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Although it’s only been a handful of days, I feel like I’ve been on campus for at least a few weeks already! I guess my quick-comfortable level serves as a testament to how much at Home I feel at Harvard. After traveling all summer, it is REALLY nice to be settled in one place again.

When I say I’ve been traveling all summer, I really mean literally traveling all summer – and I’m not even abusing “literally” here! When my last final took place in the spring semester this past May, I had 3 days at school to get myself ready for my internship in Africa! When my clinical research internship ended, I traveled down Africa – alone and meeting up with other Harvard students – and made a pit stop in Dubai and London before returning home to California where I did a bit of domestic traveling as well! Harvard took me to Africa and I definitely took advantage of the great geographic location!

Please allow me to semi-quickly summarize the end of my summer and outline what the first 4 days of school have been like. One ending is just another beginning ! 🙂

Part 1: Amsterdam

I know the Netherlands doesn’t really make sense in the context of Africa, but the Amsterdam airport is a huge international hub for flights. The cheapest flight from New York City to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania involved a 13 hour layover in Amsterdam during the middle of the day. Let’s just say I was far from complaining and very eager for my new passport stamp!

Amsterdam

Things conquered in Amsterdam:

Stroopwaffles & Cheese, Eye Film Institute, Free walking tour in Spanish, Flower market, Chinatown, Vondelpark, Anne Frank’s House (!)

Part 2: Tanzania

I scored an internship through Harvard’s Global Health Institute program called iSURF (international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) through which, for the first time, I pursued clinical research projects revolving around maternal health and nutrition. I loved the research topic, my co-workers, and the grad school friends I made!  During my time here, I picked up enough Swahili to barter and speak to taxi drivers – thanks to my dedicated co-workers who doubled as translators. There’s no denying that a big chunk of my heart stayed in Tanzania. Living abroad gave me a grander perspective on the disparities in health access and socioeconomic status which is helping me clarify what profession I want to follow after graduation. Thinking a bit shorter term, I’m also looking into following up on this topic of maternal health and nutrition by writing a mini thesis this fall semester in a GHHP 91r course (Global Health & Health Policy, Supervised Research and Reading).

 

Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Things conquered in Tanzania:

Biking in heavy traffic to work, Impersonal greetings in Swahili, General nightlife scene, Zanzibar, Arusha, Moshi & last but not least Mt. Kilimanjaro!!!

Part 3: Zambia

I’m pretty sure I made everyone nervous – including myself and my credit card company – when I bought a one way ticket to Tanzania. I knew I wanted to visit Cape Town, South Africa ever since my roommate went the summer after her freshman year and refused to stop talking about it. In the roughest of rough travel itineraries, I intended to go from Cape Town to Bolivia in order to join in the forces of Refresh Bolivia, just like the end of my summer 2012. However, when flight prices from Tanzania to South Africa were $500 more than what I expected, and when flights from South Africa to Bolivia were $1000 more than what I had budgeted for, I had to sadly face reality by accepting that I wouldn’t be able to “Refresh Bolivia” this summer.

Perhaps this huge itinerary change came as a blessing in disguise because I had more time to focus on the journey to Cape Town rather than just the destination. I took a 3 day train (note this mode of travel is highly NOT recommended) from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Zambia. I stopped in a few places in Zambia, but was mostly interested in Victoria Falls. I met a few people in Zambia that redefined altruism by taking me in when in need. Since I was traveling by myself, I learned a lot about myself and my capabilities. It’s very empowering to travel alone and I can’t thank the universe any more profusely than I do every single day for affording me this opportunity to not only explore the world, but also explore what I want to do in this world!

Gorge Swinging over Victoria Falls, Zambia

Things conquered in Zambia:

Kapiri Mposhi, Lusaka, Livingstone, Zambezi River sunset cruise & gorge swinging/abseiling/zip lining over the Falls

Part 4: Zimbabwe

TripAdviser recommends seeing Victoria Falls from both the Zambia and Zimbabwe side – I second this recommendation! I crossed over the border and explored the waterfalls from this side as well. This was one of the more developed destinations out of my itinerary so I took advantage of the available WiFi and hot water. Continuing my travel southwards, I caught a flight out of Zimbabwe to South Africa to meet a fellow 2014 Harvard classmate and iSURF intern who had been working in Uganda for the summer.

Free showers at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Things conquered in Zimbabwe:

Victoria Falls, Bulawayo

Part 5: Cape Town, South Africa

No more overnight trains and sketchy buses for me – from here on out I would by flying high 🙂 After a week of solo backpacking in central Africa, I was more than ready for any and all companionship! One of my good friends from school, Jen and I had thrown around the idea of traveling in Africa together since we would both be iSURF interns. Africa is a very large continent so I tried to remain realistic while throwing ideas around, but as emails were exchanged and flight information was forwarded, there was no hope in containing either my or Jen’s excitement! We did a ton of research and planned an intensive yet flexible itinerary to take advantage of our 5 days there. We even met up with a fellow rising senior who also arrived to town around the same time we did for thesis research. (Tangent: He’s a statistics concentrator writing a senior thesis on wine…so he got funding to travel to Cape Town, wine capital of the world! Anything. is. possible.)

Cape of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa

Things conquered in Cape Town:

Stollenbosch, Camps Bay, Table Mountain, Hout Bay (seals!), Chapmans Peak, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point and its Lighthouse, Boulders Beach (penguins!), Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Greenmarket Square & VA Waterfront

Part 6: Dubai

When I was booking flights from Cape Town back home to California, I learned flights from Cape Town to London were ridiculously cheap. I’m a sucker for a sale so I booked. Initially intending to spend 2-3 days in London, I actually spent 5 days there due to flight sales. I won’t start raving about London here (that’s the next part!), but Dubai comes into play because I had a 12 hour layover from 2 am to 2 pm. After getting lost for hours in their enormous airport, I managed to leave the airport and hop onto their sweet metro system which helped me see as much as I could in my 6 hours of daylight! It was a bit stressful trying to spend all my Dirham currency, but that’s maybe the only kind of stress I’d welcome.

Jumeirah Beach, Dubai

Things conquered in Dubai:

Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Beach, Mall of Emirates & Dubai Mall

Part 7: London (and Cambridge)

Words just don’t do justice when it comes to expressing my love of London. I had the absolute best time and on a budget too! You may be thinking London on a budget, whaaattt?! But thanks to Harvard’s diversity and international presence, I made a really good British friend last semester who was beyond helpful in my London trip. He connected me to his high school friends who offered me free housing (as well as free tour guide services!) and he even made a detailed itinerary of London and Cambridge. I also had a lot of help from other Harvard friends who either studied abroad in the UK or who had traveled through London earlier on in the summer. I’m undeniably a California girl at heart so it means a lot when I say London is incredible despite its gloomy reputation.

London, UK

Things conquered in London:

Natural History Museum; Biking through Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square; Leicester Square; Chinatown; VA Museum; Science Museum; St. Paul’s Cathedral; Modern Tate Museum; The Angel in Islington; Shoreditch; Covent Garden; Piccadilly Circus; Kingly Court; Camden Market; Tower of London; Westminster Abbey; Big Ben; St. James Park; Princess Diana Memorial Walk; Cambridge/Kings College

Part 8: Los Angeles

Domestic Harvard friends are impressive as well! It was cheaper to fly London > Los Angeles (LA) > San Francisco (SF) rather than London > San Francisco directly, but I would land in LA too late to be able to catch a same day flight to SF. I called upon 2 of my blockmates (blockmates are a group of up to 7 other friends that you make during your freshman year and tell Harvard you love them enough to commit to living in the same upperclassman house for the next 3 years of your undergraduate life) who are LA natives. They very willingly picked me up from the airport, energized me with the famous In-N-Out, housed me and entertained me until my flight the following night. College friends very quickly become family and although I already knew mine are very reliable, it still warms my heart that they very willingly cater to my outrageous needs!

Santa Monica pier, Los Angeles, California

Things conquered in LA:

In-N-Out, Reactivating my American Phone, The Melt, Santa Monica Pier, LA traffic

Part 9: San Francisco

I’m not originally from the Bay but my best friend from college was finishing up her internship there and my best friend from high school attends UC Berkeley – do I have to further explain why this trip to SF was so completely necessary and amazingly timed?? I hadn’t been up to Northern California since participating in a science camp (Young Scholars Program as UC Davis) in 2009 so it was nice to come back and play tourist in my home state!

Crissy Field, San Francisco, California

Things conquered in SF:

(spontaneous) Giants v. Red Sox game, HRD Cafe, Ikes Sandwiches, UC Berkeley student life and UC Berkeley Kappa Alpha Theta chapter (it was awesome seeing sisters on the opposite coast!), Coit Tower, Crissy Field, Dolores Park, Washington Square, Lombard Street, Palace of Fine Arts & Nick’s Crunchy Taco Tuesday

Part 10: Home Sweet San Diego!

I have 2 influential factors when creating a travel itinerary: flight prices and free housing. Due to these 2 factors, I only managed to sneak home for about 4 days! This would be the shortest amount of time I’m at home during a break from school ever! I do not plan on making this the norm. It was too short, but well worthwhile! Thank goodness my parents and sister had free time to hang out with me and love me. Home was fabulous as always. However, due to my extreme circumstances of 4 days, I was spending time with my family by day and chilling with my high school friends by night – and in between these appointments, I visited the dentist and optometrist too! Sleep? What is that??

Sunset from Iron Mountain, San Diego, California

Things conquered in San Diego:

Family, Friends, Food

Part 11: Boston (and Cambridge!)

I’m lucky to have family friends in Boston who eagerly greet me at the airport and drop me off on campus with enough food to feed an urban county. This luck continues on campus as my friends warmly welcomed my return. Catching up with everyone, unpacking, and shamelessly shoving my face with Asian fruit took up the one day I had before classes started. During my final year of Harvard (!!!!!), I have 1 Neurobiology concentration requirement, 2 Global Health and Health Policy secondary requirements and 2 General Education classes left. This definitely is not a lot as some of them can double count and I have 2 semesters to fulfill everything. With my General Education courses, I have tons of freedom which means a hectic shopping schedule and a blind hope that everything will be figured out when Tuesday 5 pm rolls around – Tuesday is Study Card day when students must turn in a list of courses that they intend to enroll in for the semester and some classes need instructor signatures which can be a tad stressful on occasion. I’ll know my classes by the next blog though!

Mather Courtyard, Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Things NOT conquered back at school:

Unpacking, class schedule

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WOAH. August is over?! It’s hard for me to be in denial any longer, especially since my first day of Senior Year is tomorrow! My last fall semester Shopping Week is kicking off in just a few hours and with three years of wisdom and experience as an undergraduate, I’m still frantically constructing a shopping schedule the night before…

Shopping Week is what we call the first week of every semester when students are allowed to sit in (or walk out!) of any and all classes without any hard feelings. It’s an exploratory week where everyone strives to strike the perfect balance of our favorite professors, homework, and catching up with everyone back on campus! Although I don’t have a shopping schedule yet, I’m not exactly freaking out because we pre-term plan (PTP) which is a system where students enter courses they intend on enrolling in for the next semester in advance. Both Shopping Week and Pre-Term Planning have no strings attached which definitely eases the stresses concomitant to committing to classes!

But before we get too serious talking about commitment and classes, I wanted to wrap up my summer of participating in iSURF (international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) through the Global Health Institute. I was pursuing clinical research in maternal health and nutrition in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for a total of 9 weeks. I wrote a final report at the end of the program that I wanted to share with you – below is what I submitted!

Nutrition and Global Health Internship

Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

 

            The summer internship abroad description depicts clinical trials addressing critical gaps in nutrition and the complex dynamic between these gaps and infectious/chronic disease as well as perinatal, child, and maternal health. The core of these epidemiologic studies entails randomized clinical trials investigating both the safety and efficacy of iron and/or vitamin A supplements during pregnancy in resource-poor settings, with the ultimate goal of positively contributing to the broader global health and health policy agenda.

 

I am pleased and happy to report that all of these promises of both wide-range and in-depth clinical research exposure that was laced within the internship description were successfully delivered upon completion of the internship.

 

Although my Tanzanian internship was my first time traveling to the African continent, this summer internship was not my first abroad experience. I spent last summer abroad in Latin America, completing a medical shadowing internship at a private clinic in Lima, Peru as well as a sustainable clean water engineering project in Cochabamba, Bolivia. My South American experiences last summer have imprinted an understanding of the slower pace traditional outside of state lines and most importantly, have honed my patience as well as my ability to both appreciate and adapt to the culture of my surroundings. For my African adventure, I anticipated similar communication barriers and delays concomitant to the abroad lifestyle. To my pleasant surprise, the task list accumulated at a beyond reasonable pace whether that entailed acquiring familiarity with the three studies or advancing the trials along.

 

My first task involved creating a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to regulate and track the flow of participants’ samples and data. The SOP task emerged from necessity as it seemed as if neither a written nor digital record existed; but coincidentally and conveniently, investigating informational flow through shadowing and interviews served the greater purpose of learning the details of the study and its data collection protocol. It was interesting to peak into, poke around, and then ameliorate the gap in procedure. Unlike a laboratory bench experiment, clinical trials are more vulnerable to uncontrolled and unexpected events which call for resiliency and flexibility in problem solving. This realization was also enlightening because it was my first time differentiating between protocol and practice. I admire the type of on-your-toes need for creativity that has proven to be characteristic of working in big scale clinical trials.

 

Drafting the SOP harmoniously worked hand in hand with the assignment of creating a matrix which visually juxtaposed the study’s various analytical laboratory tests with how the test results are utilized to determine the health conditions of participants. The completion of this task necessitated research beyond the studies’ full protocols. Scientific journals and research articles helped me not only compile the test-condition matrix, but also develop an understanding to the meaning behind once abstract large words and fancy acronyms. It was refreshing to get a big picture sense of the study as well as its details to motivate both the clinical trials and my personal contribution, especially since it is very easy to have research interns work with their heads down without grasping the grander purpose of neither their labor nor the study.

 

Speaking of working diligently with my head down, I brought it upon myself to familiarize myself with the Microsoft Office program of Access, software that I never heard about before this nutrition research internship. Access serves as a relational database management system that also catalyzes the export of data for analysis. I concentrated on creating Access forms for a different study that also examined maternal health called Cook Smoke with Blair Wylie as the principle investigator. My practice of creating Access forms was quickly put to good use for developing a Compromised Sample Log form. However, creation of this form catalyzed the realization that the LIS database currently in use needed to be revamped to optimize efficiency and cease disappearance of data. A Visual Basic database has been piloted and activated with intentions to record laboratory test results.

 

The backlogging of the first 6-7 months of 2013 has been initiated and is well underway with the new database. It is easy to perceive repetitive tasks such as entering data or counting slides and blocks as useless, time-killing tasks. However, I tried to keep an optimistic mindset because as minor as my tasks seemed on the surface, they needed to be completed in order to move on to later stages of the study. It is important to experience first-hand multiple aspects of research so that a broader sense of perspective can be more easily achieved.

 

With a familiarity of both a broad and narrow sense of the trials, the opportune time to visit hospital sites presented itself. I enjoyed and appreciated the diversity of the sites – some sites are located in popular, urban areas while others pop up from unpaved compounds. The drastically diverse landscapes of the sites directly reflect the wide socioeconomic gaps in Dar es Salaam’s population which is an important characteristic to include and analyze within the trials. On-site visits were exciting and eye-opening as I tried to observe and memorize every detail of the hospitals. From the common waiting room to the labor waiting room and all the way to the actual birthing room, I was entranced by all the similarities, but mostly differences, to American and Peruvian hospitals.

 

The hospital differences grew – in a depressing manner – with the opportunity to shadow Professor Ferdinand Mugusi at the non-paying infectious disease ward of Muhimbili Hospital. Regarding my hospital exposure, my experiences have been relatively sheltered due to high US health standards. Even when I served as a medical shadowing intern in the developing country of Peru, I was based in a private clinic where financial concerns were neither a prominent thought nor a driving factor in every patient diagnosis. Tanzanian physicians tend to favor the cheaper, more non-specific tests, if any tests at all. It is indeed inspiring to witness Tanzanian provisions of free health care to those who cannot afford it. However, it is also distressing to witness crowded conditions within an infectious disease ward where resources are extremely limited. The silver lining lies in the uplifting reassurance of how well the staff strives to evenly distribute the resources available.

 

As with any developing country, Tanzania is no different in that financial matters both motivate as well as limit its progress. It was ironic how financial constraints also influenced the smooth advancement of the clinical trials. I have experience with money trouble in the context of laboratory bench research and grants, but I have never seen – or have I ever been this moved by – a staff that financially contributes out of their own pocket for the sake of keeping the study alive and running. To say that such efforts are heart-warming would be a grand understatement. Seeing first hand a non-romanticized perspective of research illuminated the people’s passion for their profession – a passion I arduously aspire for as an undergraduate – as well as wholly demonstrates the kind heartedness characteristic of Tanzanian culture.

 

Another important and intrinsic aspect of Tanzania is their skill to work in teams. During the weekly Thursday Skype meetings with Professor Wafaie Fawzi in Boston, it was always delightful to have everyone gathered in one room, catch up on the details of the study that they are personally responsible for, as well as work towards a common goal and brainstorm solutions to problems that have arisen during the week. The most personally impactful meeting was over the topic of enrollment and raising awareness about the maternal health studies. The catch 22 dilemma consisted of our goals to innovatively enroll new pregnant participants all while not overwhelming the clinic sites. Ideas to collaborate with individual village’s community leaders as well as hire a truck with a speakerphone announcement were debated. Although the solution remains in a grey area, the sound consensus was that the shared goal was to promote our study without demoting the reputations and perceptions of the health care system. The seamless transition from one specific problem of enrollment to the general concern of maternal health programs was a critical moment to witness because it served as a reminder to maintain awareness of each baby step so that in the end, the aggregation of steps creates a path to the ultimate end goal of improving global health.

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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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When I dubbed last week (with my Zanzibar trip and a successful meeting with my principle investigator) as the best week ever, I might have spoke too soon. Alternatively, the best case scenario is that I’m having consecutive best weeks ever…let’s run with that.

 

The most epic week of my whole summer internship (thus far) and I didn’t even go to work once. Very analogous to those learning moments outside of the classroom – that is what the summer is for after all, right?

 

This summer, I’m serving as a research intern in clinical trials revolving around maternal health and nutrition. It’s my first time handling clinical trials and I’m definitely learning my fair share of the triumphs as well as the difficulties of protocol vs. practice. Did I mention I’m working in Africa? Yep, I’ve landed the dream “job” at age 21 by participating in the Global Health Institute’s international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program.

 

Since iSURF is a fan of the buddy system and sends at least 2 students per destination abroad, I have a summer program partner, Leanna, and although we work on different projects and in different areas of the city, we try to align our African travel plans – because we too are fans of the buddy system. A bit of planning and flexibility allows students abroad to exploit their summer destinations. One of Leanna’s best friends and blockmates (a group of up to 8 friends that you tell the college you’re obsessed with during the spring semester of your freshman year to ensure that your group is placed together in the same upperclassman house for the remaining three years of undergrad) is pursuing research for her senior thesis in East Africa. They had roughly planned to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, together this summer. When her plans fell through, Leanna was still determined to hike it and I was pretty much indifferently down for the ride. Let’s keep in mind that I’ve never been camping for more than one night and for whatever reason, the sound of 6 days didn’t alarm me.

A view of Kilimanjaro from our bus ride. We were entranced about how the peak just pops above the clouds!

Leanna spearheaded planning the entire Mt. Kilimanjaro hike. Many Harvard students volunteer with SIC, Support for International Change, and she had heard of a partnership between SIC and a hiking company. We rode SIC’s coattails for their student discounts and had semi-strategically/semi-luckily planned our 6 day hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro to begin one day before the federal government of Tanzania imposes a hefty, high-season tourist tax.

I would have done a lot to avoid the taxes – but it would have been worth it regardless! Just look at this view from the rainforest, near the base of the mountain!

Everything seemed to be going our way! We bought bus tickets for a 12 hour ride to the base of the mountain and although our tickets mistakenly noted the wrong day, we didn’t have a problem boarding! The bus seats reclined and the Bongo-flavor music was all very conducive to sleeping. When slumber wasn’t on our side, we were easily amused by the passing of the beautiful green scenery as well as what we suspected to be a baobab tree forest!

 

Wiped out from the long bus ride, we turned in early despite the Friday night ambiance.

 

Saturday began with a hefty breakfast along with an introduction to our head guide named Kombe who visited us at our hostel to help us with our rental gear as well as give us a brief overview of our imminent week of hiking. After an initial blood oxygen level and pulse check, we bid farewell, knowing that the next time we met, we would be starting our ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Leanna and I spent the rest of Saturday food-touring the small town of Arusha and met up with a friend we made through mutual friends at Zanzibar last week. Her name was Lauren and although she was based in Arusha, she had yet to explore an arts and crafts center called Cultural Heritage.

Cultural Heritage was a huge arts center that included the largest collection of Tanzanite gems. Our eyes sparkled just as much as the gems as we stared, but we quickly made our way to the large art gallery next door.

A view from inside the art gallery

The gallery was fantastic! From architecture to content, the building fitted with stained glass window and spiraled around an impressive showcase boasting the most prominent aspects of African culture, from tribes to animals. There were plaques and framed letters of US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton visits; too bad Obama wasn’t planning on coming to the Cultural Heritage center during his POTUS visit!

While roaming the town, we stumbled upon a library and nervously/curiously entered. To our surprise and shock, the library was absolutely crowded both on the basement and ground floor … on a beautiful Saturday afternoon!

Obligatory creeper pictures to highlight some studious Tanzanians!

As the adventurous young adults Leanna and I strive to be, we also called Saturday an early night in an attempt to relish our last night in a bed under a roof for the upcoming week. There were no regrets about our decisions Sunday morning when we were picked up by our hiking company and started making the short drive to the starting gate of the Machame route where we’d be spending the next 6 days.

Get it?! … X for X-treme! 🙂
At the starting gate – after registration and right before beginning!

At the entrance, we met our entourage – or as we endearingly nicknamed our crew: mantourage – which consisted of 2 guides, a chef, a waiter, a toilet-master, and 6 porters. 11 men to take care of 2 girls for 6 days. Yeah, the numbers seemed about right.

In too deep to turn back now…

Leanna has camping experience and she was able to call our adventure the most luxurious camping she’s ever done. I, on the other hand, during this camping trip, gathered very high standards for what camping should be like; the disclaimer here being that our 6 day Mt. Kilimanjaro hike was enough camping for my lifetime. (I’ll probably avoid camping again at all costs, but make sure everybody knows about that one time I hiked to Africa’s rooftop in 6 days.) We were essentially waited on hand and foot: everyone in our mantourage (except for our guides) would race up and down the mountain much faster in order to have our campsite set up upon arrival. Leanna and I were woken up daily to a hot beverage delivered to our sleeping bags and there was even “warm water for washing” in buckets right outside our sleeping tent twice a day. There was no doubt we ate better on Mt. Kilimanjaro than in lower elevations when we were responsible for feeding ourselves.

 

Feeling like CHAMPS after Day 1 of hiking through the rainforest.

Throughout our 6 day route, we made our way up to the nearly 6000 meter peak, Uhuru Point. The most pleasant surprise was reaching the summit on July 4th. I think it’s fair that students always get a burst of patriotism when abroad. Leanna and I may not have had an American flag to boast on Africa’s rooftop, but when we weren’t desperately trying to breathe oxygen into our lungs, we were radiating American vibes as best we could. Most of the hikers we ran into were American and reaching the summit not only felt like an escape from Africa, but also an escape from the real world.

…or maybe I was just feeling like there was some out-of-body experience happening because I was majorly oxygen deprived. I’m talking about a blood oxygen level hovering around 60%. This is when studying neurobiology serves as a disadvantage because I start listing all the neurons and organs that have most likely already suffocated to their demise. I wasn’t really aware of (or maybe I was denying) the severity of the situation. All I knew was that I was beyond super sleepy (on the verge of losing consciousness?) and very nauseous. I could n o t come to terms with not reaching the summit, especially after enduring so much dirt everywhere for so many days. I thankfully reached the top of the mountain with the hand-holding of my guide and raced down quickly after to chase some oxygen. Okay, so maybe Harvard kids are a little intense, but at least we’re not just intense about academics…?

Stella Point – not quite the summit, but an hour away – I wish someone had warned me about all this trickery!! Hey Tanzania, let’s not put congratulatory signs at non-summit points. Thanks.

Finally at Uhuru Point – Africa’s rooftop. Severely oxygen deprived & nauseous. Worth it? ABSOLUTELY.

 

It’s insane how many ecosystems you pass while hiking 6000 meters! We went through rainforests, deserts, heathers and moors! Mid-way through Day 2 of hiking, we were already above the clouds.

We’re breathing in a cloud!!!!!

The views of fluffy beds of clouds beneath us were priceless. Clouds would often roll right through our hiking trails and provide a movie set-like backdrop; I’d have to cue Leanna here to mention all the Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones references I didn’t understand…

 

The entire week of hiking was not as physically rigorous as I thought it would entail – except for summit day of course. On summit day, you start hiking at midnight, trying to reach the peak around sunrise. This means you get very little sleep and it’s FREEZING. The wind was mercilessly whipping my face regardless of the direction I was facing.

Our guides called this “Kilimanjaro Cocaine.” Let’s just say this definitely pushed me up the mountain.

I countered this by taking gulps of straight up glucose provided by my guides. Yet, This isn’t to say the the 6 day adventure wasn’t exhausting, but I’m confident that most people could handle the level of hiking difficulty! In my opinion, Mt. Kilimanjaro is less of a physical battle and more of a biological battle. You struggle with things out of your control – the two main things being the cold and the altitude. With four pairs of pants on, Leanna and I were equipped to fight the cold (although our painfully freezing fingers and toes wailed in disagreement – I was just happy I could still feel pain rather than having my extremities go numb!!). However, I struggled a ton on summit day with altitude sickness and experienced my first oxygen mask…an overload of scary excitement! University Health Services, UHS, and abroad programs partner up before students go abroad to ensure students have all their necessary vaccinations as well as appropriate medications (i.e. altitude/diarrhea pills). With their medical support, we were prepared as well as we could be for the hike but mountain conditions are so unpredictable!

 

I still think my most physically challenging quest was hiking the Colca Canyon in Peru last summer after my Summer Internship Program (SIP) with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), but summit day of Mt. Kilimanjaro was by far my most biologically challenging adventure. Is it ironic that I have Harvard to thank for an overwhelming majority of my blissful challenges whether that be academic, social, physical, and biological? College has definitely been a transformative and fulfilling experience if I’ve ever had one.

 

Overall, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro was a super scary experience as it was happening and I’m lucky to say that I have no regrets. Reaching Africa’s rooftop was an experience unlike any other and I’m confident that this is a true statement I can continue to make throughout my life. It was my very first time doing anything of this kind – camping?? extreme mountain hiking?? Crazy.

You may have noticed that this blog sort of jumps all over the place. This can be explained by 1) my tendency to ramble, 2) all of my EMOTIONS – I’m so proud and happy for myself, for conquering something I didn’t even know was on my bucket list; but I’m also still debating whether or not it was stupid of me for doing something that brought me so close to kicking the bucket, and/or 3) the overload of events over the course of a single week that I’m still trying to process – I hiked ~19,500 feet, WHAT?!

Matters didn’t even really slow down off the mountain! We had scheduled one more day in the small town of Moshi which lies at the base of the mountain before returning to our internships. Plans were looking pretty grim as it seemed as if Leanna’s throat infection evolved into bronchitis during our hike. After consulting with a physician at the closest public hospital, Leanna chose to spend the day indoors. However, I met some New Zealand travelers in our hostel and ventured out with them to the nearby waterfalls and other attractions.

At the Moshi waterfalls with some New Zealand friends I picked up along the way

A week of pure nature without any responsibilities or distractions – amazing. I highly recommend it. But I have to admit it was really nice returning to civilization and being able to communicate with my family and friends regularly. And if we’re on the confession train here, I also hated returning to flooded inboxes and the guilt-driven impulse to reply immediately. Technology is such a double edged sword/catch 22. I have some really hefty travel plans for after my internship ends so we’ll have to wait and see how technology serves me then. Just 2 more weeks until my internship is over, but this in no way reflects that the summer is almost over!

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Students tend to feel the stress of summer planning during the spring semester. To be fair, our month-long J-term (January break/winter break) has recharged and prepared us to tackle the extra load of stress; especially since final exams are now before – rather than after – the break.

 

I had one goal for this summer: go abroad. (My sub-goal was to secure a warm location that was conducive to tanning.) My aspiration isn’t unique and when there’s such a high demand to experience life abroad, Harvard tries to supply. There is a ton of support for students’ foreign aspirations such as the OIP (Office of International Programs) or its sister, the OIE (Office of International Education). From studying and interning abroad, if the variety of Harvard programs doesn’t fit your appetite, it’s not uncommon to apply to other universities’ programs. All the opportunities can be a little overwhelming and a little more difficult to navigate – but this is more of a good problem to have.

 

Last summer, I participated in the Summer Internship Program (SIP) through the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) in Lima, Peru where Harvard runs several summer programs. I had some friends who were based also in Lima, but were participating in the international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program through the Global Health Institute. I filed the latter program’s name in the back of my mind when I learned that acceptance into the program came with automatic funding! The iSURF program supports 8-10 week projects all over the globe (with the SURF program supporting domestic projects).

 

With my endeavors to achieve a secondary (more commonly known as minors at other universities) in Global Health and Health Policy, I researched projects pertaining to nutrition and was ultimately placed in Tanzania for the summer to jump on board with clinical trials examining maternal health and nutrition in the context of malaria. Abroad? Check. Tanning potential? Very high. My summer internship offer was a once in a lifetime opportunity to pursue many “firsts”: venturing out to the African continent and acquiring experience in clinical research. If this isn’t the American dream, it’s definitely the premed dream coming into fruition.

 

In the midst of summer planning stress, it’s important to remember that with a little planning, we can make it something special. –> This was a cheesy-cute introduction of a current summer email thread among fellow summer interns in Tanzania. I like to think we’re a very eclectic group that’s not very representative of a normal population sample. Although a handful of us are still in our undergrad, most of my friends are 1) in grad school (studying something along the lines of international development), 2) have volunteered in the Peace Corps, and 3) have DC origins. We all came together in quirky ways – from a Harvard in Africa summer contact list to random chance encounters. Our “how we met” stories all seem very shady on both the surface and deeper levels, but the more important thing is that we’re sticking together while we’re grasping Tanzanian culture.

Our process of cultural immersion would most definitely be incomplete without a trip to Zanzibar.

The domestic airport is full of baby aircrafts!

Unashamedly pretending to board my private jet to Zanzibar.

Incredible views for the short plane trip!

Before arriving to Tanzania, I was ordered to go to Zanzibar by every single person I knew who has stepped foot in this wonderful country. The opportune weekend finally presented itself so my iSURF program partner and I extended the weekend from Friday to Monday. We spent four fabulous days and three glorious nights in Zanzibar with each night on a different part of the dream-like island.

Stone Town, Zanzibar – no worries with a view like this!

Kendwa Rocks, Zanzibar – not too shabby, eh?

My Zanzibar trip was phenomenal. The pictures don’t do the paradise island justice, but it’s much better than what I could describe with words! It’s dangerously easy to fall in love with the island and its crystal clear ocean. For the first time ever, I pet a tortoise, ate lunch in the company of a peacock and his mistresses, and went snorkeling. When I returned home, I promptly declared Zanzibar as my honeymoon trip.

Prison Island with, like, a 156 year old tortoise!!!!

My home for the summer is in Tanzania where my research is based. I’ll never turn down the opportunity to travel, but I do prefer to travel to one place for an extended period of time so that it feels more of a home rather than a layover; this is just about the only way to discover the nooks and crannies – the real character – of any location.

 

Studying/working abroad is what I call a staycation: not exactly a vacation, but definitely not real life either because hard hitting responsibilities can be as transient as Zanzibar beaches. My Zanzibar trip was a pure vacation. I was sad when my weekend in paradise came to an end, until I realized I was only leaving one beach vacation and returning to a staycation – I’m no doubt the luckiest girl in the world!

 

In an attempt to get more comfortable in my summer home, I discovered a group of expats in the area who meet weekly to dine in a new restaurant.

Hibachi style – a Japanese tradition with a Tanzanian twang

The week that I had joined this expat group of foodies, it was their 100th dinner and there was even a celebratory cake! It was both extremely intriguing and exciting to meet such a diverse group of people who had also made Tanzania their home from anywhere between a handful of weeks and up to 13 years! It’s always a refreshing experience to mingle with people who have gone through similar transition phases, Swahili learning curves, and culture shocks.

Speaking of shocks (warning: worst segue ever), my trip to Zanzibar was quite unexpected; but sometimes the best parts of traveling stem from flexibility. My iSURF program partner and I were initially planning on leaving the city to spend a week hiking to Africa’s rooftop – we wanted to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, otherwise known as the highest peak on the African continent. Our plans were struck down due to calendar conflicts: Professor Wafaie, the Principle Investigator of my project (and an overall champ of every department ever), was traveling from Boston to Tanzania. All the postdocs I work with on a daily basis urged me to reschedule my Mt. Kilimanjaro climb which I did very willingly because I was excited to see the man in action!

 

I’m very content with the way things worked out. Professor Wafaie and I exchanged a few emails before last spring semester ended in an attempt to meet and acquaint each other before I started on his research project. However, the semester ended quicker than we anticipated and we settled for meeting in Tanzania. I finally got to meet him in a meeting which I anticipated to kind of just sit in on and observe. The highlight of the work-week was definitely when I contributed to the meeting – I felt like it was one of those moments that would have made Sheryl Sandberg proud.

 

This meeting was filled with all the head honchos of the medical school and our big team of researchers. You could sense the higher tensions all day in preparation for this meeting. I had been assigned to work on some blood samples for the day and I reported some numbers and statistics to my postdocs before the meeting. However, my overloaded postdocs were scrambling to locate the scratch piece of paper where they scribbled my numbers on so I spoke up and announced the numbers out loud, to which Professor Wafaie responded by thanking me personally! … !!

 

Best week ever.

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Last week, I blogged about striking a meaningful balance between work and play during the summer. But summer with too much balance isn’t always a good thing. The ideal balance is a fluctuating one. Summer sort of lends itself to chaos anyways, and this week has teetered over to the stereotypical aspects of summer: movies and food.

Who am I kidding? Food is my most prominent thought at least every 30 minutes. (Like the majority of students, I’m on the full meal plan at school. Although a lot of students rag on the dining hall aka HUDS for their cafeteria style food, I appreciate how I always have access to food/snacks despite having specific meal times – cough, cough, Yale doesn’t have this flexibility). What I like most about food is its intense share-ability. Food tends to bring great people together for a fantastic reason and it’s so versatile! Theme of the week? Thai food.

 

This summer, I’m working on clinical trials dealing with maternal health and nutrition. It’s my first time pursuing clinical research and my first time examining matters in iron/vitamin A diets in terms of pregnancy and malaria endemic regions. I’m really cherishing my split time between a lab and the hospital environment and I have Harvard’s Global Health Institute to thank for it. Through my Global Health and Health Policy (GHHP) secondary (Harvard College’s fancy synonym for a minor), I discovered the international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program which links students to summer internships abroad. The program has different sites all over the world and sends at least two students per site – a great use of the buddy system!

During the fall semester of my junior year, I enrolled in a Molecular & Cellular Biology (MCB) class about Neuroperception and Decision Making. Hands down, one of my favorite classes of my entire life. Instead of the traditional three hour final exam, we had a final project to create a research proposal. I became interested in the realm of decision making between equivalent options and the construction of preferences. Stretching my ideas, I wanted to apply preferences and favoritism to food so by the time my junior fall semester ended, I was determined to get my hands dirty with nutrition research.

Thus, during my junior spring semester, the iSURF program evolved into my ideal summer internship. They had four sites abroad that centered around nutrition: Barbados, Brazil, India, and Tanzania. Applying to iSURF was analogous to applying to colleges – there was a common application which is sent to the different sites. From there, students are interviewed by the program coordinators and matched with projects as well as the postdocs and professors.

I was matched to the studies in Tanzania and very much looked forward (with nervous excitement!) to my first time on the African continent. My program partner, Leanna, had previously studied in both Ghana and Kenya, but she still looked forward to her third return to Africa and first trip to Tanzania. Although Leanna and I are both members of the Class of 2014 (woot!), our undergraduate paths did not cross until we were both awarded Tanzanian summer internships. We met a handful of times before summer break began and only had about a week and a half to get to know each other in Tanzania because she was sent to a different city about 6 hours away from where we are based. She was gone for a full 2 weeks before she returned to accompany me once again in the big city.

While she was gone, I was fortunate enough to be connected with two Harvard alumni – class of 2008 and class of 2011 – and was introduced to their friends also interning in Tanzania for the summer. By the time Leanna returned to our base city, I presented her with a circle of welcoming friends. It was nice to have a roommate again in my hostel room and we celebrated her return with Thai food!

There’s a locally popular Thai restaurant and my friends may or may not have been aware about their weekly karaoke night. We dined on some (painfully) spicy Thai to warm both our hearts and vocal cords for karaoke. I was with a Harvard alumna who sang a capella with the Angels; needless to say, she brought most of the applause our way during our endeavors to win over every Tanzanian heart with each note we sang.

Tanzania loves Bruno Mars…just the way he is!

I wonder if Tanzania has heard about the Harvard baseball team…

Although ranging widely in age and study interests, the group grooves well together, making every meal fun (with or without karaoke)! I sometimes feel like I’m back at school making dinner plans and such, except we email to coordinate plans instead of texting. The summer interns are starting to get real comfortable with the food – we’re playing it more risky and have stopped questioning the kind of meats served on a stick. Keep your fingers crossed for us?

On the less risky side, we’ve succumbed to our guilty pleasure of movies. There are a few days a week when movie tickets are cheaper and it’s a weekly effort to watch at least one movie. The best part is that 3-D movies cost just as much as 2-D movies – yep, that’s one whole dimension for free! Thus far, the summer movie marathon has consisted of: The Great Gatsby, Star Trek, Man of Steel, The Heat, and The Internship. This is just a list of movies seen in theaters because including the ones I’ve watched on DVD would hit a character limit on this blog for sure.

I’ve had a really chill, lazy-bum week. But you know that saying – it’s always calm before the storm? Totally applies in this situation. Next week, another Dartmouth intern is arriving and will be my co-worker. The principle investigator of the entire study will also be making his way over from Boston so things around the office are about to get super hectic in preparation of the bossman’s arrival. And if we’re still going for the work hard-play hard balance, I’ll be taking off to Zanzibar for a long weekend! Let’s see if the island lives up to its hype…

 

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The biggest chunk of my summer will be spent in Tanzania where I’m lending a helping hand in some clinical trials pertaining to maternal health and nutrition. I lucked out with this sweet summer internship with the help of Harvard’s Global Health Institute and their international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program. The program catalyzed my access to busy professors, accomplished postdocs, as well as generous funding for an 8-10 week abroad adventure! It has provided me with all the ingredients and now it’s solely in my hands to make sure I concoct a scrumptious final product!

I’ve been studying up on malaria and how it relates to (deficiencies in) iron and vitamin A, but I think it’s safe to say I’ve learned much more about Tanzanian culture. I was told that people here spoke English; I was told a lie. In an attempt to start crawling over both the cultural and communication barriers, I’m trying to pick up useful phrases in Swahili.

Learning numbers is always a fundamental component to speaking any language – the practical reason being I can now bargain down prices! Yet counting has began to be a scary activity…! This fear stems from my senior year of college creeping closer. I can’t believe – and hate admitting – that three years of my young adult life have ended! I also can’t fathom that I’m approaching my third year of blogging! So many rightful exclamation points!

I still remember the very first blog post I ever wrote. I’m not sure if it’s the first blog that went live, but part of the application for becoming a student blogger involved writing two sample blog posts. I was completing the application at the beginning of my sophomore year and I was fresh out of my first collegiate summer which I spent at home. I wrote about my summer and the seemingly endless doubts and insecurities about spending the entire summer at home.

Generally, Harvard students are intense about utilizing their summers to propel and supplement their studies. I’m one of the biggest advocates for this year-around productivity as evidenced by my avid and enthusiastic participation in science camps during my high school summers. This summer mindset seems to culture the association that summers are only productive if spent anywhere but home. Thus, during an entire summer at home, it becomes very easy to feel like I was wasting time, wasting opportunities and wasting  resources. Every Facebook update from my college friends flashed adventurous world travels. Now, I am the obnoxious one who is not-so-subtly boasting my worldly travels via Facebook. But it’s important to remember my roots; it’s important to note that all my motivations for pursuing opportunities abroad stemmed from my summer at home when I realized how small I was which sparked one of the biggest urges to grow bigger by traveling wider. At that point, flying coast to coast between home and school seemed like the longest flight ever; yet now, the frequency of international flights is at least equivalent to the number of domestic flights I take! I feel beyond fortunate that my interest in healthcare and development easily affords me opportunities to work abroad – not to mention Harvard’s resources and support which makes the logistics of it all even easier.

Every single person I meet stresses the importance of traveling now, when I’m “still young.” It may seem like I’m short on money now, but apparently I’ll be more pressed for time in the future. I’ve willingly taken their advice to dedicate my endeavors to exploring the world. Traveling can be hard, especially when you’re striving to strike the perfect balance between cheap and safety. Good thing there are endless excitements in Africa that constantly distract me 🙂

There is so much stimuli when you’re in a new country that it can be sometimes hard to remember that my first and foremost priority is my clinical research internship. Since I work at the Harvard Decision Science Lab as a research assistant during the semester, my clinical research summer internship is not my first time interacting with human participants. However, the studies we run at the interdisciplinary lab back in Cambridge usually are a one time gig rather than a series of repeated visits which is characteristic of clinical studies. I’m really getting a kick out of being involved in clinical research because I split my time in a research office, a wet lab, and the hospital environment – it’s the trifecta!

It took a few weeks for me to visit the hospital sites involved in the clinical trials, but it was well worth the wait! I loved meeting the enthusiastic nurses working with the trials as well as observing their relationships with the pregnant women. The study aims for monthly visits which have really fostered a trusting relationship between medical staff and patient – something I not only admire, but also yearn for myself!!

There are records on records at the sites! Space for all the information is often a problem.

An unexpected but nonetheless interesting aspect of my summer internship is the healthcare consulting component. The postdocs are very receptive to my thoughts and opinions about protocol and efficiency! I’ve made edits to their standard operating procedure and am in the process of renovating their database. It’s all very exciting because I feel like I’m an important member of their research team. I’m contributing to the project – which is something I couldn’t say last summer when I was shadowing at a private clinic in Peru.

A pharmacy near the research office distributes the supplements to the sites.

As previously mentioned, Harvard students are super determined to construct productive summers. Once j-term (January break/winter break) ends (and perhaps even during the break!), students jump start every spring semester with tons of summer applications. But don’t worry about us – the rough winter weather and of course the academic rigors concomitant to each spring semester also make students very mindful of burning out. In my personal efforts of refreshing myself, I joined some recently graduated Harvard College alum in their fun weekend plans!

The iSURF program always sends at least 2 students per location abroad. However, my program partner, Leanna, was sent ~500 km away to work at one of her sites. She’s working on a study revolving around maternal health and HIV, a study which has more distant sites than my own cases. Leanna was told she’ll be gone for at least 3 days and perhaps up to 2 weeks. I wasn’t surprised by the grand ambiguity because the concept of time seems abstract in just about every country; rather, I was more saddened by how long I’d be alone! Thank heavens there’s a Harvard in Africa contact spreadsheet that I was able to utilize as a preventative measure to my loneliness.

A Harvard College class of 2011 member, Sam, who has been in Tanzania for just a little short of a year, was introduced to me by the executive director of the Harvard Decision Science Lab where I’m a research assistant during the term time. Luckily for me, Sam and Alena are great hosts and they have shown me around one of the main markets in the city’s center. We got along well during our market times, mealtimes, and movie times. One of their friends was house sitting for a weekend and decided to host a dinner party. Plans were made to attend the dinner party in preparation for the city’s Full Moon Beach party. When I first arrived at my internship, a Dartmouth intern was ending her time in Tanzania and basically transitioned me into the internship. Not only did she show me the ropes around the job, but she also emphasized that there was a Full Moon Beach party once a month that I was not to miss – she even made it sound like it was in my job description to attend!

The dinner party and the Full Moon Beach party far exceeded my expectations! It was definitely one of my nights in Africa I’ll remember forever. We collectively cooked a delicious meal from all the random ingredients we had contributed. I don’t ever cook because I never need to – being on the full meal plan at school (like most students) and coming home to parents who dearly miss me, I always have the easy option of eating already prepared food! Creatively cooking was a lot of fun, as was snooping around the house we were house sitting for, which came with 4 pet ducks. The dance party afterwards was also really fun with great music, lights, and atmosphere. I was a bit nervous because all my company would be older than me by at least 3 years, but age never posed any obstacles of disconnect! It was a super fun, super memorable night/morning – everything in Tanzania happens really late (we ate dinner around 10 pm!)!

A handful of hours of sleep later, I hesitatingly woke up to my alarm. I had plans to meet another group of friends for the Tanzania vs. Ivory Coast soccer game, a FIFA World Cup qualifying match! My main link to this other group was through a Harvard College 2008 alumna who is interning with the US Embassy in Tanzania which provides housing for their interns so most of them were roommates if not also current graduate school classmates. It was my first professional soccer game and I was stoaked beyond belief! In all honesty, I was half stoaked, half scared; the same Dartmouth intern who had raved about the monthly Full Moon Beach party had also told me that she and 2 of her friends were mugged by thieves with knives outside the stadium. The sensible half of me told me to avoid the stadium at all costs, but the stubborn side of me reasoned that if I was with a big group of friends, everything would be okay.

Quickly did I learn that the stadium was synonymous to chaos. My friends and I had done everything we could think of to make the soccer game a nothing but pleasant experience – we got in a taxi to the stadium 3 hours before the game started and we splurged an extra $4 for VIP seats. There were, however, many more factors out of our control! First of all, they oversell tickets to the game so everyone is both eager and aggressive to enter the stadium. There appeared to be a huge bus that was selling tickets so people were crowding that bus and were even trying to climb up on the tires to crawl in the windows. The driver wanted to avoid everyone breaking into the bus so he sped down the road without any concern for the hundreds of people standing in the street. Additionally, there are multiple gates to the stadium that people swarm and shove their way inside. My friends and I stood in line for a while, but eventually gave in to join the mobs so that we’d be able to enter too. Pickpocketing is always a heightened concern in crowded areas. Some people tried to pickpocket some of my friends even when their hands were resting in their pockets! Someone did manage to pickpocket some cash out of my friend’s pocket, but this friend is fluent in Swahili so when he verbally confronted the thief, some mob justice ensued and random people in the crowd started beating the thief until the police broke it up. Needless to say, all heart beats were rapid.

Pulses remained high even after we managed to group-push our way through the initial gate. After a quick moment of relishing in our front gate triumph, we heard the crowd roar from cheers of happiness which sparked us to race towards the second, inner gate as to not miss any more of the action. At the second gate, people just wanted to push through in an unorganized manner, but the police were very adamant about mandating a single file entry and they were willing to use force. During my first attempt to pass, the man in front of me got hit a few times by a policeman’s stick so I instinctively turned around. My friend held my hand for the second attempt, but our link broke in the crowd and I was almost pushed into an officer. I was extremely fearful of getting beaten so when I almost stumbled into an officer, I threw my hands up in a surrender position. The police officer could probably see all the fear in my face even if he was blind; he smiled at me and it broke all the tension. We had a great moment. After this second entry, everything was smooth sailing! It was crazy to see how everyone’s barbaric behavior instantaneously disappeared when they could see the soccer field! Everyone was super nice inside the stadium and some strangers even helped me get a seat with a good view!

My friends and I were pretty shaken up from experiencing such a high concentration of seemingly near death moments. We decided to treat ourselves to some fabulous Chinese food – we did have another full week of work ahead of us!

I think I’ve told my soccer game story about a dozen times, adding more and more drama to each subsequent version. My stadium experience may seem horrifying and overly risky, but as I mentioned in my last post, the iSURF program grants participants pretty much complete freedom to make and handle our own decisions.  The soccer game was only a cool experience because all of my friends and I managed to leave unscathed. We’d be happy to have Lady Luck as a member of our friendship circle anytime!

PS – Sorry for the lack of pictures! I want to keep a clean, non-mugged tracked record so I often leave the camera at home.

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udpated 12 July 2013

For a great deal of this summer, I’ll be pursuing clinical research in maternal health and nutrition in malaria endemic areas. I got this sweet gig through the iSURF (international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program run under Harvard’s Global Health Institute.

 

iSURF happens all over the world and across multiple continents. (The domestic version of iSURF is called SURF which supports students pursuing research on/near campus.)

They send 2 students to each location to essentially fend for themselves. It’s a phenomenal program for handfuls of reasons, some of the most prominent ones being how the program closely connects you to professors/postdocs that are experts in the career field you aspire to join and if you get into the program, summer funding is guaranteed.

 

Just last night, my program partner, Leanna, and I were discussing our experiences in the iSURF application process and how excited we were about the opportunities concomitant with iSURF. I’ve never been involved in clinical studies before and the public health spin of my studies were right up my alley! Leanna even applied while she was studying abroad in Kenya so the program is very accommodating with Skype interviews and whatnot. It also seems like iSURF doesn’t look down upon students with previous abroad experiences – sometimes you’ll get a sense that programs are geared towards first-time abroad students – so this was a nice aspect since I also spent last summer abroad in Peru.

 

I’m only knee-deep in week 3 of the program and I’ve already immensely learned about the culture differences here as well as picked up some Swahili! It’s been eye-opening as well as thought-provoking – when you’re super accustomed to things being done in a certain, American way, it’s fascinating to peek out of the box and see how others have been doing it. E.g. ignoring street lights to have police officers constantly filter traffic jams; parents’ names changing to their first/last born names. I look forward to wearing my arrogant mask and referencing Tanzanian customs in many, many conversations when I return home.

 

But this isn’t to say my amazing abroad experiences aren’t well balanced with frustrating ones. The other day, Leanna and I were also discussing the profound independence that the iSURF program springs on students. It’s almost like entering college again and recreating that unique experience where you find yourself with immense, new found freedom which can end up either 1) awesomely incredible or 2) terribly horrible.

 

iSURF definitely prepares you financially with their generous, automatic summer funding, and the program links you professionally as well by creating an academic purpose to your travels. However, everything else from flights, housing, food, tourism, etc. is all up to you!

 

It’s been a constant struggle to find housing – it was especially hard trying to book a reasonably priced place from the states. Even on site, I’m having trouble saving money while maximizing convenience and safety. iSURF and its mentors can check in on me to make sure I’m alive, but in terms of housing, they’re not much help, unfortunately. I’ve been meeting a lot of summer interns here who received tons of support from their programs in finding a comfortable place to stay. I think there’s an end-of-the-summer mandatory report (for most summer programs) and I’m going to make sure to stress how important accommodations are and perhaps suggest an emphasis on reaching out to alumni as well as the US Embassy.

 

Like I said earlier, independence runs down 2 roads. So as difficult as finding a place to live can be, it’s very nice to be able to do whatever I want without needing to report to anyone. I can go to the latest movie screening and talk to sketchy people at restaurants if I wanted.

 

Last summer, I participated in the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) Summer Internship Program (SIP) which is a much more chaperoned program with a host family as well as pre-planned field trips almost every weekend.

 

Anyone who knows my first name also knows last summer in South America was one of the happiest summers of my life, and I would not hesitate to put my life’s worth down on betting that I’ll say the same when this summer is over too. I’m very excited to see how the rest of the summer pans out and how I handle all this independence while I try to conquer Africa!

 

This third week has been even more independent as my program partner traveled about 8 hours away to work at another site. To me, this was like ripping my crutches out without warning. It’s always nice to have someone going through exactly what you’re going through to validate your confusion. Now I’d be in a big city without a roommate!

 

So as my only friend left the city for an indeterminate amount of time, I set out on a quest to make friends. I’m not sure who is responsible for this (and I wish I did so I can give them more credit), but a Harvard in Africa contact spreadsheet was created in an effort to build a network. I initially thought it was for current students, but after emailing around 45 strangers from the list, there were professors and alum on the list too!

 

The responses have been beyond friendly and it’s always beyond touching to be helped by a random person where your only link is the Harvard affiliations and location on the same continent. By reaching out to people all over Africa, I’ve been able to roughly outline a travel itinerary with some local insight as well as make plans to hang out – yay friends for me!!

 

After a frustrating last week, it was inevitable that this week could only be better. However, I think that if this week stood alone, it would still be my best week here! The people you choose to surround yourself with makes all the difference!

 

The director of the Harvard Decision Science Lab (where I’m a research assistant during term time) connected me with a Harvard College 2011 alum who is working for an agriculture NGO nearby. After a slew of email exchanges, I was excited to meet him and his coworkers at their work’s launch of an innovation competition. Their NGO created this competition, challenging locals to come up with ways to try to make the chain from farmer to consumer more efficient. The launch event brought together a lot of people from the tech/coding community and it was really interesting to mingle!

As a part of the competition, the NGO offers tours of one of the biggest markets in the city – I tagged along on this too! During the tour, I even got a watermelon for hopefully not a ridiculous-tourist price. One of the competitors had a fun little side experiment by having me ask how much certain things were in order to compare the price differences for non-locals vs. locals.

 

I definitely feel like I got to know the city a little more intimately as I basically shadowed my friends and the competition they’re running. Before you start thinking we exclusively do nerdy things together, we’re normal friends too! We went to go watch The Great Gatsby in 3-D. This may sound weird, but one thing I always love to do while living somewhere abroad for an extended amount of time is go to the movies! They’re always much cheaper than back in the states and practically every movie is 3-D. Maybe my abroad cinematic experiences are so special to me because it’s a symbol of summer and the slower pace of life I’m afforded during this beautiful season.

 

Although my new friend, Sam, and I didn’t know each other during our one year college overlap, it was really cool making a new friend abroad and instantly connecting about all of Harvard’s quirks i.e. saying “concentration” instead of major, Sunday Sundaes, and blocking.

 

Blocking is an activity – you may even call it a friendship exercise – during the middle of your freshman spring semester. The College asks you to form groups of up to 8 people so that the entirety of the group will be placed in the same upperclassman house. If you have more than 7 friends, you can “link” with another group so that the 2 linked groups will be placed in the same neighborhood. Hence the terms “blockmates” and “linkmates.”

 

One of Sam’s blockmates was actually visiting which was beyond touching to see because as my senior year and college graduation approaches, the thought of disconnecting hips with my blockmates breaks my heart! Drama is necessary to describe this kind of dire situation. Living together definitely helps make your friendships convenient so it’s fair, if not cynical, to question how these friendships will morph without convenience. However, seeing blockmates visit each other across continents is a prime example of the strong interpersonal relationships Harvard fosters! The alumni network is great and I’m happy to have utilized the network for some friends abroad!

 

To my surprise, the network is inclusive of grad schools too. After emailing people on the Harvard Africa contact spreadsheet (mentioned earlier), I’ve made some friends who are current Harvard graduate school students too! One of which accompanied me to the special Farmer’s Market over the weekend where we tried Tanzanian chocolate, Mango jam, and expat cupcakes.

I guess I’ve complained about how the iSURF program didn’t help me figure out accommodations abroad, but the Harvard network definitely helped me connect with people to find a better footing in an unfamiliar place. So it seems like everything is going to be getting exponentially better from here as my social calendar is booked for next weekend already! I’ve been maintaining contact with my program partner via email, but I still have no idea when she’ll be back. It’s very rewarding for me to know that I can still stand strong when someone rips my crutches out from underneath me.

 

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You’ll hear me say time and time again that last summer (2012) was one of the best summers of my life. Last year, I was beyond fortunate to be able to travel Europe with my friends and then immediately board a plane to Peru to begin the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies Summer Internship Program (DRCLAS SIP). My passport stamp collection continued by ending my trip with Refresh Bolivia, a student group on campus.

A simple list of my summer 2012 destinations can make a brain drool. Interestingly enough however, when I reminisce about my life one year ago, my most potent memories of phenomenally personally strengthening experiences are juxtaposed with memories of heightened frustration. Hiking Machu Picchu for one of the best breathtaking views of the world is remembered alongside with feeling completely useless and unnecessary as a medical shadowing intern at a private clinic. Winning a dance battle by crowd applause in a random club alludes to all the nights I felt hopelessly trapped inside because being a foreign young female was much less than ideal.

Although I can’t honestly isolate the purely good memories, summer 2012 will always be remembered in a positive light because there’s something incredibly empowering about leveraging frustrations into moments of learning. I think this is why I find traveling abroad to be so alluring: being clueless most of the time inevitably results in frustration. Thus, traveling abroad is a type of accelerated learning … ?

I’m in Swahililand so the main language is Swahili. I’ll find English speakers if I’m lucky, but there’s always a gap in understanding, a lot of charades, and inferences made between the different syntax and varying accents. I’m in the process of mastering my greetings in Swahili, but a big part of me thinks that I’m better off slightly butchering the pronunciations as people are always getting a kick out of that. Last summer, my few days in France and Italy was my first experience of traveling to a country where I couldn’t speak the native language. Needless to say, it’s completely different being unable to communicate when you’re traveling through somewhere compared to when you’re living somewhere. I have a “Let’s Learn Swahili” book that haunts me from my nightstand, but I’m having trouble securing a strong motivation to learn the native tongue. On one hand, it’s extremely frustrating when communication is impossible, especially when I’m lost and in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, I don’t understand a lot of what people shout at me, but the small phrases I do understand, I do not like.

A challenge in South America was learning how to cope with the catcalling and shameless staring. It was helpful that the DRCLAS program was more of a group program and I could tell people in Spanish about some boyfriend/husband to get people off my case. Here in Tanzania though, locals tend to be much more friendly – from shouting and honking at you from their car, smacking their lips, and even grabbing your wrists and hands. Since I’ll be living here for a while, I’d ideally like to be able to live without feeling like I’m a walking target of harassment. An essential component of feeling comfortable in a foreign country is adapting and desensitizing yourself to certain customs. Yet as ironic as can be, the whole process of becoming comfortable is making me uncomfortable. There is no resolution as of now although the best coping mechanism has been surrounding myself with friends who consist of a diverse group of locals and summer interns. Power in numbers proves to be true once again, yay!

A shorter term problem I was determined to settle this week was transportation especially to and from work. The first day was luxurious since we had a driver and the following days weren’t too bad since there was a Dartmouth co-intern who lived pretty close to me so we could carpool. However my carpool days were doomed since she was finishing up the internship and actually taking summer orgo (organic chemistry) at Harvard. (Sidebar: Quite a few premeds choose to take summer orgo. I guess it’s pretty logical since it’s more compact, but I still think they’re crazy for learning a year of material in ~7 weeks.)

There appeared to be 2 types of possible transportation methods to get to work 1) the public bus system known as Dala Dalas and 2) bajaj – the Tanzanian equivalent of a rickshaw. The buses would be cheaper than a bajaj which are cheaper than taxis. Their prices pretty much correlate to their safety levels.

Everyone told me the public buses would be useless due to where I lived and where I worked. Like a teenage rebel, I didn’t listen. I asked the locals at my guest house who gave me directions which included 2 bus transfers and I was on my way. Four hours later, four bus transfers later and lots of body odor later, I arrived at work. Never doing that again – taking the bus to work that is, not being a teenage rebel.

The bajaj was the recommended commute method with its abilities to weave in and out of traffic, drive on the sidewalk and opposite of traffic being a time advantage (not to mention a safety disadvantage). However, being Asian and unable to communicate (or negotiate) in Swahili yields the 100% accurate conclusion that I am a foreigner, meaning I have to pay the concomitant ridiculously high prices.  For the first week, I became friends with a regular bajaj driver that drove me and the Dartmouth intern both to and from work. Yet even with established loyalty and pleading eyes, my bargaining still added up to $50 USD/week for transportation to and from work. Ridiculous with a capital R for sure. Harvard and the Global Health Institute (that runs iSURF and SURF programs) has been more than generous for helping me fund this summer, but this didn’t mean I had this kind of money to throw around, especially if I wanted to be able to feed myself.

I’ve seen a few people riding their bikes on the street and I have cringed for them. Little did I know I would soon be a biker! The roads aren’t always paved here which makes sidewalks pretty hopeless. They also drive on the left side of the road which freaks me out, but you basically have to scan 360 before crossing any streets here anyways because lanes, right-of-ways, and generally street lights don’t exist or are neglected. Definitely not the safest option and probably not the smartest option, but buying a bike to commute to and from work was the most economic decision. No one really supported my decision. In fact, people both at the Global Health Institute and at work pretty strongly advised against it with their strongest argument pointing out how helmets aren’t really a thing here. On the up side, a lot of summer interns in the area have expressed their admiration about my biking. If this decision ends my life, at least I’ll have some street cred tacked to my name. In all seriousness, choosing to bike back and forth was a tough decision to make. I have to say that it has changed my lifestyle for the better though! I think I may be on the healthiest regimen of my life. Besides from forcing myself to bike ~25 km/day, in order to avoid traffic but still have it bright outside, I strive to head out around 7:15 am which means I wake up at 6:20 am and get first dibs on breakfast (which comes with our guest house rate and is essentially the only hot meal we eat)! For all you math whizzes who are thinking that I’m a diva taking forever to get ready in the morning, the majority of my time is spent either eating or lathering myself in a mix of sunblock and bug spray. All in all, I’m still learning how to cope with the catcalling, the insane traffic and driving norms, and being absolutely drenched in sweat upon arrival to work. These are three necessary life skills if I’ve ever seen one.

I feel like a lot of this post has painted a terrible picture of my abroad experience thus far, but this would be terribly inaccurate. I’d be lying if I said that thoughts about going home to my familiar shelter never crossed my mind. Whenever this happens, I pretty instantly feel really spoiled and bratty because I’ve been awarded not only the opportunity to pursue clinical research abroad, but also the funding for it! If it sounds like I’ve been awarded the tools to make dreams come true, this is because I have been. This is my summer and I’m going to come out on top whether or not you like it Africa.

My front bike tire went flat one day. A slightly humorous situation both during and in retrospect because when I explained the types of bumpy terrain I was biking on to my sister via gchat, she was 125% sure I should carry around a pump with me for my inevitable flat. I openly told her I wouldn’t do that and projected a lot of crying if that ever happened. This is one of the rare moments I’m proud to announce how wrong I was – I think my legs were burning so much from biking on a flat tire that I couldn’t possibly cry. 12 km later, I was too happy that I arrived safely at home to let anything get me down. As the doorman eagerly grabbed my bike to put it away in storage for me, we played a healthy game of charades which concluded in him pumping my front tire for me. When that didn’t work, he took it down to the bike store for me. And when the bike store was unsuccessful because they needed to purchase a tire zip (?), he went to the nearest open air market, bought the bike part and brought everything back to the bike store. Current status of my bike: unknown. Regardless, I’m beyond grateful for all this help!! Whether this altruism stems from a kind heart or pity from my helplessness, I’ll take it! The staff at my guest house has really become analogous to a host family because they’re constantly concerned about my safety and essentially helping me survive on the daily.

My program partner, Leanna, and I work in different places. I’m not sure if Leanna’s boss knows it yet, but he and his wife has adopted us. They are the epitome of the family I want in the future. They have a 6 year old daughter and the three of them together go to a nearby university 3x/week to run for an hour. Leanna had mentioned during the workday that she and I try to run almost every day. Her boss invited us to join them on their running escapades. I think it’s safe to say Leanna and I charmed everything out of them as our running session ended with an invitation to go clubbing with them. As I said, this family is SO COOL.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any brighter, my boss told me about the goat races happening over the weekend. It sounded like an annual fair I didn’t dare miss. When I returned home from work, I told Leanna that we were going to these goat races, no choice. She was a little hesitant at first but was a trooper and came along. I thought these goat races were a big deal and that every bajaj driver in town would know what I was talking about. Nope, not the case. Leanna and I essentially kept repeating “goat” and after a few back and forths along the coastline, finally arrived at the fair which was equipped with gelato and BBQ goat. We had a great time at what seemed like an expat dominated event.

With the goats as they prep for their races!

As orderly as goats can be

The goat winner even gets a TV interview … !

I’m glad Leanna didn’t resent me for dragging her to something that sounded ridiculous, especially because she was leaving me for an indeterminate amount of time. She was assigned to travel to a much more rural area to work on the data there for 3-14 days. Packing is obviously even more fun when it’s for a trip you have no details about.

Leanna’s departure means that I’m all on my own for week 3! Fingers crossed for the hopes of making new friends!

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Harvard President Drew Faust never disappoints when it comes to her commencement speeches. In addressing the class of 2013 with regards to the excitingly scary new chapter of their lives, President Faust sagaciously encouraged graduates to run towards adventure.

I wanted to join in on this “seize the day” mentality too! My adventure for the summer awaits me in Tanzania! Running is definitely the appropriate metaphor here. Personally, whenever I have a 5k/half marathon footrace, regardless of how many months I’ve been training (or at least talking about my intentions to train), it always seems like I haven’t trained enough and that I’m always rushing. It’s not the most comfortable feeling in the world. Good thing  discomfort is temporary because this same sentiment is experienced every time I travel abroad.

As I mentioned last week, most of my summer will be dedicated to nutrition research in the iSURF (international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program, which involves me traveling abroad. Distracted by finals during the end of last semester, my program partner/travel buddy and I semi-arbitrarily selected our internship dates, using flight sales as the most important determining factor. She bought a round trip ticket as I purchased a one way flight to Africa with the hopes of traveling (to South Africa/Bolivia) before allowing summer vacation to end.

As with most college stories, most of my abroad preparations were pretty last minute. After a quick skim of the government’s website on traveling to Tanzania, I recognized all the vaccines and thought I was in the clear. With regards to medical preparations, all I needed was anti-malaria pills so I tried buying some at the Harvard pharmacy and was quickly turned away without a prescription. Oops. UHS (University Health Services), although they get ragged on by most of the student population, was really great at scheduling a last minute appointment with my doctor and the travel clinic who determined I actually needed several vaccines. Double oops. It may seem like I’m really irresponsible, but let me take a moment to defend my honor and say that I got all 3 vaccines in my left arm so that my right arm would be unaffected for my final.

Many students travel home before starting abroad programs so they can take care of all this with their doctor who has known them since the womb. However, students like me who don’t go home very often have all the resources necessary at UHS. All this health business wasn’t a priority for me when I was choosing colleges, but it’s definitely an advantage having a university health system that’s really flexible – you can even cut down on costs and waive Harvard’s supplementary insurance if your parents still cover you!

Another surprise bonus of going to school in Boston is the international airports. Yes, plural. I’m from  San Diego which means I can pretty easily choose between San Diego and Los Angeles for my flying needs. Luckily, on the other coast, I can freely choose between Boston and New York as well. Matters get even more economical when bus tickets between Boston and New York are $15! Some of my friends at different schools fly into their closest airport and have to cab/shuttle it forever to get back on campus. Sucks for them. By the way, the Silver Line on the T (the subway) is free from the Boston airport.

I left Boston with my cheap bus ticket to New York and passport in hand.

Breakfast fit for airplane champions

I was thrilled to be en route to Africa for the very first time! I love flying and the airplane food. My short legs are also really conducive to cramped spaces. My ebullience continued to rise with a 13 hour layover in Amsterdam – it’d be my first time in the Netherlands and my first time leaving the airport during a layover!

Breaking out of the Amsterdam airport for a city adventure! Stroopwaffles and cheese, here I come hungry!

Amsterdam’s clean and fast public transportation is admirable!

On the train leaving the Amsterdam airport and entering the city, I sat next to a woman who generously shared her map of Amsterdam. Across from us sat a man. The three of us started talking as we were all planning to infiltrate the city during our lengthy layovers – I’m beginning to suspect all flights have long layovers to stimulate their economy or something! The man turned out to be a student at Harvard Business School; it’s strangely cool and natural how connected I always feel when meeting someone with a Harvard association. The conversation got even livelier as we all spoke in Spanish. Fun fact: we took a free walking tour around Amsterdam conducted in Spanish.

Amsterdam can definitely be a looker!

Having the opportunity to explore Amsterdam on the way to Africa was awesome – I felt like I was utilizing Harvard’s summer funding to squeeze in 2 abroad experiences! It wasn’t until I was communicating in Spanish with my new layover friends that I realized the only reason I could communicate so well was because Harvard also afforded me the opportunity to travel South America last summer. It was during this transformative summer that I finally tested my Spanish skills outside of the classroom as a means for survival rather than for a passing grade. Six years of formally learning Spanish is one thing, but throwing yourself into the culture and a host family will do wonders to language fluency! I now have a grand old time feigning a South American accent whenever possible. This is why graduating college and entering the real world in a year scares me to pieces – can there really be more opportunities after life at Harvard? When else can I receiving funding for my abroad explorations??

Amsterdam highlights:

EYE Film Institute: This screen creates art from your body’s movements!

The original bookcase that Anne Frank lived behind for years!!!

One of my favorite pastimes is spinning my abroad experiences like I’m just getting paid to travel. If I wanted any elements of reality in the picture, I’d illuminate the fact that I’m definitely not showering in diamonds, but perhaps just dangerously playing with their razor sharp characteristics. There are undoubtedly inherent risks while traveling abroad. And watching Taken the day before I left the country absolutely did not comfort me whatsoever.

After my Amsterdam layover, I had a less fun 6 hour layover in Nairobi. I was extremely exhausted by this point but didn’t dare sleep: Nairobi has been nicknamed by tourists as Nairobbery and I’m no fool. Pleasant surprise: free wifi! Unpleasant surprise: dead computer battery and my plug adapter was in my check in.

Nonetheless, arriving in Tanzania went pretty smoothly. This was the first time I entered a country without an appropriate visa which made me a little nervous. Again, not an accurate indicator of irresponsibility since everyone recommended I apply for a visa at the airport upon arrival.

Within the 2 months leading up to my arrival, I had been e-introduced to about half a dozen people. I was emailing faceless people associated with the iSURF program as well as the clinical research studies. They were extremely essential to planning a smooth arrival and I can’t be grateful enough for their help with accommodation reservations and coordinating drivers from the airport to our hostel as well as our first day of work.

The most important lesson I’ve learned about traveling with a few passport stamps under my belt is that success while traveling is directly proportional to one’s flexibility and ability to quickly adapt. In other words, planning a smooth arrival doesn’t necessarily imply its execution.

My program partner – the other undergraduate student selected to participate in the program – and I tried to coordinate arrival times as best as possible. We would be landing within ~5 hours of each other, me being the first to arrive. Some of our on-site program coordinators scheduled separate drivers for us to be picked up at the airport and safely shuttled to our hostel. Yet no one was holding a sign with my name on it 🙁 This wasn’t like the movies at all. Exhausted from sleep deprivation, I overemotionally responded by feeling like an abandoned 3rd grader. Although I exited the airport about an hour after my scheduled arrival (delay due to visa application), I thought maybe they were late because all of my abroad experiences have also taught me that there is an almost universal lack of respect for time and punctuality. I waited, wishfully searching for a sign with my name; I would have even settled for a sign with my initials.

It took a while for me to muster up the courage to ask those around me for help. In my mind, admitting that I’m lost and confused is equivalent to telling someone to mug me. Most people didn’t speak English, but I really stroke luck when someone offered his phone for as long as I needed. Eventually, the driver arrived and profusely apologized. There seemed to be a misunderstanding between my arrival and that of my program partner’s. I pretty much showed every sign of narcolepsy as soon as I stepped into his car, but during my small and quick bouts of consciousness, I remember him saying 2 things: “Sorry, there was a misunderstanding!” and “Karibu sana, you are very welcome.” I genuinely accepted his apology and sat in my confusion as to the implications of the second statement. Should I be thanking him more often? Am I being culturally disrespectful?? After my heart skipped a few beats from panic, I realized that he was welcoming me to the country!

Heads up, if you’re ever in Tanzania (and maybe other Swahili speaking countries), you’ll hear “Karibu” all the time. It demonstrates their tremendous friendliness! I think Americans are a little rougher around the edges, which is really just my nice way of saying Americans are meaner, so Tanzania’s friendliness was a little overwhelming at first! I really can’t complain about their hospitality though and I look forward to adapting this mentality! With everyone left and right emphasizing how welcome I was, I definitely felt less intimidated by the language and cultural barrier to ask questions to catalyze my personal orientation.

I didn’t anticipate this, but arriving on a weekend meant that we couldn’t really use co-workers to help us get oriented. Since my program partner, Leanna, and I were starting our summer internship very early on in the summer, most of the people we knew who were going to be in Africa hadn’t yet arrived. This wasn’t a huge deal as we spent much of our first weekend sleeping. One of the side effects of our anti-malaria pills is dreaming vividly – I met so many celebrities in my REM world! When we weren’t sleeping we explored around our guest house and found tons of small shops, a gym and a decent beach all within a 5-7 minute walk from our room! I’m proud to say we successfully grocery shopped and laid out on the beach over the weekend.

Living that beach side life

My first day of work was pretty much ideal. I met a ton of people who work in my building and started putting faces behind the emails. To my surprise, they had a Dartmouth intern who took her spring quarter off for this internship. It seemed as if things couldn’t be planned any better because her last few days overlapped with my first few days so she was able to not only orient me to the workplace, but also around town!

As I find my footing in the city, I’ll be sure to update! Wish me luck!

 

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