Connecting Research With International Travel: 3 Student Profiles

By Colleen Murphy
March 14, 2017


Life-changing. Eye-opening. Revolutionary. Amazing. We have all heard these phrases from friends who’ve recently returned from whirl-wind, jet-setting, international travel experience. They eagerly tell us all about the adorable coffee shop they found in South Africa or the crazy philosopher they met on the bus in London.  We smile and nod with a mix of a little jealousy and a little boredom, and then go back to studying for an urgent midterm. But a small voice lingers in the back of our heads. Maybe…we too could go abroad? But where would we begin? And how can we connect this desire up with our campus academic goals? I recently sat down with three Berkeley undergraduates who conducted international research last summer. Their stories give us . 


Image: Helia

First up: Helia Bidad, a society and environment major minoring in geospatial information science. Helia spent the summer of 2016 working on her honors thesis, which studies the effects of climate change and technological developments on saffron farmers in Iran. Going abroad was a natural choice for Helia who has research interests in international agriculture. But the decision to go to Iran was somewhat unexpected. “I initially wanted to conduct research in Bolivia,” Helia said, “but I learned about Iran, my birth country, and its contributions to environmental ethics and agriculture. It really inspired me to look more deeply into my own homeland for case studies.” Through a combination of interviews with locals and secondary research, Helia is comparing farms that solely rely on traditional farming techniques to those that incorporated modern innovations. Her travel and research process has been supported by the Haas Scholars Program, a cohort fellowship award that provides funding and support for UC Berkeley students working on senior or honors theses.

Image: Itago Winnie 

The second student I spoke with, Itago Winnie, also felt compelled by her research interests to go abroad. Itago, an environmental economics and policy major minoring in global poverty and practice, was born and raised in Kenya and knew that she wanted to study natural resource management on the African continent. Conversations with her faculty mentor helped narrow down her research scope to Ghana and Uganda, where she spent the summer of 2017 conducting a comparative study on how political systems influence the building of institutions that manage oil and gas. “I believe that institution building is one of the processes that is most talked about but least understood,” Itago said. “International actors have a blueprint, which is considered best practices, and they try to influence countries to adopt these ‘structural blue prints,’ with very little consideration of how local politics has historically affected institutions in each country. So we witness cycles of structural failures being repeated [without understanding] why they are happening. Yet we haven’t investigated what the foundation (politics) looks like.” Like Helia, Itago’s research was done under the auspices of the Haas Scholars Program and will culminate in the honors thesis this semester for her major.


Image: Megan and Friends                                      Image: City of Aizawl

For the third student I spoke with, Megan Perley, the idea of conducting international research came first out of her passion for travel. “I love meeting new people and exploring new places and cultures,” she said, “but I didn’t think doing research abroad was feasible as an undergrad until my advisor showed me the summer job opportunity.” Megan, a geophysics major, worked for Geohazards International last summer evaluating landslide hazards and seismic structural vulnerabilities at schools in Aizawl, India. Through field observations and correlations with old hazard maps of the area, her team was able to develop a damageability and vulnerability rating for each school. For Megan, it was a perfect opportunity to apply skills gained in her degree while also experiencing a part of the world that she would never have seen otherwise. “The people [in Aizawl] are incredibly nice,” Megan said, “and while it is the capital of Mizoram (a state in India), the whole city just feels like a community – everyone takes care of each other and everyone knows each other.”

When asked about the challenges of conducting research abroad, all three students agreed that there were certainly logistical and cultural difficulties. “Although I am a native speaker of Farsi,” Helia remarked, “it took a lot of practice and effort to learn academic terms and to be able to read my interview scripts professionally.” Itago also mentioned that “Planning international research from the US requires a lot of patience and resilience. Different countries have different work ethics, so, for example, whereas I would ideally get a response in 24 hours from a company in the US, with Ghana and mostly Uganda, I would have to call to ask if they received my email.”

Despite such challenges, when asked if they would recommend similar international experiences to other students the answer from all three was a resounding yes. On a practical note, Megan pointed out that having international fieldwork on your resume appeals to many employers. In addition to the professional benefits, a common thread among all three students was the dramatic personal growth that comes from going beyond one’s comfort zone in international travel. “Working within a new cultural environment forced me to learn to adapt quickly,” Helia noted. By persisting through seemingly intractable cultural and language barriers that required rapid adaptation, resourcefulness, and resiliency, the students say they learned as much about themselves as the places they came to study. Itago concluded with this message for any students who might be considering international research:

“If you have the financial resources, personal or from scholarships, what is holding you back from conducting international research? I think many times we underestimate our ability to adjust to uncomfortable situations. We decide to stay in familiar zones, or do nothing at all. There is nothing wrong with conducting local research if that is what you are interested in. What is more important is that, if your brain is aching to understand something that is a flight away, feed that ache and you will discover things about the place, the people and about yourself that you never imagined you would. Furthermore, as students, we are in that phase of life where people are more than willing to help us with finding information or other support. Capitalize on that no matter where you conduct research!”