Study abroad: It’s not just for students

A sabbatical is an opportunity to rest and reinvigorate your research program. In this post, Dr. Karen Almeida shares her experience for taking her sabbatical abroad and learning a new technique…in Italy!

It’s the end of the spring semester and I’m tired.  I know there are many out there that can sympathize with me.  I spend my days (and many nights) teaching students chemical concepts, encouraging them to develop a solid chemical foundation, advising them on both curricular and life goals, training them to work in a research lab, and modeling for them the scientific method and critical thinking.  All to promote chemistry among predominately first-generation college students who commute between work, school and caring for family.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love what I do, but to succeed, I also have to develop new course content, write grants and manuscripts, organize departmental social events, write recommendations, navigate the online purchasing system and serve on departmental and campus-wide committees.  So after 10 years, I’m really tired and I need a break.

Luckily, our higher education system anticipated this phenomenon and offered the sabbatical leave.  Or a paid break from teaching and campus life to fulfill a specific goal (just in case there are any non-faculty reading this).  So last summer, I decided to apply for a sabbatical.

My first, and biggest, question was “what is my sabbatical goal?”

sabbticalrenewal1My first, and biggest, question was “what is my sabbatical goal?”  I asked a colleague who suggested that the more specifics I give about the project, the more likely the administration would grant my request.  So I chose to learn a new technique, x-ray crystallography.  Ideally, I will be learning this technique while working on my protein of interest, but that was not my first priority.  A much more important goal is to teach my students this technique after returning to campus.  I also chose an alternative goal, computational modeling, just in case I could not find a suitable lab.

With my goal decided, I turned to where to do my sabbatical…I really dream of going to Italy.

With my goal decided, I turned to where to do my sabbatical.  I work in Providence, RI.  Across town from Brown University and an hour commute to Boston, MA (home of Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, BU, Northeastern…you get the idea). But, I really dream of going to Italy.

I asked my scientific colleagues if they have a collaborator in Italy who works in either technique.  Given the limitations of topic and location, it didn’t surprise me that I could find connections to the techniques or to the location but not both.  If pressed, I would have pursue one of these connections, but I wanted to go to Italy.

So I decided to do some research into Italian research labs.

First stop, Wikipedia.  Wikipedia has a page (or pages) devoted to the university system in almost every country I tried, ranging from Albania and Bangledesh to the Ukraine and Zambia.  I searched the university system in Italy and was rewarded with a listing of Italian universities, complete with their size, location and specialties.

To pare down the possibilities, I chose medium-large universities and started a spreadsheet that contained ~25 institutions. To narrow my search, I consulted a map of Italy and chose only those institutions that were located in a coastal city (I love living by the ocean).  If you remember the map of the Italian ‘boot’, this is not really that limiting. About 12 Universities or National Labs remained.

Now the real challenge, I do not speak Italian.  For that matter, I don’t speak anything other than English.  Luckily, Google translate works quite well.  I searched my 12 institutions looking for departments of biology, biochemistry and/or chemistry.  More specifically, looking for faculty who use the techniques of x-ray crystallography or computational modeling.  Many departmental websites will provide this information.  Pay particular attention to a researcher who has studied internationally, as they may be more likely to help.

As my list of potential host faculty grew, I crafted an email to introduce myself, my credentials, my goals, my timeline and to offer my services on their projects as a visiting scientist.

As my list of potential host faculty grew, I crafted an email to introduce myself, my credentials, my goals, my timeline and to offer my services on their projects as a visiting scientist.  I had a few versions of this email, just like when you are looking for a job you have several versions of your objective.

I started sending out these emails after I had  ~15 faculty members that I felt could potentially host a sabbatical.  That was at the end of July, which it turns out was not the best timing since most Europeans take a vacation in August.  Nevertheless, I had several people respond that they would be happy to discuss it further after they returned from their vacation.  I continued searching departmental websites and sending out cold emails until I found a lab that fit my goals and timeline.

I am honestly surprised at how many people responded to my request.

The last step was to finalize the sabbatical leave.  My proposal described my sabbatical goals, paying close attention to how these activities will strengthen my individual research priorities, expand the departmental offerings and align with the college’s 5-year strategic plan.  Finally, I included a letter of support (drafted by myself to minimize the burden on my new Italian colleague) that gave my host’s credentials, our mutual goals, and ended with an offer of a visiting scientist position for the spring semester of 2017.

Now all I have to do is learn Italian.

~Dr. Karen Almeida is a Professor of Chemistry in the Physical Sciences Department at Rhode Island College. Her research focuses on the activation and potential regulation of a critical enzyme in the nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide  (NAD+) salvage pathway – Nicotinamide phosphoribosyltransferase (NAMPT). 


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