TJ Sample, senior at the Academy of Science in Sterling, had never been out of the country. That all changed when he boarded the plane bound for South Korea on July 16 to study spider silk and human collagen-producing cells.
As one of six students selected from the school to take part in AOS's International Collaboration, Sample and his partner will work on the project with two students from a South Korean school. The Korean research program makes its maiden voyage this year.
“In essence, it [the program] is a mentor-guided scientific collaboration,” said George Wolfe, AOS director. “[The Korean and American students] are scientific pen-pals with a goal in mind. I wanted to go beyond that and actually have the visit a key part of it.”
AOS students are required to design a two-year independent research project at the end of their sophomore year. Students may choose to submit their designs to the institute's international collaborators and, if accepted, travel to South Korea to meet their foreign team members.
The teams stay connected by email throughout the school year, each half focusing on some aspect of the project. At the end of their second visit to Korea next July, the AOS students and their teammates present their combined findings at a science fair in front of a panel of instructors.
Each group gets the chance to experience the other's culture. For Rihanna Shah, a veteran of the program that went to Singapore last year, that cultural interchange enriched her AOS project experience.
“It wasn't just about the academics,” she said. “We've made those lifelong connections [with the Korean students] ... It's an incredible experience.”
But for Sample, the research experience is just beginning.
“It's really exciting, and, at the same time, I'm nervous,” said Sample. “Being so far apart when we're working, if we come across a problem we can't just go over and say 'we have to change this.' We have to make sure we're doing everything on pace together.”
But Wolfe said Sample's apprehension is part of the process.
“Education is about providing opportunities for students to stretch themselves beyond their comfort levels,” he said. “This [program] does that.”