November 27, 2007 Feature

Promoting International Student Research

The ability to contribute to the science of our field is not the exclusive domain of those in the United States. On every continent, centers of scientific excellence in speech, language, and hearing research produce complementary and mutually informative studies.

In addition, most top research universities require faculty contribution to the international community as a criterion for promotion to full professor. Those of us training the next generation of academic researchers should consider the potential benefits of an international research experience for our students who are preparing for academic-research careers.

Undergraduate Research Abroad

Undergraduate study-abroad programs often focus on academic and cultural experiences. Few, however, offer similar opportunities for research training. The University of Arizona (UA) has had one such program since 1992. Biomedical Research Abroad—Vistas Open! (BRAVO!) places undergraduates in foreign research laboratories for 10 weeks to a year. Funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the program pays student expenses and a stipend. Students must have prior research experience in a UA lab and must submit a proposal for research abroad that extends their prior research experiences. Typically, the mentor of the student’s home lab will facilitate contact with a potential mentor in the foreign lab.

"Undergraduates are curious, energetic, and idealistic," said Carol Bender, BRAVO! director. "They develop scientific and cultural skills that will be valuable regardless of their career paths."

Two undergraduates in UA’s Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences received travel fellowships to collect data on an implicit learning language study at the University of Bergen (Norway) this summer, an outgrowth of pilot work they had done with their Norwegian mentor, Arve Asbjørnsen. "The major difference between doing research in Tucson and Bergen is my interaction with people in Bergen," Megan Kittleson said. "People ask about my research, educational goals, or just general ambitions. I’ve always felt I was capable of doing more and I feel that conducting research abroad has given me an opportunity to realize that potential faster."

Success, however, may depend on the extent to which prerequisites are in place. "I’ve learned that a little extra preparation in the beginning will go a long way in the end," Kittleson said. "I’m looking for a PhD thesis now so I will have plenty of time to create a well thought-out study."

Graduate Research Training

American graduate students may want to conduct research abroad to gain access to technology not locally available. Although we tend to think of the United States as at the forefront of research, this is not universally the case; international research allows students to bring specialized training back to advance research here.

In other instances, the research project is best conducted in a foreign country, especially if speech or language is the research topic. Cross-linguistic studies of speech perception have been critical to the understanding of how perception changes with development.

Foreign students who come to this country may be looking for specific opportunities or wish to work with a particular researcher. Others may come because an equivalent graduate degree does not exist in their home countries or they anticipate a more intensive research training experience here.

Clear Expectations

Clear expectations are key to success—determining, for example, who will negotiate the initiation of a research project at the foreign site, have local oversight, recruit subjects, and complete different aspects of the project; how the research will be disseminated; and how authorship credit or intellectual property rights will be handled. The student may also need significant assistance in negotiating the cultural aspects of interpersonal and professional interactions to avoid misunderstandings.

Alejandra Auza, a graduate student at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, México, who has been working in an Arizona State University (ASU) laboratory, advises students to establish clear goals, select an advisor who can help reach those goals, and take courses that support the project and that may not be available at home.

Students also recommend visiting other labs to observe additional methodologies and attending workshops at other labs to extend their technical skills. Colombia native Andre Riveros, for example, came to UA to complete an interdisciplinary graduate degree in behavioral neurobiology, working with insect models. He requested placement as a teaching assistant in my undergraduate class on the neurobiology of human communication, which provided a very different—but complementary—perspective to his area of study.

Students at all levels often find the experience makes them more flexible and better problem-solvers. Without the resources and support of the home lab, they must find new solutions to problems. ASU doctoral student Gareth Morgan said that taking a project from conception to completion, and being on the front lines for all aspects of the project, were major benefits for his foreign research experience. Morgan, whose project with monolingual Spanish-speaking children was completed in Mexico, found that he had to assume a much more prominent role than he would have at ASU, where there is an established and familiar infrastructure to support ongoing projects.

Working abroad can also focus an informal relation between faculty members in different countries. For example, my collaboration with Arve Asbjørnsen was facilitated by the interest of the undergraduate students in my lab and the graduate student in his lab. The students’ work on this project has generated plans for his students to come to UA to complete the next phase of research.

Scientific Multiculturalism

Research has its own culture, which may differ from country to country, and students may encounter student training models that differ significantly from those in their home institutions. Interactions between faculty and students or among the students themselves can differ remarkably. For example, brainstorming as a problem-solving approach may be familiar to American students, but may be unknown in scientific cultures with a strong laboratory hierarchy.

The foreign lab itself may feature a rich cultural mix; laboratories in Europe tend to reflect more diversity than those in the United States. "It’s really exciting to sit down with someone from Norway, Germany, Sweden, and Russia and have a conversation," Kittleson said. "In general, everyone’s ‘big picture’ looks the same, but there are subtle cultural differences in our lifestyles."

Future Impact

Foreign research placements for students may influence their perspectives of the global reach of the research community and their ability to make research contributions of national and international impact. Undergraduates who participate in the BRAVO! program are more likely to seek out international opportunities again as graduate students, and seem more predisposed to continuing international collaborations as they progress through their careers. Jessica Aguilar, a BRAVO! participant, said, "In the past, I was a bit scared to leave Tucson to attend graduate school elsewhere. I feel that living in another country has given me the courage and freedom to go to a graduate program anywhere in the world."

Graduate students who participate in research abroad often expect to continue their international collaborations after receiving their degrees. As Riveros concluded, "I plan to maintain the collaborations with colleagues that I have met here [in the United States]. The collaborations between scientists of different countries not only enriches the academy, but also the cultures."  

Elena Plante, is a professor and head of the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences and an associate research scientist in neurogenic communication disorders at the University of Arizona. Contact her at  

cite as: Plante, E. (2007, November 27). Promoting International Student Research. The ASHA Leader.


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