Education experience from different continents (Part I)

by Mamduh Zabidi

The Purdue Bell Tower during autumn.

The Purdue Bell Tower during autumn.

I had a rare opportunity to pursue a degree in Biochemistry at Purdue University, USA with a scholarship from the Malaysian government. An American undergraduate degree is typically a 4-year programme. The course grading is typically made up of 3 major exams (exams 1, 2 and final exam). Some courses do assign regular homework which obviously requires consistent work. Almost all courses have evening ‘help sessions’, where attendance is not compulsory. These sessions are run by graduate students from the department every week, where students get to ask questions about the course or homework.

There is no requirement for a student to work on a final-year research project nor he needs to do an internship at any company in order to graduate. However, usually students take their own initiative for internship at industry or other research institutions, of which opportunities are advertised in the department. At the university itself, interested students can join a laboratory as an undergraduate research assistant for credit hour or for pay. Furthermore, if the lab head agrees, the student can enter honours research programme, which runs concurrently during regular semester. This requires huge time and effort commitment; nonetheless I have to say that the commitment required for an honours programme far exceeds the benefit.

In the beginning of the programme, the student is required to write a short research proposal with the help of either the supervisor or the graduate student/postdoc that he is paired with. Attending classes notwithstanding, the student is familiarized with full-time research environment, including lab safety, lab meetings and journal clubs (I have to confess that I ditched classes just to work on my project). Finally, at the end of the programme the student will submit a short (typical of American style) thesis, and present the research to the department in oral and poster format. Furthermore, my research advisor not only cares about my research but also my career direction. Even though the duration of the programme is short, at the undergraduate level I was already exposed to the different facets of full-time research environment from scientific writing, presentation and most importantly being in charge of my own project.

The Engineering Fountain, also known as the Purdue Mall Water Sculpture, with the Purdue Bell Tower in the background. The fountain serves as free shower for students to cool off during scorching Midwest summer. Source: Purdue University.

The Engineering Fountain, also known as the Purdue Mall Water Sculpture, with the Purdue Bell Tower in the background. The fountain serves as free shower for students to cool off during scorching Midwest summer. Source: Purdue University.

There are several aspects of American culture that I would like to highlight from which we can learn. Firstly, the faculty typically expects them to be addressed by only the first name, with no need for mentioning of honorific Dr. or Prof. This encourages an air of cordiality between the student and the supervisor and spur exchange of ideas. The students also ask a lot of questions, reflecting their culture to speak up. Furthermore, the focus in American system is always more on content than length: my thesis was less than 10 pages in total with only a required conformity to a loose basic format – contrast this to our adherence to British-based system where it is typical to write pages and pages of thesis. The students and the faculty also care less about the race or nationality than the quality of work produced. This is in stark contrast – at least in my view – in our local universities where students typically eat, congregate, walk, or form study groups with only their race. At the same time, the student is trusted with the responsibility of his own career. For example, the requirement outside coursework is little, if not non-existent, but help is always provided: if the student needs to polish up his CV he can look for an internship or research experience of which information is posted at the department. Similarly, attendance at lecture is not required, but help sessions are available every week for anybody interested.

A pond at Purdue during autumn (early October). The leaves are about to set ablaze by autumn.

A pond at Purdue during autumn (early October). The leaves are about to set ablaze by autumn.

In my next article, I will share my experience in my doctorate programme in the Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna, Austria.

About the Author

Mamduh Zabidi was born and grew up in Bagan Datoh, Perak. He obtained a BSc degree with a major in Biochemistry, Cell Development and Molecular biology, and a minor in Chemistry and French from Purdue University, USA. He then returned to Malaysia and worked at Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation (CARIF) towards a MSc degree in Molecular Medicine from University of Malaya. He is now a doctorate student in Bioinformatics at the Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP), Vienna, Austria. He loves words and enjoys reading, writing, as well as learning new languages. He considers himself as an amateur photographer, and he hikes, plays soccer and badminton. Find out more about Mamduh by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/mamduh/.