Princeton and Zhejiang University exchange program provides unique opportunities for students

Friday, Dec 9, 2016
by Erin Wispelwey

Qianyun Zhang was eager to apply to Princeton’s undergraduate molecular biology summer program. At a panel of Princeton and Zhejiang University professors in Hangzou, China, she heard about Princeton’s small class size and the opportunities this provided for collaboration between students and faculty. Qianyun explained, “I was accepted into this program and was really excited. It’s good to experience a different lab, but Princeton is Princeton; things are really unique here.”

Until recently, international students like Qianyun may not have had this type of opportunity. Although Princeton University regularly sends its students out in the world, there have been fewer reciprocal opportunities for visiting undergraduate students from around the world to experience Princeton.

This is changing. A new partnership between the Global Health Program (GHP) and the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton, and the Schools of Public Health and Medicine at Zhejiang University gave opportunities for visiting international students to work with Princeton professors over the summer.

This exchange program is not just about providing life-changing individual experiences; fostering cross-cultural collaborations supports Princeton University’s tradition of academic excellence. Professor Yibin Kang, the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton, believes the exchange has mutual benefits. “Science is global because we use the same principles and methodology and the same scientific equivalents,” Professor Kang noted. “But on a cultural side, doing science is quite different, having exposure to different environments always enriches your experience and you get to have a better way to make your own mind about how to handle different situations and how to develop these skills.”

In the inaugural year, each university accepted four students. Among the Princeton students at Zhejiang, two worked on projects addressing public health systems while two tackled translational medicine in a laboratory. The four Zhejiang students in Princeton worked in molecular biology labs.

Health Policy, Public Health and Language Skills for Princeton Students

Joanna Zheng ‘19 was interested in doing research in China for two reasons. First, she has an interest in nutrition and diet. Her internship project—studying correlates of weight gain over time at the Chronic Disease Institute in Zhejiang—was a great fit. Zheng was also excited about spending more time in China for personal reasons, explaining, “I was thinking about how important it is to spend time immersed in a culture to really understand its people. My parents are Chinese but I was born and raised in the US. So I feel more than just the generation gap between me and my parents—I feel the culture gap too.”

Raymond Guo ‘19 was also able to practice his Mandarin conversation skills while exploring health delivery systems for Zhejiang’s Center for Health Policy. “I went around and interviewed village doctors to get an idea what their daily work routine was like,” he said. “I read up on some of the health policy papers in China, and I was interested to know that 50 years ago there were these people known as the ‘barefoot doctors.’ They were really great at providing primary health care to rural areas. So the question I’m interested in is whether there are there ways that we can re-introduce some of these former ‘barefoot doctors’ to get an idea of what is the best way forward for primary health care?”

Engaging in Lab Research in China

For Nana Park ’18, the internship at Zhejiang’s lab for translational medicine gave her opportunities to reflect on the micro and macro aspects of cancer. She stated that, “the biggest question I want to answer would be how to balance the biological aspect with the more humanistic aspect of cancer.  In our research setting we look at things at a very molecular level, but in the real world we look at a ton of different variables and I’m still trying to figure out how to reconcile those two.”

David Landeta ’19 says his experience at the translational medicine lab helped him become more independent, while also allowing him to experience a new culture, noting, “programs like these could help us try to decide earlier on what we want to focus on.” In addition to exploring the lab and deciding to research MD PhD programs upon his return, Landeta added, “and the chance to eat authentic Chinese food for me has been one of the best experiences so far.”

Zhejiang Students in Princeton

The students from Zhejiang enjoyed focusing in on one research project in molecular biology at Princeton. Despite experiencing the rollercoaster of getting negative and positive results that comes with conducting experiments, lab work pays off for rising-senior Fangzhou Zhao, who said that, “if there is one positive [experiment] then it will be really exciting because you figure out something, some edge of knowledge that people don’t know.” Junkai Wang and Shiyi Zhou echoed Fangzhou’s sentiments and noted that although scientific research is not always easy they are motivated to continue studying at the graduate level.

The lab wasn’t the only rollercoaster they experienced. The Zhejiang students also enjoyed meeting new friends and taking excursions to Six Flags, Duke Farms, Philadelphia and New York City. “I really enjoy my lab in Princeton…and when we get out of the lab, we met new friends in ISIP [International Summer Internship Program]” said Zhao.

Support for Undergraduate Exchanges at Princeton

Kang credited the success of the first year program on the ease of collaboration between departments and programs at Princeton and now between Universities. “I think that is the beauty of Princeton, that there are very few barriers between departments and you feel we are all part of the same family.” Professor Kang said, “we set up this program in such a short time because people are willing to work together directly and collegially to try and solve problems.”  

The former director of GHP, Kristina Graff, also noted that it is meaningful to be able to accept international students into Princeton’s summer programs. “One of the hallmarks of the Global Health Program is its focus on learning about health and health policy through summer research and internship opportunities abroad. This is formative for students, and it enriches class discussions and applied learning within the GHP core courses when students return. The partnership with Zhejiang provides an opportunity to reciprocate some of the mentorship and support offered to our students by various institutions. Additionally, the partnerships, friendships, and opportunities fostered between our students and institutions will be instrumental to increasing the diversity of approaches and quality of perspectives requisite for tackling the complex health and wellbeing challenges of the future.” Professor Kang and new GHP Director Gilbert Collins hope the partnership and exchange between Zhejiang and Princeton will serve as a model to expand collaborative programs with other universities in the future.