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Transforming Perspectives

The interns take a break from their work to share stories of home during an International Tea and Talk on campus.

International Students Benefit From Summer Internships at Princeton

By Emily Aronson

University of Delhi undergraduate Unnati Akhouri is a self-proclaimed physics fanatic. When she’s not studying the mysteries of the particle world, she is drawing playful cartoons about the field (which she calls “phymics”) featuring a superhero electron or photon in love. So when the opportunity to spend the summer working with Princeton faculty presented itself, Akhouri jumped at the chance. It was a dream come true.

“When I started researching summer internships in the United States I never thought I would end up at Princeton. Some of the top physicists have been here,” says Akhouri, who returned to India this fall for her final year of school.

Akhouri is one of 14 international undergraduates who spent this summer at Princeton as part of the International Student Internship Program (ISIP). The pilot program allows promising young scholars from institutions abroad to work with Princeton faculty and to experience the University’s academic and research environment.

Students came from Brazil, China, India and Slovenia, and were mentored by professors in computer science, ecology and evolutionary biology, engineering, molecular biology, and physics. When not in the lab or library, they learned about each other and life in the U.S. while watching July Fourth fireworks in New York City or eating cheesesteaks and pretzels in Philadelphia.

“This has been an amazing, hands-on experience,” says Akhouri, who interned with Professor of Physics Kirk McDonald. “The professors here are willing to learn with you and take you through the journey and joy of learning. It has truly changed the way I look at things.”

This is exactly the type of outcome the University hoped for when it developed ISIP, says Vice Provost for International Affairs and Operations Anastasia Vrachnos, whose office spearheaded the project along with the Davis International Center, the Office of the Dean for Research and the Dean of the College’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

“It’s about transformation of perspective,” Vrachnos says. “That is something that can only happen by having the experience of coming here, seeing first-hand the research environment that Princeton offers and interacting with our scholars. You can’t read it in a textbook. You can’t have someone tell it to you. It is that kind of experiential, international learning.”

The program is as much of a benefit to Princeton and the participating faculty as it is to the visiting students.

“Computer science is a truly international field, and many of our top graduate students come from abroad,” says Department of Computer Science Chair Jennifer Rexford, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor in Engineering and professor of computer science. “Attracting top international undergraduate students to a summer internship is a wonderful way for us to energize our ongoing research collaborations, recruit great applicants to our graduate program and raise broader awareness of the exciting research here at Princeton.”

“I always like to have interns during the summer because it gives me a chance to try new things or make progress on existing work,” says Alexander Smits, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Smits often hosts Princeton students as summer interns, and said he was pleased to add four engineering students from Brazil to this year’s group. He paired the international interns to work on projects reflecting his eclectic research interests. One team developed a prototype for a medical device that can measure red blood cell damage in real time, while the other team built a wind tunnel model to examine the flow of heat in urban environments.

During Caio Burgardt’s internship with Professor of Computer Science Nick Feamster, the two started an information technology security blog and established a connection that Burgardt hopes will continue when he returns to the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Brazil.

Many of the international undergraduates said the summer cemented their interests in pursuing further studies at graduate school.

“It is so important for these students to get a glimpse of what their future path can look like,” Vrachnos adds. “And it’s a bonus for us if this deepens their interest in Princeton, and they go back home and tell their friends about their experience and the opportunities here.”

A Cultural Exchange

On top of everything they learned at Princeton, the visiting students said the bonus of ISIP was the new friendships and connections they made.

Claire Hu, international affairs and operations manager, says it was wonderful to see everyone become fast friends. Hu helped organize the program and ensured the interns had the opportunity to experience Princeton and the surrounding community. During free time, the group attended concerts on campus, gathered for meals at local restaurants and went on day trips hiking and sightseeing.

For Akhouri’s mentor, McDonald, the experience was a worthwhile investment.

“I hope Unnati has come to some appreciation of where the frontiers are in physics. We need a generation of young people like her to get involved,” McDonald adds. “She was actually my first summer intern. I would definitely host another if the person is as enthusiastic and interested in learning as she is.”