In the Shadow of Lifjell: My Year in Bø, Norway

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Honors Student and Presidential Scholar, Ellen Ahlness is currently studying abroad in Norway through the MSU Mankato Exchange Program. She received the Lakselaget Foundation’s Scholarship, Folds of Honor Scholarship, and Sons of Norway Myrtle Beinhauer Fund. Below is an update on her travels.

I arrived in Oslo, Norway in mid-August for my one year study abroad. Coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the capitol of Norway already seemed small with a population of under 600,000 people. Yet that was not yet my final stop. Immediately upon hopping off the plane, I boarded on a train for three hours south to the rural town of Bø. The town has a permanent population of about 5,000 with an additional 2,200 students coming each year to attend Høyskole i Telemark University. This was my first big adjustment—even though my hometown in Minnesota was not exceptional, it seemed particularly large compared to this farming community I suddenly found myself in, right in the shadow of the Telemark region’s largest mountain–Lifjell.

Being a small town, Bø had additional challenges I needed to face in addition to being in a different country. In Norway stores and services have much shorter hours than what I was used to in the U.S. including reduced hours on the weekends and most businesses being closed on Sundays. This includes grocery stores, and in the case of Bø, both gas stations. This gave me the largest cultural shock of my travels, the sudden “loss of convenience” that I had grown so accustomed to in the United States.

After a week of adjusting to life in Bø, I began classes. All of my courses pertained to my Scandinavian Studies major centering on regional identity, language, and Scandinavian politics. In my classes, I am expected to do independent work. This is extremely applicable to my academic career because I have always enjoyed diving deeper into subjects that interest me after covering them in class. Here, the emphasis on independent initiative helps me continue to shift my mindset to help me work effectively in a new academic environment.

My favorite assignments are ones pertaining to cultural components of environmental responsibility and appreciation which are extremely important in Norway. There is even a word that captures the Norwegian outdoor spirit—friluftsliv, literally meaning “open air living.” This describes the importance of outdoor education and recreation as a key part of the Norwegian identity and way of life. To best understand this aspect of the Norwegian culture students are encouraged to go on hikes around the neighboring mountains and terrain. During my first two months in Norway, I went on a hike each week with other students. There we would go swimming and drink from the lakes, pick blueberries and cloudberries, and cook over fires when it got cold. I have never been in a classroom experience that provided me with such an experience alongside theory.

Before coming to Norway, my fellow international students and I were warned that it could be difficult to make Norwegian friends, as the culture in Telemark is very reserved. Students are more likely to hold onto old friendships rather than reach out and make new friends. After the first few weeks, I saw how true this was. I easily made friends within the international student community through activities, meetings, and classes. Unless I was intentional, I would not meet many Norwegians outside of class. I then began working at Kroa, a student organization that hosts activity nights, concerts, and parties. Here I was able to improve my Norwegian, make more friends, and contribute to the student life in Bø.

I still have lots of time left to explore and experience Norway until I disembark June 2015. If I learn as much in the time I have left as I have learned during my first part of my stay, I know I will walk away from this experience having developed my language and academic skills, as well as having developed as a more independent, culturally competent person.

To learn more about Mankato Exchanges and the study abroad opportunities the International Programs Office organizes, visit http://www.mnsu.edu/studyabroad/exchanges.html.

Summer Research Experience in Germany

by Abrar Zawed, ’16

Biomedical Sciences & Chemistry

Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Munich

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In summer of 2014, I had the opportunity to work as an intern at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich, Germany. This wonderful opportunity was made possible by a Research in Science and Engineering (RISE) Fellowship I was awarded through DAAD, which stands for Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst or German Academic Exchange Service. DAAD is the world’s largest funding organization that promotes international exchange programs. This year we had over 2,200 applicants from the US, UK and, Canada, but only 300 of us received fellowships. The goal of the program is to give students a glimpse of the German education system and create a mutual relationship between Germany and participating countries that promotes academic cooperation in science, engineering, and technology fields.

The selected interns were placed in some of the top universities, research institutions, and research companies across Germany and I was fortunate enough to work in the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, which is an affiliated institute of the Max Planck Society. Max Planck Institutes are considered by many as the leading research institutions in the world.

The lab I was assigned to, called Maintenance of Genome Stability, was led by Dr. Zuzana Storchova along with 10 Ph.D. students, Postdocs, and Technicians. The goal of the lab was to investigate how aneuploid cells (abnormal number of chromosome sets) have impaired ability to maintain genome stability. My primary job was to assist my immediate supervisor Mr. Neysan Donnelly, a Ph.D. candidate working on impaired protein folding in aneuploidy cells using trisomic and tetrasomic human cells. During my time at MPI, I performed some cutting-edge molecular biology research and I was also able to build upon my research skills as an undergraduate research assistant at MSU. This research experience also allowed me to independently excavate experiments, analyze my data, and troubleshoot my own experiments. Moreover, weekly lectures given by some of the leading scientists in the world gave me new insights about various ongoing investigations. A presentation by Nobel laureate Dr. Thomas Cech from the University of Colorado, Boulder particularly stands out. He made a presentation on RNAase and how it changed the way we used to think about this polymeric molecule. Furthermore, having had the opportunity to gain first hand research experience with a Ph.D. student made me realize that my true interest lay in basic research and that’s why I am planning to go to graduate school for an advance degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Life outside lab was as equally enjoyable as working in the lab. Munich has a long history of attracting tourists from all across the world. Built on the bank of Isar River, Munich or München, is the capital of Bavaria. Marienplatz, the city center, is the main tourist attraction and undoubtedly the city’s architectural hub. The entire city is built around Marienplatz and all the tourist destinations were just a few blocks away from the city center. Munich is industrially important for Germany as corporate giants like BMW, Allianz, and Siemens are based in the city. The Münchner are well known for their love for football (soccer in the United States) and Munich is the home of FC Bayern Munich. I found people in my lab fond of football and I actually learned a lot about the game from them. I was fortunate enough to be in Germany during the football world cup in Brazil. Surprisingly, Germany went on to the final and eventually won the world cup. I got the opportunity to watch the final at the Olympiapark, the venue of 1972 summer Olympics. Munich has so much to offer and it was hard for me to visit all the tourist attractions, even in 10 weeks.

The final few days in the lab were probably the most memorable for me as I had the chance to know my lab members personally and meet with some of their family members. In the weeks before my departure, MPI Biochemistry held its annual summer festival and I tasted some delicious German cuisine (I must say the food was delicious and far preferable to some American dishes) and I took part in a volleyball game for first time since high school with other lab members. During my time in Germany, two of my lab members got married and again I was invited to a post-wedding celebration. During my final days at the lab, I organized a party for my lab members to thank them for hosting me. We exchanged contact information and I remain in touch with all of them via social networking websites. In the future, I hope to maintain these relationships and if possible, collaborate on further research with the lab.

I would like to thank Ms. Ginny Walters from the Office of University Fellowships at Minnesota State Mankato, my research mentor Dr. David Sharlin, and DAAD (especially the RISE program) for an amazing summer experience and for giving me the opportunity to go to Germany and to learn about the country and its people. I truly believe that this summer internship is going to be the highlight of my research career and also encourage undergraduates to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.
For more information on the RISE Fellowship, visit https://www.daad.de/rise/en/.
For more information on the Office of University Fellowships, visit http://www.mnsu.edu/fellowships/.