iSURF week 8: Growing Up

Counting the weeks of this summer internship has evolved into a daunting task. I don’t want to leave my abroad experience or have summer end!! Yet at the same time, I can’t wait to return home to California, especially since I started my internship just a few days after my last final last semester.


Kigamboni Beach: what I’m leaving

Del Mar Beach: what I’m returning to


For this summer of 2013, I’m participating in Harvard’s Global Health Institute’s international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (iSURF) program. The institute supports both domestic and abroad research and serves as a liaison between eager students and professors/postgraduates.


More specifically, I’m interning on clinical research trials examining the topics of maternal health and nutrition in Tanzania. It’s my first time: diving into clinical research as well as nutrition research; in Tanzania as well as on the African continent; and feeding myself for an extended period of time.


So many “firsts” completed in just a few months which have truly been an incredibly transformative experience. It’s my second time spending the summer abroad on a Harvard program (summer 2012: Summer Internship Program (shadowing at a private clinic in Peru) with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies) and I already feel much more like an experienced traveler. I’m more comfortable in foreign places, navigating rough/sketchy transportation systems, and communicating via charades.


The time has come when you can just sense everything winding down – like an (epic?) end is imminent. In the midst of a transition, many people are asking general questions about my overall experience in Tanzania. I feel a little guilty saying this (because I absolutely loved last summer in Peru and Bolivia!!), but my Tanzanian experience may be better overall. I think my preference can be explained by how last summer felt more like a summer of learning – I was learning tons of Spanish (with a Latin American accent) and learning a lot about myself: what I can do/what I’m capable of. And this summer feels like a practice run (of senior year? of real life?) where I’m using the characteristics and skills learned last summer and I’m honing them now to not only tackle, but also overcome challenges. If I wanted to be more cliché, I’ll say that I’m growing up!


My Latin American program last summer had more structure – students would go to class/work Monday through Thursday and weekends had fun excursions planned by the program coordinator. There were only a few weekends free for spontaneity and everyone had a host family to more personally watch over us and protect us.


My African program this summer has less structure – students get accepted into the program, are written a check (iSURF comes with automatic funding. Yup, best thing ever.), and can determine their preferred dates to work basically all on their own. You may or may not get picked up at the airport. You may or may not receive help in finding accommodations. All they really ask of you is to send a quick email upon a safe arrival. It’s like pushing a baby bird out of its nest and telling it to chirp if it can fly.


Regardless of a summer program’s structure, abroad experiences are phenomenal and every undergraduate student has to have one. Have to. I really can’t say if I have a preference for either type of structure because they have both fostered an abroad environment in which I thrived; but what I can say is that I’m really glad my first Harvard program abroad was the more structured one. This initial guidance definitely provided me with a grace period to learn the basics of adapting abroad – and adapting quickly.


I have had two main challenges while in Tanzania. These challenges arose early and have endured throughout the summer. Remember when I was venting (/complaining) about all the hardships concomitant to finding safe and affordable housing in Tanzania? My program partner and I settled on a hostel/guest house that was mid-range in costs, but also out of range of the city (which contributed to much of the problems I had finding safe and affordable transportation to/from work – but that’s a whole other story).

It was here at our guest house where we got comfortable and complacent, and even stressed all the benefits of our living situation when the chance came up in conversation to convince ourselves and our friends that we were doing just fine.


I was openly jealous of all the other summer interns in the area though because their accommodations were both better and free – and better not just because it was free! I’ve met a handful of other students, all on different programs, who are interning with different organizations for the summer. Their housing stems from US Embassy supported housing or alumni/coworker networks that have led to house sitting gigs.


One of the friends I made here – and probably the most gracious friend I’ve made here – was offered a house-sitter position in a house with 5 bedrooms. She invited both me and my program partner to house sit with her so she wouldn’t be all alone in a big house. Needless to say, I was (and still am) beyond super grateful for her invitation. To live in a house with a kitchen and running water, let alone a nice house…all for free?? “Too good to be true” doesn’t even describe it – mostly because the situation was true! My friend is a student at the Kennedy School (+100 for networking) so I hope she’s ready to be constantly showered with presents and love when we’re all back in Cambridge.


So there my program partner, Leanna, and I were. We just finished hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. We hadn’t showered nor looked in the mirror for 6 days. I was sure my hair was about to dreadlock. I was living out of a trash bag in which clothing that only smelled a little sweaty were considered clean. Think when dirty, grubby children are coming home from the playground and their parents were excited but also disgusted – I’m sure this was how my roommates received Leanna and me.


I’ve never lived in a house that wasn’t owned by my parents before! I feel so grown up! Not only did the move ease my financial constraints, but it was also closer to work which ameliorates my ongoing transportation predicament. The move made my life 1000% better. Yes, 1000. Because if I had 10 lives, all 10 lives would have completely improved in every aspect and every manner.


Now that Leanna and I had access to a kitchen, we didn’t have to live off of ready-made food! Although I didn’t hate my avocado and tomato diet, I also don’t hate variety. (Ironic that I’m researching nutrition?) Probably a subconscious manifestation of me missing my Asian roots and home, the first dish I made was fried rice.


Guys, this is kind of a big deal because I don’t cook. Ever.


The first dish is always plagued with self-doubt, but after some ego-boosting compliments, I initiated some conversations about hosting a dinner party. Most of my friends are house sitting around the same general neighborhood which makes seeing each other on weeknights much less of an inconvenience. Everyone loves a free and home cooked meal so people gathered at our house after work. We were running a bit behind schedule though – looks like we definitely have immersed ourselves in some Tanzanian traditions – and everyone chipped in to whip up several dishes in under an hour!

Aww, dinner as a big family!

This post was pretty much all about non-work related events. Oops?

Before my work update, I’d like to note that I’m extremely attracted to abroad experiences because there’s learning everywhere!! Whether I’m inside or outside the office, I’m constantly stimulated and observing (and mimicking) new human behavior. A foreign environment is conducive to a very high concentration of ethereal experiences. Yes, ethereal. I just love learning people’s different habits and tracing them back to cultural differences – and you can’t learn this anywhere but abroad!

Work has been a little slow this week. My main contribution has been trying to optimize their database. I feel somewhat like a healthcare consultant because I spent a lot of time learning the protocol and then spent even more time learning what the researchers/lab technicians/staff actually practices. I’ve tried to grasp the flow of subjects and their bodily fluid samples through interviews, shadowing, and private investigations. With all this knowledge, I’ve been working with an IT guy and my postdoc to code a new database since the one currently in use is unreliable – the last 6-7 months of data haven’t been captured in a digital manner!! We were all really excited to recently have a finished database to pilot, although our enthusiasm simmered when we found lots of room for improvement during the pilot. We’re currently in the works of making those tweaks and hoping pilot 2.0 runs more smoothly!

I have a few side projects that I work on in addition to the database and I even got an unexpected, but very pleasant, opportunity to shadow a doctor who is also a professor at the medical school where my office is located. More on this next week!

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