My SAP Experience @ Umea

I spent five months at Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden on a Semester Abroad Programme (SAP) between August 2011 and January 2012. Umeå is situated in the north of Sweden, a mere 400 kilometres from the arctic circle. The journey to Umeå from Chennai lasted a sum total of around 30 hours by air – on four flights, across five airports!

I had selected two courses spanning 10 weeks each to complete during my stay there. The first of my courses there was called Molecular Genetics which encompassed lectures on several advanced techniques used in molecular biology and six intensive experiments on the same. This was an advanced course, which meant that most of my classmates were Master's students and I was among the youngest in the class! Many lectures delivered in the duration of this course were by leading scientists working on a wide variety of model organisms ranging from Yeast to E.coli, pathogenic bacteria, Drosophila and C.Elegans. In the laborations, I got to work with Yeast as well as other bacteria and write lab reports in the style of research papers.

The second course I undertook was a 'Practice course' which is a project course that does not require a thesis submission at the end. I worked in a lab that carried out research on the pathogenesis of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, a food borne pathogen. My supervisor, Dr.Ikenna Obi, works on periplasmic peptidyl-prolyl cis-trans isomerases (PPIases) and my job encompassed carrying out studies on and developing various mutants of the same by site-directed mutagenesis. This was a fantastic experience and the course was designed in such a way that I got an intensive training in lab practices and also a working knowledge on how mainstream research is carried out.

Although academics and working in lab took most of my time in Umeå, I would me remiss if I did not talk about the cultural experience in such an exchange programme. Needless to say, socially and otherwise, the practices followed in Europe are very different from those in India. I made many friends from many countries, namely Sweden, Austria, Germany, France and so on; sharing our cultures, and indeed, cultural differences was a great experience! Sweden is an expensive country to live in, especially as a student from a different country.

Living on a tight budget, and having to take care of oneself in the absence of guardians or parents or wardens, cooking everyday and cleaning are all things that one will have to be prepared to do! It was great fun experimenting in the kitchen after a long day at the lab! Another thing that was very different was the weather. Swedish winters are harsh at best, and in Umeå, temperatures are known to drop below -35°C. From the day I arrived, the highest temperature I experienced was just 14° C and the lowest, around -23° C! I even got to see the northern lights or Aurora Borealis a couple of times! Watching the weather became a regular passtime of mine, and I promised myself that I would never complain about the sweltering heat of Chennai again!

Overall, this SAP was a wonderful learning experience, academic and otherwise. It gave me perspective, hands-on experience and an idea of how to go about research; and also a reassurance of my earlier convictions to pursue the same as a career.

Shyama Nandakumar