Tsinghua Research Exchange Program: Summer ’16

Rhea Choudhury Abroad, Biomedical, Major, Research, Rhea, Students, Study, Viterbi Life, Work Leave a Comment

Time for a brief summer update!!

If I were to summarize my summer in one word, it would be crazy. We still have something like five weeks left, and I already have had some amazing experiences traveling across the United States, and even the world. Here’s what I’ve been up to so far!

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Hellions after Day 1 in NC!

About three weeks after school ended, I flew to Raleigh, North Carolina with my club Ultimate Frisbee team, the USC Hellions, to compete in Nationals. Our team hadn’t made natties in five years, so after a nail-biting season, coming in as definite underdogs, we were all stoked to be given a shot to compete. Our team played so well, but the competition at natties was fierce, and we unfortunately lost every game. We were faced with ridiculously extreme weather, ranging from 90+ degrees with humidity to torrential rain; we also hadn’t practiced together in the three weeks between finals and the tournament itself. Given those circumstances, the Hellions fought like crazy, and we couldn’t have ended our season more united as a team. We’ll just have to come back and show those other teams what we got next year!

A few days after I got back from Raleigh, I embarked on my next adventure: a six week research program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The Tsinghua University Research Exchange Program, as it’s called on the Viterbi website, is basically an exchange program where USC sends engineering undergrads to Tsinghua to perform research in some of the labs on campus. Thanks to the alumni who created this program, all the students on this trip are given a stipend for airfare and living expenses, along with a salary for working in the lab. I just got back from Beijing yesterday, and everything is still a blur, but I’ll try and quickly summarize my experiences in a few paragraphs.

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Me and my lab group: my partner, me, my professor, another lab partner and my grad student mentor!

In my mind, there were two main components of this trip- the research/work/university environment aspect, and the sightseeing/traveling/exploring aspect. Both were very positive, and both shaped my six weeks in Beijing tremendously, but in different ways. As a BME major, I was placed in a bioinformatics lab, the National Laboratory of Information Sciences (to be specific), under mentor Dr. Xuegong Zhang. The project I was assigned involved graph-theory based clustering algorithms, which basically are pieces of code that sort massive datasets into smaller, homogeneous chunks. I am not a computer science major, nor did I come into this program with knowledge of algorithms, R or Python. I knew MATLAB, and I had a whole lot of experience in biomechanics research, neither of which were exactly useful in the project setting I was placed. However, I read tons of papers on clustering, and taught myself R and Python in order to accomplish the tasks I was assigned- by the end of the program, I was comfortable with R, somewhat okay with Python, and very comfortable with the ideas of graph-theory, clustering, np-complete problems and basic algorithms. The lab component was definitely a very educational experience, and while I don’t exactly see myself going into bioinformatics or the more CS side of BME, I was thankful for the opportunity to dabble in that part of the field and see how I felt about it.

Now, the fun part. While I was working about approximately 9-5 every weekday, my evenings and weekends were completely free to go and explore Beijing. We had amazing (and cheap!!) street food, visited local sights and explored the more expat/international areas of the city, where we met people from all over the world. USC sent six of us over, but we ended up meeting so many people just wandering the streets of Beijing, and being friendly in our dorm. Rather than summarize every single touristy spot we visited, these pictures below will hopefully illustrate my trip much more succinctly.

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While this trip wasn’t exactly study abroad per se, it was still an amazing opportunity to travel while doing some amazing academic work. I came into this program not knowing any Chinese, never having traveled alone, and never having been to China- I honestly had the time of my life getting to explore a new country with a really chill group of people. Going abroad really broadens your perspective, and as cliche as that sounds, I honestly can’t even explain how true it is. Working abroad, experiencing a completely different academic environment, navigating a language barrier and getting to try some amazing food all make going abroad an incredible experience, and I SO encourage everyone to go abroad at some point during their college career. When else in your life will you be able to drop everything and move to China? London? Madrid? As you get older and further down your career path, it becomes harder and harder to really get a chance to explore a new country with no strings attached. I was definitely apprehensive during my first week in China, mainly due to the language barrier, but I got used to it and began to really treasure my time there. Now, looking back at the last six weeks, I wouldn’t trade my summer experiences in Beijing for anything.

As for the rest of summer, I’m catching up on some reading, starting my training plan for a half marathon I hope to run in fall (maybe??) and gearing up for yet another travel adventure- my family is going to Canada for a week, hiking around Banff and Jasper National Parks. While I love traveling and relaxing over summer break, I’m definitely looking forward to coming back to SC in fall; just a few more weeks before I’m back in LA!!

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