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May 26, 2003

Chemistry students conduct research in Thailand through UCSC program

By Shawna Williams

For the past 17 years, chemistry students from around the country have come to UCSC for a summer of intensive research. Last year, the campus expanded its summer research program to another sun-kissed locale: Thailand.

Chemistry students Robert Rivers of Kentucky State University and Meg Desko of Drew University contemplate a lotus flower at the Royal Palace in Thailand. Photo courtesy of R. Braslau

Chemistry students in UCSC's Thai REU program did some sightseeing with Thai graduate students as guides. UCSC undergrad Stephen Born is third from left. Photo courtesy of R. Braslau

The National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsors UCSC's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which gives students 10 weeks of full-time research experience in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. This type of experience is very important for students planning to pursue graduate work in the sciences, said Rebecca Braslau, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who runs the SURF program.

Three years ago, Braslau heard that the NSF was interested in funding similar programs in East Asia.

"NSF's goal was to build a cadre of globally engaged young researchers with connections in the Pacific Basin," Braslau said.

She managed to find contacts in Thailand to make the new program possible, and got an NSF grant to fund it. Six students from around the country traveled to Thailand last summer as the first participants in the Thai Research Experience for Undergraduates (Thai REU) program.

The Thai REU provides successful applicants with a 10-week placement with a mentor in an organic chemistry lab at one of three institutions in Bangkok, as well as transportation to and from Thailand, university housing, a short course in Thai language and culture, and a stipend.

"I was surprised how smoothly it operated and how successful it was," Braslau said. "And the NSF seemed to be quite happy with it, too."

Stephen Born, who graduated from UCSC last year with a double major in chemistry and molecular, cell and developmental biology, was among the first group of students in the Thai REU.

"It was really good," Born said. "There was a language barrier, but the Thai graduate students were incredibly helpful."

The Thai graduate students took the REU students on weekend trips around Thailand, so they saw more of the country than just Bangkok, Born said. Although he said switching to a rice-based diet was "interesting, to say the least," he developed a taste for the food and now cooks it himself.

Some things about the country surprised him: the excellent organization of systems such as public transportation; the conservatism of the culture; and the ubiquitous American brand names.

The laboratory setup was also different from what Born was used to, with all space shared instead of divided into individual work areas. The research itself was as rigorous as he would have expected in the United States, he said.

"I highly recommend an REU program to all undergraduate science students," Born said. "It opens up your eyes to a research world you might not otherwise be exposed to."

Thai REU students live at Chulalongkorn University and do research either there, at Mahidol University, or at the Chulabhorn Research Institute. Chulalongkorn is Thailand's oldest university and one of its most prestigious. The Chulabhorn Research Institute is run by Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry.

This summer there will be eight students in the Thai REU program, selected from 55 applicants. Applications rose this year, probably because last year's participants have helped get the word out and the department has worked hard at publicizing the program, Braslau said.

Some participants have expressed concern about the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Asia, but Braslau said she is "pretty confident" the program can go ahead as expected. Thailand has had only two cases of the disease and enforces a strict quarantine on visitors coming from affected countries.

More information on the Thai REU and SURF programs can be found online.

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