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CSB/SJU Students Partner With Chinese Peers On Research

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July 31, 2006


For 16 students from the College of Saint Benedict, Saint John’s University and Southwest University (SWU) in Beibei, Chongqing, China, summer’s usual pastimes – working to pay for school, camping and baseball – have been augmented by test tubes, beakers and microscopes.  These students are the first participants in a unique Summer Science Research Exchange Program between the two Minnesota schools and Southwest University.

In May, eight CSB/SJU science students from the biology, chemistry and physics departments traveled to China where they partnered with eight undergraduate Chinese science students to conduct scientific research at SWU.  They worked on projects as diverse as isolating bacteria with novel pesticide-degrading properties to computer modeling of the electronic properties of crystals.  Six weeks later, on July 3, all the students returned to CSB/SJU to start new projects, ranging from laser optics to genetic engineering.

It’s the first time the schools – which have been partners for 20 years – have been part of a truly reciprocal exchange of students.  Each fall semester, CSB/SJU sends students and a faculty director to SWU, but until now, no groups of students from SWU have come to CSB/SJU to study.

Henry Jakubowski, CSB/SJU professor of chemistry, who developed   the new science exchange program at CSB/SJU, said he first thought about a possible exchange program in 1997, when he visited SWU (then known as Southwest China Normal University).

“Science majors have many required science courses with labs that cannot easily be completed abroad,” Jakubowski said, noting that just 28 percent of science students are able to complete a study abroad experience. This compares to an average of 50 percent for other CSB/SJU students who participate in one of CSB/SJU’s 17 semester-long programs.

“I was thinking of ways in which our science students could study in China without making it more difficult to complete their majors in four years,” he said. “It also struck me that although we send students to SWU, they never send students here.   I realized that an ideal solution that would address both issues was a science research exchange in the summer, when course demands would not limit participation.

“Programs exist in which American students study or do research abroad, or foreign students do research here.  However, I don’t know of any program that involves undergraduate students from different countries partnered in a reciprocal science research exchange,” he said. “Our students are learning about the high quality science that’s done in China, and how important China will be in their future. The learning potential for the students is enormous”.

“Our program gives the students a much broader idea of what it means to work in the modern scientific world. We need to know what goes on in China, and they need to know what goes on here.  It’s really exciting to discuss Professor Jianping Xie’s research and develop areas of possible collaboration,” Jakubowski said, referring to his colleague from SWU who is leading the Chinese delegation at CSB/SJU.

The science projects are only part of what the students are learning. The intercultural exchange, living in a different country and making friends are experiences of a lifetime, he said.

“When you go abroad, especially to a country like China, you see that there are different ways of approaching life.   It makes you question the motives and actions that define your life here,” he said.

Jakubowski also cited a survey of managers from Minnesota-based technological industries, who were asked what qualities of scientists they value in their workplaces.    “What topped the list was not expertise with modern instrumentation, but rather cultural competency,” he said.

Jianping Xie, a professor of biological sciences at SWU, said his students are learning “to study and make friends abroad. That is very important.” They “learn a different style” when it comes to scientific questions, and “they learn teamwork with the foreign experience with the U.S. students.      Besides their work in the labs, the Chinese students have visited the Science Museum in St. Paul and attended a Minnesota Twins’ game.  They’ve also enjoyed camping in northern Minnesota and swimming at Lake Sagatagan on the Saint John’s campus.

Jakubowski said the program will be reviewed by both sides after its completion.   He envisions a time when it could be expanded to include other departments that have active summer research programs, such as mathematics and geology.

  “This program is good for both the students and for the faculty.  It’s a win/win situation for both sides and will lead to closer relationships between our institutions, faculty and students, and hopefully to more scientific collaborations between individual faculty with similar research interests,” he added.

Students from CSB/SJU, Southwest University in Beibei, China, and professors from the institutions enjoyed a weekend of camping in Northern Minnesota in July.

Zhou Haiyun, Professor Bill Lamberts, Caitlin Walsh