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PRIME Program Takes Undergraduates
to the Pacific Rim to Broaden Research Experiences

Maureen Curran| Nov. 3, 2008

Photo of PRIME class of 2008
In all, 21 students took part in the PRIME program, an undergraduate research abroad program, the largest class ever. The program is in its fifth year.

They went to the other side of the world to study and work on high-tech projects, including a computer model of muscle cells in the heart and graphical user interfaces. They also learned about different cultures and picked up different languages. At least one says she learned more about her family’s roots.

In the past five years, more than 70 UCSD undergraduates have taken part in the Pacific Rim Experiences for Undergraduates program. PRIME provides students with the opportunity of doing real research while living for nine weeks in one of several Pacific Rim countries, from Australia to Taiwan. Students are paired with mentors at both the host institution and at UC San Diego.

"We are immersing the students in both scientific research and a new culture by providing them with experiential training in both the conduct of research and in the international global workplace," explained Gabriele Wienhausen, the principal investigator of PRIME. Wienhausen is the associate dean of education for the UCSD Division of Biological Sciences.

This year, program administrators wanted to hear from some early students, said Peter Arzberger, PRIME co-principal investigator. The goal was to find out what students think about PRIME now, several years after they participated, and how they feel the experience has affected them, the researcher added. Here four UC San Diego alums were asked recently to reflect on their experiences in the PRIME program and how it helped to shape who and where they are today. All said they are thrilled to have been part of this research abroad program and grateful for the scientific, educational and cultural opportunities it gave them.

Photo of Robert Ikeda
Robert Ikeda studied in Taiwan as part of the PRIME program.

Today, Robert Ikeda (PRIME 2004) is a third-year doctoral student studying computer science at Stanford University. "Before PRIME, I did not know much about computer science," he said. "But afterwards, I was encouraged to learn more, and I eventually decided to pursue a Ph.D. PRIME was my first opportunity to work on a serious software project, and I am thankful for how it has helped shape my academic interests."

While at the National Center for High-performance Computing in Hsinchu, Taiwan, Ikeda pursued the development of a graphical user interface for pathway editing and integration in Cytoscape, a bioinformatics software platform for visualizing molecular interaction networks and integrating them with gene expression profiles. This was for large-scale, computer-aided models of biological signaling and regulatory pathways. But the cultural aspect of PRIME was even more significant for him.

"The biggest effect of the program is that now I am more open-minded and aware and appreciative of the world's cultures," Ikeda said. "I still have a lot to learn, but visiting Taiwan made me realize that there is a whole world outside of the United States.” The UCSD alumnus said he believes his willingness to be open-minded and attentive allowed him to have a great time during his stint in Taiwan.

Photo of Shirley Lee
Shirley Lee said her study-abroad experience in Taiwan made her feel more connected to her family.

Shirley Lee (PRIME 2005), also went to Taiwan, one year later, after hearing about the program from a classmate who had gone to Japan and was doing undergrad research in the same lab as Lee. "The most significant aspect of participating in the program was the impact on my personal life," said Lee. "Born and raised in California, there was a disconnect between myself and my siblings, with our parents who had grown up in Taiwan." After spending 10 weeks in the country where her parents and grandparents were born, she came to understand her family better, which really led to understand herself better, she said.

While in Taiwan, Lee, a bioengineering junior, also worked with Cytoscape, as had Ikeda; she used it to visualize Internet connectivity. Both Ikeda and Lee worked with advisors Fang-Pang Lin, Grid Computing division manager of the National Center for High-performance Computing, and Trey Ideker, a bioengineering assistant professor at UCSD.

"The program made me realize how software solutions can evolutionize or revolutionize most, if not all, industries," Lee said. She now works in the medical device industry, which is documentation-intensive and said she already sees how software solutions are transforming her everyday work environment for the better. She has been a quality engineer at Abbott Vascular for more than two years, where she analyzes and manages risk to patients by implementing statistically-based sampling plans to ensure product quality.

Lee also looks at the world differently because of her PRIME experience. "It showed me that there is literally a world of opportunities for people who want to collaborate with others around the globe and work towards achieving a common goal,” she said. “I now feel comfortable and open to the idea of living and working outside of the United States."

Photo of Laura Berstis
Laura Berstis, also a PRIME alumna, now studies at the Univerität Zürich, Irchel campus in Switzerland.

Laura Berstis (PRIME 2005) has put that insight into action. She is living abroad, as a graduate student at the University of Zurich, currently finishing her master's degree on the way to beginning her formal doctoral program in theoretical computational chemistry. She is working with her advisor, Kim Baldridge, to whom she was introduced via the PRIME program. Berstis worked on computational biology tools while at Monash University in Australia, with David Abramson and Baldridge (who is also a professor at UCSD) as her mentors. Berstis' master's thesis project involves computational studies of the interactions and differences between small molecular nucleic acid systems. She expects it to be completed at the end of the year, so she can begin her doctoral work in January.

What Berstis said in 2005:. Before leaving for Monash, the then 20-year-old sophomore and aspiring bioengineer said: "I applied to PRIME because I wanted to experience different avenues of research and in general to explore possibilities for what I want to dedicate my life to." She was one of the few sophomores accepted into the PRIME program at that time.

What she says now: "It may sound 'cheesy' said so bluntly, yet it couldn't be more true-- the PRIME program truly changed my life!"

The PRIME program definitely had a major impact on her and her future academic choices, she explained. She continued working on projects during her final years at UCSD, including coming to Zurich for a second academic internship position. When it came time to apply to graduate schools, she was also considering medical school and pursuing an M.D.-doctorate degree as her next step. But she found that the opportunity to move to Zurich and work with Prof. Baldridge was another incredible chance, as with the PRIME program, to again explore a significantly different location, culture, and to simultaneously further her scientific and academic career, and expose herself to a new environment, learn a new language, and learn from the lessons and hurdles experienced when living abroad for a longer period of time.

Photo of John Colby
John Colby studied in Australia. He is now a M.D.-PhD student at UCLA.

When it came time for choosing graduate schools, John Colby (2004) opted for the M.D.-doctorate program and is now in his third year (of eight overall) at UCLA. He is pursuing the doctorate in biomedical engineering, with a specialization in neuro-engineering. His thesis is in developmental neuro-imaging. Before beginning medical school at UCLA, Colby worked for a year in industry at SAIC in La Jolla, where he worked with a group to develop biosensors.

With PRIME, Colby also went to Monash University and had Abramson as his host advisor; his UCSD advisor was Anushka Michailova, a senior research scientist in Andrew McCulloch's Cardiac Mechanics Research Group lab. Using NIMROD (a family of tools developed by Abramson and his group), Colby optimized the cardiac ventricular myocyte developed by Michailova and McCulloch. He was able to identify parameters that improved model stability and its agreement with experimental data in normal conditions and during metabolic inhibition. "I remember my first student [Colby]," recalls Michailova, "He was so excited with this program."

He still is."Without question, PRIME was the most influential experience I had during my time as an undergraduate at UCSD," said Colby. "The foundation of knowledge in high performance computing that I acquired through PRIME is something that I have continued to use everyday in my research career.” He added he has no doubts that this will continue to be true in the future as well, as complex computational and informatics problems continue to be become more and more important to diverse fields of biomedical research.

Colby also said that to him, the most significant aspect of the program was the first-hand experience he gained in planning and leading a research collaboration. “This type of training is integral for the coming generations of scientists and clinicians, who must navigate an ever more specialized and collaborative research environment," he added. "And the fact that all of this was done literally thousands of miles away from UCSD, our friends, and home mentors, simply cannot be understated. Because these collaborations were developed at the international level, PRIME also gave us an invaluable opportunity, and one that is exceedingly rare for undergraduates in science and engineering, to experience another culture through a study-abroad type program in another country."

The majority of the PRIME host institutions are members of PRAGMA, which is a group of leading Pacific Rim research organizations collaborating on advancing grid technology applications. Arzberger is the principal investigator of PRAGMA.

UCSD alumna Berstis summarized both the past experience with PRIME and the future, when she said: "My German is definitely improving; and with this I feel quite liberated, knowing that I could move to practically any country in the world, learn a new language and culture, and still thrive. In a way it makes the world feel so much more interconnected, as it truly is, in terms of research collaborations, cultural interactions, and also physically without such distinct national borders appearing as barriers anymore."

PRIME is funded by the National Science Foundation with additional support from the UCSD division of Calit2, the National Biomedical Computation Resource, the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, partner and host institutions.

PRIME Host Institutions

From the beginning, 2004/2005:
Cybermedia Center, Osaka University, Osaka, Japan
National Center for High-performance Computing, Hsinchu, Taiwan
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Computer Network Information Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

Added in 2008:
Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia
University of Waikato, New Zealand
University of Auckland, New Zealand

To be added in 2009:
University of Hyderabad, India


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