to all my new colleagues. There were 13 of us in total; 8 researchers, 3 graduate students, and two undergraduate, all of whom were French except for myself and another undergraduate student from the UK. My first thought was about how welcoming everyone was! My lab was split into two teams, and everyone was so tightly knit and very friendly. I was immediately tasked with reading a bunch of journal articles about my project and I started working in the lab within the next week. I was a part of the Biocrystallography and Structural Biology of Therapeutic Targets team and our main project was to solve the 3D structure of our protein of interest. I was assigned a supervisor who went through all the lab techniques that I needed to know – some I had already practiced before but many of the techniques were new. The new techniques were great for improving my repertoire of lab experience and by the end of my internship I was comfortable with doing most of the protocols independently.
My biggest challenge while abroad was the language barrier with some of my colleagues. I admittedly know very little French, so we communicated mainly in English. This was not too much of a problem given English is the primary means of communication in Scientific disciplines. It helped that everyone was so patient and when all else failed, an intense game of charades always did the trick! The first week was rough, but I soon became friends with one of my coworkers from the UK. Once I found a group of friends in Lyon, the city became my new home and the 3 months flew by way too fast. I was able to meet people from all over the world: Chile, Turkey, Serbia, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe – just to name a few! It was so amazing listening to everyone’s unique stories and what brought them to Lyon. Meeting all these interesting people was definitely one of the highlights of my time abroad.
The ORA program has given me a summer that I will never forget. I arrived in France wanting to solve the structure of an unknown protein and I came back home more globally aware with a network of international friends that will never leave my life. This experience has made me more eager to travel and pursue my passion in the field of biomedical research. I am eternally grateful to have had this amazing opportunity, I would definitely do it all again if I could!
Priska Taarea is a student in Honours Biochemistry – Biomedical Science Specialization, Faculty of Science at McMaster University. She worked as a research assistant at the Institut de Biologie et Chimie des Protéines in Lyon, France through the Ontario Rhône-Alpes Summer Research Program.