Release Date: November 23, 2015
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Students describe their experience as “uncovering the road to a vast and unknown ocean” they had only seen glimpses of, and “the most powerful academic program” they have ever been a part of.
They are talking about the Cambridge Undergraduate Scholars Program, a prime example of “experiential learning,” or finding learning opportunities outside the classroom, and the University at Buffalo has declared experiential learning an educational priority that will continue to expand in coming years.
The rewards of experiential learning range from taking advantage of research and experts beyond UB classrooms to establishing professional networks that lead to postgraduate opportunities.
The Cambridge Undergraduate Scholars Program reflects what is becoming a UB academic signature: giving its best students a top-notch, off-campus experience.
“I think research and experiential training are critical for our students’ success in life, independent of the career they choose,” says Satpal Singh, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, who envisioned the Cambridge program and now leads it. “It immerses the students in real-life situations like no classroom lectures, or even teaching laboratories, can do.”
Singh’s high aspirations have paid off for the five undergraduates who spent 10 weeks this past summer conducting research in the intellectually heady atmosphere of Cambridge University. Each student was matched with a faculty mentor in Cambridge, and Singh also co-mentored the students. Not only did the student benefit from experiential learning, but the program was located at what Singh called “among the most outstanding and revered institutions in the world.”
“Its researchers are engaged in research at the forefront of several areas,” he says. “In addition, an international experience and interaction with faculty and students from different cultures adds a new dimension to students’ experiences, which helps them in formulating their career plans.”
The students returned to UB this fall with glowing endorsements of their 10-week summer research programs.
“I would recommend this program to as many students as possible,” says Alexandra Van Hall, a senior chemistry major from Owego with minors in mathematics and statistics. She calls the Cambridge experience “without a doubt, the most powerful academic experience” she has ever participated in.
“The academic atmosphere of Cambridge is like no other place and is extremely inspiring,” she says. “Being pushed to work quickly and having long days was difficult, but really paid off. I accomplished so much more in 10 weeks than I ever thought I could. My project was a success and this has given me confidence in my research abilities.
“For me, this trip was a growing experience, personally and academically.”
Antara Majumdar, a junior biomedical sciences major from Astoria, Queens, says she entered the application process convinced she would never have a chance because there were so many other students more qualified and talented than she. She sold herself short, as it turned out, and her experience was nothing short of transforming.
“I truly believe the Cambridge program really altered my perception of my own capabilities,” she says. “I drew inspiration from the seminars I attended, where visiting scientists would discuss their research so clearly. Sometimes they would draw laughs from the audience. But mostly, they were very clear about largely complex topics.
“Every week I learned even more to enjoy being in the lab and to learn from my mistakes,” she says. “The beauty of being somewhere such as Cambridge is that you can tell that the attitudes of the scientists are different. In a way, it is collaborative and people are constantly going to seminars and conferences.”
Majumdar calls her daily walks through Cambridge “nothing short of exciting.”
“I liked the small-town and cosmopolitan feel that the streets were a blend of,” she says. “Seeing the chapels and walking through narrow streets was another highlight. I would, without a doubt, go back to Cambridge for future studies. Before I went there, Cambridge was just one of those universities where I thought I would never be able to go. Looking through their website, I would be intimidated by how professional and historical everything looked. I learned to see beyond that through this trip. I even made three good friends while I was there,” she says.
“My lab mentor would constantly ask me each week, ‘Are you enjoying this project?’ I started reading a lot of articles and got to know the true beauty of the topic I was researching,” she says. “It felt like uncovering the road to a vast and unknown ocean, and I had only seen a glimpse of it.”
Mara B. Huber, PhD, associate dean for undergraduate education and experiential learning who helped develop the model in partnership with UB Study Abroad, says Singh, who accompanied the students to Cambridge, was “a wonderful mentor,” committed to student success in research and advanced education.
“Dr. Singh’s vision to connect outstanding UB undergraduates with opportunities to work with Cambridge faculty in their labs may be the foundation for something even bigger,” Huber says.
“We are working to expand the program to include summer research opportunities at Oxford for the 2016 program. Building out this initiative takes both vision and commitment, both of which Dr. Singh exemplifies through his leadership and dedication.”
She urges UB students to set their sights on this experiential-learning opportunity, which can be “transformative” to their future career and academic pathways.
“Congratulations to the inaugural class of UB participants,” she says. “They have represented our campus well and paved the way for future students who will go on to make amazing discoveries and contributions to their respective fields.”
Members of that inaugural class were honored at a celebratory reception on Nov. 20. In addition to Van Hall and Majumdar, they are Austin Price, Lockport; Benjamin George, Pine Bush; and Celia Zhang, Brooklyn.