Koalified Medicine

This week’s post is from 2013 IB graduate Andrea Chez, who just completed her first year of medical school… in Australia!


Shock was usually the first reaction that I got when I told people that I was moving to Sydney.chez sydney

Then excitement.

Followed by disbelief.

And the question that I always got, and am still getting asked, is “why Australia?” Up until my senior year, I had never considered medical school anywhere outside of the States. I had decided to study abroad for a couple weeks in January of 2015 (through the University). The focus of the trip was to learn more about global healthcare, and the diversity of different healthcare regiments, as well as population diversity. In the course of the fortnight that I spent in Australia, I had fallen in love. The idea that I could potentially contribute to helping Indigenous peoples, both medically and culturally, was exciting and invigorating. I also truly appreciated how largely mental health is emphasized. The view isn’t too shabby either.

I had always known that I would like to study abroad throughout the course of my medical degree. I thought that I would arrange electives here or there in different countries, or utilize my summers to travel and explore. When I returned home, I decided to try and send off applications to some medical programs around Australia, without huge expectations that I would be accepted. That changed when I was notified that I had qualified for multiple mini interviews at both the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne.

The application process is not too different from the program in the States, but everything is much cheaper. One option is to apply to multiple schools through a main application that you send to the schools that you would like to apply to, but there is only one fee versus a fee for every school. Another way is to apply through an international representative (which I elected to do). My representative helped me throughout the whole process of dealing with student loans, applying for the correct visa, and just contacting the universities in general. The medical schools then conduct multiple mini interviews, in which a panel of interviewers will talk to different applicants and have them answer a variety of panel questions, each with a rubric of points that can be awarded. Once interviews are done, decisions are made, and places are awarded. Oddly enough, international tuition prices in Australia are pretty similar to domestic medical school tuition in the States. When I opened that acceptance e-mail, it was as if all of my hard work was validated.

It definitely takes hefty doses of bravery and moxie to pack up your life, and start over. The decision to enroll in any schooling, let alone medical school, in another country, is one that doesn’t suit everyone. I love that I am completely immersed in a different culture, and will get to experience opportunities that I never dreamed of. However, there are days that I am quite homesick. There are also days that I couldn’t be happier. No matter what happens, I know that I have never regretted my decision, and am excited to see where this journey takes me.

Reflections on research & Fulbright


Hello again, my name is Sally Feng. I graduated with a B.S. in Integrative Biology in May 2014. I am doing work on coral reef restoration in the Philippines under a Fulbright research grant.

My research experience
Three years ago, research was a foreign concept to me. During my sophomore year, I contacted a few professors and let them know that I was interested in their research. The following summer, I began assisting with a project with Dr. Katie McGhee in Dr. Alison Bell’s lab. IMG_8232I started taking field courses in the States (IB 447 and NRES 285)
and abroad in South Africa (ANSC 398) and in Costa Rica (ANTH 445). I was also in Dr. Becky Fuller’s lab to see what it was like to work in another lab. The next thing you know, I was completing my own independent projects. I presented at the iBio Research Symposium and at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at U of I. I received funding from NSF REU, Office of Undergraduate Research and Bell lab to present at the Animal Behavior Conference at the University of Colorado Boulder and at Princeton University. After two semesters of IB 390, I enrolled in IB 490 to graduate with distinction. My senior thesis on color-reward association in stickleback fish has been accepted for publication in Animal Behaviour.

My Fulbright experience
I am part of the corals lab under Dr. Ronald Villanueva at the University of Philippines Bolinao Marine Laboratory. DSC01107My study organism is Drupella cornus, a corallivorous marine gastropod. I am interested in seeing whether the gastropod chooses to feed upon a coral colony over another and whether the removal of the gastropod will have an effect in coral cover.

Even though I had a project in mind, it requires a lot of patience to get an experiment started. This was my first field-based project. I had to figure out how to set up my study area underwater and what sites to use. I just became open water certified so I needed time to get comfortable in diving. IMG_8285I was set back a few weeks because of a storm and gale warnings. Soon it was Christmas and everyone was gone for the holidays. Finally, after two months since my arrival and with the help from the lab aids, I was able to set up my experiment. Since then my experiment has been running smoothly.

While research is my priority, I was able to pursue another interest of mine, environmental education. I attended SEA (Sea and Earth Advocates) Camp, a project of the Save Philippines Seas and U.S. Embassy Manila. DSC_0242SEA Camp’s goal is to empower young seatizens as leaders in conservation. There were 30 participants, ages 18-23, from a diverse background ranging from university students to government workers. I was invited to give a talk on coral restoration and was a mentor to the participants with their project proposals on marine conservation. The camp was very well organized with resource speakers, workshops and other activities. I enjoyed seeing how excited the participants became when they had the opportunity to snorkel and scuba dive. It was amazing to see how motivated everyone was in saving the Philippines Seas.

DSC_0294I have been abroad for six months and only have three months left of my grant. I am extremely happy with my stay in the Philippines and am excited to see where I will be next. If you would like to contact me, feel free to send an email to feng.sally26@gmail.com.

– Sally.

What I learned as a First Year Medical Student

Amanda Ilag is a 2013 IB graduate and is our guest blogger this week!

amanda ilagRemember how you felt studying for the MCAT, taking that organic chemistry final, or going to a volunteer service event all in one day? This is the kind of stress and stamina needed to get through medical school. Year one of medical school takes everything you need to know about the basic sciences and applies it to human anatomy and physiology all in one year. That’s why they tell you to be organized, efficient with your time, and good at assessing your weaknesses and strengths. Studying for medical school is a full time job. You need to find new test taking skills, reform your old ones or in some cases group yourself up with fellow peers so that you get the most out of the learning experience.

In medical school you are working with an even more selective group of students so the pressure to do well is even higher. The way you need to study and take tests needs to be more efficient than it has ever been in your life. What I liked about SIU in Carbondale is that they counted our first exam lower than all other exams because they understood undergraduate to medical school could be a transition. It was also less pressure to compete for the best grades because our curriculum was a satisfactory/concern/unsatisfactory grading scale instead of actual grades. The good news is if you have the motivation and stamina to succeed; you will succeed! Get excited about testing yourself to the maximal potential of understanding! You’ll be pleased by how much you will have learned and even more curious about all there is to come.

A big part of learning now in any medical school curriculum is through “problem based learning.” This style of learning was crucial in SIU’s curriculum. It was discussion based and really challenged students to help each other understand material in a non-confrontational (group of 6-8 students) and moderated setting (tutor group leader, either a doctorate faculty member in the basic sciences or an actual physician). It was so different than undergraduate lectures where the lecturer told you most things and there was little or no discussion between students before exams. With problem based learning, students were the ones discussing what could be wrong with a “fake patient” in the computer system whose “labs, physical exam, and history information” were based on a compilation of actual patient records. It is a chance to explain material in your own words, to see if you are on the right track, and helps solidify material into memory.

I learned a lot about myself by talking with fellow students. Not all of your classmates are fresh out of college, in fact some may already be married with kids, so it was neat to gain new perspectives on life by talking with fellow classmates who are different from me. I made a lot of new friends that I hadn’t expected to make based on age, diverse background, previous work experiences, etc. We got to know our peers well because of our small class size, making it easy to be studious and to get together when we needed to have fun.

There is some clinical experience involved in year one. First years got a mentor to shadow in a specialty of your choice (mine was family medicine) where I would go once a week to observe and learn how to talk to patients from the surrounding community. You learn techniques for doing physical exam, what type of questions to ask to lead you to a list of possible diagnoses, and you learn to communicate this information concisely both verbally and in writing.

You still have time for hobbies, significant others, and relaxation you just have to be smart with your time; and be ready to adjust as necessary. And when you do find yourself in stressful situations get help from people you know and trust. There were many people on our faculty and fellow students that helped me deal with stress. And my family continued to be a strong means of support.

If you are applying to medical school or thinking about applying consider this… IS the lifestyle of a medical student something you can work with? CAN you imagine doing anything else? If you answered YES, then NO, go for it.  If you have applied but are not sure whether you want to go, take some time off to think about it. Year one of medical school is a life-changing experience for anyone so be really sure you want to go before doing it.  If you have been accepted and are sure you want to go, congratulations there is so much more you will learn about yourself along the way, and you are that much closer to being the doctor you’ve always wanted to be. Sometimes people find they don’t want to go AFTER they’ve already been there, and that’s ok too. The skills you will learn from a year of medical school will stay with you for the rest of your life and will surely make you a better person for it! Just consider all the options and learn as much as you can about it before diving into it.

Applying for a Fulbright Research Grant

IMG_7191My name is Sally Feng. I graduated with a B.S. in Integrative Biology in May 2014. I am currently doing work on coral restoration in the Philippines under a Fulbright research grant. If you are interested in applying for a Fulbright, here is my experience.


My Fulbright Timeline

  • May 2, 2013 – Attend Fulbright info session
  • July 1, 2013 – Priority deadline submission
  • September 3, 2013 – Top Scholars deadline submission
  • September 25, 2013 – Fulbright campus interview
  • October 2, 2013 – Fulbright final deadline submission
  • January 31, 2014 – Institute of International Education sends application abroad for final review
  • April 9, 2014 – Selected for Fulbright U.S. Student Award to the Philippines 

General Advice

Before starting the application, you need to decide whether you are willing to commit to the process. You have to be determined, self-motivated and patient. This applies even more so once the scholarship has been awarded. It is not a study abroad program where you take a class with fellow students. You will spend up to a year on your own in a foreign country. Don’t let that scare you; it is well worth the opportunity and a very rewarding experience.

Since it is quite a long journey, it is important to become familiar with the application process and deadlines. All U of I students will apply for the scholarship via the Top Scholars/National International Scholarships Program. The process involves submitting an online application, college transcripts, 1-page personal statement, 2-page grant purpose, 3 letters of recommendation and an affiliation letter. Keep in mind the letters of recommendation have different deadlines and specific submission instructions.

To begin, determine a starting point. What interests you? Where do you want to go? This is your opportunity to be creative. If you need help, there are many resources available. Visit the Top Scholars office and read past submissions. Ask professors if they have contacts abroad that may be willing to accept you in their lab. Have others proofread your essays. I highly recommend submitting a draft for the priority deadline. Be very detailed in your essay to let the reviewers know you have done your research. Plan out the months of what you will be doing during your stay there. Talk about the preparations you will take to become a stronger candidate. Let them know you are interested in the culture and what you hope to gain out of it. Most importantly, convince them why they should fund you to go to this specific country.

My Application Process

My starting point was the location. I wanted to work in water so I narrowed my search to islands. Next I looked into statistics. Based off of the 2013-2014 statistics for Philippines, of the 18 applicants, 8 were awarded. I began looking into universities that specialized in marine sciences. I looked into the research topics of faculty members to see if any were of interest. I found the topic of coral restoration very appealing so I emailed a professor telling him I was applying for a Fulbright and would love to work in his lab. He was willing to accommodate me at his lab considering that I would be fully funded throughout my stay.

That may have sounded easy but couldn’t have been done without help. My initial draft needed a lot of work and I might have given up if it wasn’t for the support provided by my professors and from the Top Scholars office. I was told I had very strong letters of recommendation and my professors were rooting for me. That was encouraging to hear and I did not want to disappoint them. I continued to read research articles to get ideas. I emailed my prospective professor for advice on my grant purpose. I worked on new drafts until I was satisfied with my project. It is extremely important to come up with a project that you are interested in because this could potentially be the next year of your life.

The application process is a rewarding experience by itself. Not only did I learn how to write a grant purpose, I was accepted into a lab at an international university. I have letters of recommendation ready for future references. I learned how to present myself on paper and in person. I gained confidence in the work I accomplished and the effort paid off.

In the coming weeks, I hope to share more about my past and current research experience. If you have questions, feel free to contact me at feng.sally26@gmail.com. Best of luck!

– Sally.

Reflections on the first year of graduate school

matt grobis 2Thanks to our guest blogger, Matt Grobis, who is in his second year working toward a PhD in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at Princeton, researching how groups filter noise from information in their environment (particularly predators) and how group membership affects how the whole group behaves.  Matt earned his B.S. in IB in 2012.

What I thought grad school would be like during college:
“Grad school is where you show up at noon, plan some experiments, run them the next day, then analyze the data. A PhD takes 5-7 years because it takes a while to plan the perfect experiment, one that hasn’t been done before and that answers a hole in the literature. During your first year, you do 5-6 experiments and publish at least one of them.”
When you’re doing lab reports during college, it’s almost guaranteed that the Discussion section will say something like “the study would benefit from more data.” We had three hours to do the lab; imagine how good the data would look if we had three weeks? Then, during your senior thesis, you continually imagine being able to do your research without juggling hours of lectures and homework at the same time. Grad school seemed like a big expanse of time to think about experiments, try them again and again until they’re perfect, and then publish. Any sub-perfect experiments were the fault of the experimenter not being motivated enough.

What I think grad school is like at the end of my 1st year:
“Grad school has cycles. Sometimes you show up at 10am, read articles all day, teach yourself R, and go home early. Sometimes you show up at 8am because you need to run three trials of experiments, and sometimes you swing by at 2pm because you were up until 4am writing revisions for a manuscript due to the journal that day. A PhD takes 5-7 years because literally everything takes longer than you think it will, and nothing works the first time you try.”
Something I didn’t quite grasp during my senior thesis and the beginning of the Fulbright was how much others had helped in making the experiment work out. It’s the difference between trying to find a store in a huge city you’ve never been in versus someone giving you a crude map and telling you roughly where the store should be. My advisor in college steered my thesis ideas towards a project that would answer a question regardless of what the results were, and my collaborator in Germany was the equivalent of a 4th-year PhD student in the U.S., meaning she’d had a lot of experience with figuring out the right way to do an experiment.

What my 1st year was like:
You frequently feel like you know nothing
An incredibly common feeling in grad school is “hm… I’m not sure how to do this.” The first reaction is to ask someone else, maybe an older grad student in the lab, or your friend who’s a lot better at R or Matlab than you are (hi, Sinead). You just don’t know the answer right now, so let’s find it and move on. For our generation especially, Wikipedia and Google make the answers to most of our questions separated by merely seconds from when we decide we want to find out. Grad school, on the other hand, is about constantly being in this zone of wanting to know an answer but not having it. That’s what research is; if we knew the answer, we’d have passed the info along to someone else (government organizations, the medical world, conservation groups, engineers, etc.) and be focusing on finding the answer to a new question.

As frustrating as it can be not knowing how to fit a quadratic curve on a scatterplot in R or who to e-mail for ordering new syringes for the lab, it is very satisfying the next time you have to do it and you know exactly how. And as you read more articles, go to more lectures, and talk with more people, you start seeing the same concepts reappearing… but this time, you understand them a little better.

You spend a long time figuring out how to find the answer to a question
Do you remember those “If you had a million dollars, how would you spend the money?” essay prompts in high school? One of the biggest hurdles I’ve had in planning experiments in grad school is getting out of this mentality of infinite money and time. You read about experiments where the authors make grandiose claims out of six data points and you vow to never publish something so ridiculous. If you’re going to do science, you’re going to do it right, even if it means fewer publications during your PhD. Your experiments will have at least 30 individuals, each assayed on multiple days to control for between-day variation in behavior, and each individual will be exposed to 5 treatment groups to see the full effect of the variable on behavior.

Those are fantastic intentions, and you can often make it work. But it’s really difficult. If you’re like me in college, “really difficult” sounds like something that applied to people who weren’t you; you’ve faced “really difficult” before and gotten an A in the class. Let me reiterate: it is really freaking hard to do this.

Here’s an example from this week: I’ve started a pilot experiment to figure out how the social environment affects how skittish a fish is in a new environment. The idea is to use 8 fish in 3 different groups of 60 fish. Due to poor planning, the videos ended up really dark, and it’s impossible to distinguish who’s who in the video. Not only can I not use the data; if it wasn’t for some quick thinking by marking all tanks where fish had seen the experimental tank, I might have had to scrap the experiment! (In animal behavior research, novelty to an environment is often extremely important.) So even though I’ve been planning these ideas for a few weeks, I nearly messed everything up within the first two days of actually doing anything. It always seems so obvious before you start, and then it never goes how you plan. (Above right is a video still from a trial I can’t use.)

But… that’s just how it goes. You can’t get to the end result without making mistakes. And you can’t make any progress if you don’t try.

You wait (a lot) for clearance to do research
Animal welfare committees are a crucial part of research by instituting ethical requirements for how research should be conducted. They ensure that the research has a bigger point and that your methods are the most humane way to get there (e.g. if mice have to be euthanized, what’s the calmest and least painful way for the animals? If the crickets suddenly start dying during the experiment, what do you do?). If you’re doing fieldwork, you need to get a license for the work; if it’s in another country, you probably need a visa as well.

Ensuring that research will be done properly takes a lot of time. Animal welfare committees have panels of both scientists and non-scientists to get a range of perspectives on the ethics of the work, which means extra time is needed to exchange and explain the reasoning for different viewpoints. For fieldwork, a lot of people want government approval for permits or visas, and there are only so many people reading the proposals. The only advice I can give on this is to start early, be patient, and be courteous with your e-mails. The waiting time (on the order of months) can really help refine your ideas for when you actually start.

You start to understand what makes for an interesting scientific question
For the first few months of grad school, I told people I was interested in how group composition affects predator evasion behavior in schools of fish. It took a lot of thinking and discussing with others to refine those ideas into a broader framework with more applicability than one species of fish under one type of predation risk.

You spend a lot of time thinking in grad school. Your ideas have to stand up to hundreds of hours of mental chewing; the best ideas are the ones that not only hold strong but also generate new ideas the more you learn about them.

Doing research has been challenging but I’ve been really happy so far. It’s really quite amazing to be paid to think about and do experiments asking questions nobody in the world knows the answer to yet. I feel like the incredible amount of time stuck, trying to figure out an impasse, has taught me how to find the answers to things I don’t know. This mentality has given me a lot of confidence to approach things I might have shied away from before because it seemed too difficult (e.g. teaching myself linear algebra, taking a metro or bus in a country where I don’t speak the language, etc.). And most importantly, I constantly feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of how the world works, which only makes me more excited to see where grad school takes me.


Alumni Profile: Muhammed Fazeel

Muhammed Fazeel

Graduated: May 2012

Favorite IB class and why: Ecology and Human Health (IB 361). Professor Allan held a fantastic class related to health. I especially liked it since he made a conscious effort of making relevant lectures based on current/recent epidemics.

Favorite extra curricular activities (undergraduate research, clubs, etc) and why: Being part of the Illinois Launch program at the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

Why you chose IB:  Integrative Biology took a broader approach at understanding the world from a biology perspective which I found very stimulating.

How you feel IB helped prepare you for your career:  My time at U of I has given me the basic skills needed to better understand and address problems.

What you’re up to now: Soon after I graduated, I started a biomedical startup in Chicago. We have set up partnerships with a few clinics and our work is set to help several heart patients across America.


Writing the self-contained universe

Hi all,

You are not sitting next to me right now as I type these ideas. You’re most likely not in New Jersey, and you might not even be in the U.S. The fact that it’s even possible for you to be reading these words right now highlights an ever-growing need to be able to communicate ideas through writing. It’s the difference between you growing bored and leaving halfway to explore other parts of the internet, and you finishing this blog post (before moving on to explore the rest of the internet!).

In essence, writing is just a means of getting info from Point A to Point B. No matter how many amazing and intelligent ideas you may have in your head, they will have to stay there if you don’t know how to communicate them. Here are a few tips on bridging the gap between you and your reader’s mind when it comes to e-mailing a professor or potential collaborator, writing a grant, or explaining your ideas in general.

1. Who is your reader? Why should they care about your message?
Example: e-mail
As often as possible, put yourself in the head of the person reading what you wrote. Let’s say you’re e-mailing a professor to potentially do a PhD with them. They’ll want to know:

– Who is this person? Is he/she currently an undergraduate? If not, what has she done since then?
– What are his research interests? Of my work, what interests him?
– What are her research qualifications? Has she done research before, or is she just applying to grad school because she hasn’t considered other options?
– Has this applicant actually read up about my lab and thinks he’s a good fit, or is he just sending a template e-mail to every researcher he can find?

The more of these you can answer, the more willing the professor will be to respond. Remember that professors are incredibly busy people. Chances are, they enjoy talking with new people and exchanging ideas. But, their schedules are so packed that the easier you can make an e-mail exchange for them, the less time they have to spend answering these questions themselves. You want a researcher to be nodding her head as she reads the e-mail, her questions being answered as she reads so that by the end, the work has been done for her and she can now focus on writing her response.

2. Does your writing actually address what you wanted to say / the prompt?
Example: grant writing, lab reports
Say you’re working on an NSF-GRFP grant (the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship). You have phenomenal research ideas that would explain a genetic basis for sociability in humans, and you have told a heartwarming story on how you discovered and decided to pursue science. A few months later, you’re surprised to find your revolutionary ideas were not funded by NSF. What happened?

It’s likely that you didn’t answer every part of the application to the degree NSF was looking for. Consider an introductory biology lab in which the students dissect fish and chicken hearts (diagrams on the right). In their report, they are asked to compare the two hearts and explain how these hearts differ in the ability to support different levels of metabolic demand. Unless they provide comparisons between the two hearts and explain how those differences affect ability to support varying metabolisms, they will not get full credit (no matter how detailed either component of their answers are). Think of it as:

10 points total:
5 – provide 3 differences between the 2 hearts
5 – explain each difference in terms of metabolic potential

You can slam dunk those first 5 points, but if you don’t address the second section, it’s likely you won’t even get a passing grade. Similarly, for the GRFP, regardless of how incredible your ideas are, if you don’t explain how your work has any relevance outside of bullet points in a textbook only people in your field will read, even the very best ideas will get passed down. Again, think from the GRFP officer’s viewpoint: every applicant has good ideas, but NSF wants research fellows who will not only advance science but also help spread its ideas beyond the scientific sphere. Even if you would do outreach if you had the opportunity, if you don’t write about it, the GRFP officer can’t assume you would.

3. If your writing was an isolated universe, would that universe make sense?
Example: course exam
This is one I repeatedly tell my introductory biology students for their lab reports and exams. Imagine your mom somehow stumbled across your biology midterm essays (of all the things she could have discovered in your room) and was reading them. Would she be able to understand what you wrote? In this situation, you have someone who most likely hasn’t taken college-level biology in a few decades, if ever. Do they get lost in your jargon, or is your answer self-contained enough for anyone to be able to pick it up and learn something from it? One of the biggest road blocks to a good scientific talk is losing your audience part way because you assume they understand something they actually don’t. Being able to grab a listener from any background and pull them to a new level of understanding is challenging, but it’s critical for teaching.

4. How long do you think your reader will spend on your writing? If they skimmed it, would they still get your message?
Example: lab report, scientific articles
Many science majors in college are under the misconception that a longer lab report is a better one. The idea, which seems reasonable at first, is that the more information you put down, the larger the net you are casting, which has a better chance of catching the answer your TA is looking for. Unfortunately, it’s not quite like that. Aside from giving yourself more opportunities to write something incorrect and actually lose points, in the scientific world you will almost never be in the situation where you’ve written everything you need and should keep writing more.

Again, think about writing as a communication of ideas. Short and sweet (i.e. efficient) is always preferable to long and winding in science. Scientific articles have abstracts so readers can get the gist of the article without needing the motivation, background, and time to read the entire thing (remember how busy many researchers are!). Articles in the journal Science actually have one-sentence summaries for the particularly busy and researchers in related fields who may want a simplified version of the abstract. Brevity is a much better skill to have than the ability to list everything you know about a topic.

Consider the reader, consider your miniature universe. And if all else fails, just call your reader on Skype.

Photo credits:
– Thinking: Basic College English blog (http://uppampangaenglish.blogspot.com)
– Chicken heart: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chickscope (http://chickscope.beckman.uiuc.edu/explore/embryology/day02/comparative.html)
– Fish heart: Stanford University Environmental Science Investigation (http://esi.stanford.edu/circulation/circulation5.htm)

Matt Grobis is a PhD student at Princeton University and an alumnus of the IB Honors program at the University of Illinois. For more information about academia advice, summaries of scientific articles, and discourses on metal music, check out mattgrobis.blogspot.com or e-mail him at matt.grobis[at]gmail[dot]com.