Settling in: In the lab and community abroad

Settling in: In the lab and community abroad

By Catherine Nowakowski

My sophomore year of undergrad was both the first time I boarded a plane and the first time I left the country (and really just New England). My parents dropped me off a bus station and said good luck. From there it was the sheer ignorance of not knowing what I was doing that got me to and from my short 9-day study abroad program in Iceland. I didn’t know much about travel insurance, currency exchange, travel credit cards or even what a hostel was. Fast forward to 2019 came my second opportunity to travel past the states, this time a bit more prepared too.

The LOREX program through ASLO is an opportunity for graduate students to engage in a student lead international research project. In 2019 I was accepted to go work in Halifax Canada at Dalhousie University on Deep Sea Coral from the Gulf of Maine. This time rather than being caught up in a whirl wind of plane tickets, passports and navigating the airport I was provided with lots of support! During the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2020 I got to meet both my cohort of students as well as the ones that participated the year before. Hearing their experiences, ups and downs, and getting guidance on travel insurance, logistics and knowing that there were people to ask for help this time really shifted my prospective going into the experience. Rather than not knowing what to expect or about how it will work to get there (despite the complications of a global pandemic as well) I was able to plan past just the travel and for what I would be doing while I was here as well!

Since being here in Canada I have managed to do quite a bit!! In the lab I have been working my way through deep sea coral samples collected in 2017 and 2019, imaging, polishing and dissecting to answer questions about food web dynamics from the bottom up over periods of recent oceanographic change.

This involves using rock saws to slice off sections of the specimen (bottom left), then imaging the cross sections under a microscope with a UV light. Top: the dark room box I built around the microscope to image the samples. Bottom right: one of the final images under UV light. The light is used to highlight the annual growth bands that will be dissected for analysis.
Climbing “Pinch a Loaf” at a local Barren with some of the graduate students (Photo credit, Marie Babineau)

Outside, I have been running, hiking and climbing – getting to both the local grad students as well as the area! With the support of the LOREX program (and some more experience under my belt since undergrad) I have been able to make the most of my experience so far and am also able to recognize the things that helped me make this transition. Having programs that help students through not only the ins and outs of planning international collaboration, but that also support them through the logistics and basics of navigating travel is important. While some things seem obvious to others who have had the opportunity to travel outside of school with family or friends, I’ve often found its not actually. But now that I have had the experience of planning, arriving, and working here I know what it looks like and can see myself doing it again!

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