Each year we ask UK students who have taken part in the Dr Bessie Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) to write a guest blog to reflect on the month they spent in Israel working as part of a research team alongside scientists at the Weizmann Institute. Outside of lab time students explore Israel while forming friendships that will last a lifetime. Georgina Menasche-Standen went to St Paul's Girls' School and is now studying Physics and Philosophy at Oxford.
Georgina Menasche-Standen’s ISSI experience
This is probably going to be one of the hardest things I’ll ever have to write, because I don’t even properly know where to start. It was this whole massive intense month surrounded by what seemed to be the brightest minds I’ve ever met from all around the world, and I’m trying to condense all the information, emotions and experiences into a single blog post.
I met the UK students at the airport at 6:30am, which, at the time, seemed horrifically early, but throughout the course would come to somehow equal a welcome lie-in. It was awkward, we stumbled through introductions, and I ended up falling asleep on the shoulder of one of them on the plane after telling him I wasn’t really feeling all that tired.
When we arrived at the Institute, we were just in time for dinner. We Brits tried to push some tables together to be friendly, but the tables screeched loudly as they moved over the floor, meaning that everyone else watched us for an excruciatingly long time as we organised ourselves (and then ate alone as a nation, as we were the last in).
That night, as I lay in bed and wondered if my new roommates would hate me if I changed the temperature on the thermostat to something more reasonable (future students - 23oC is the perfect temperature in the dorms; it took a comically long time to work this out), I realised I was in Israel with 72 sort-of strangers for the next month, and I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. As it turns out, everyone else felt the exact same way, but this didn’t help much as we only worked this out a week in when none of us knew how the camp washing machine functioned.
Lab-work obviously took up most of our time on the trip, and throughout it somehow remained constantly confusing, engaging, and entirely exhausting, with biology projects going on field trips to record live data and physics groups (such as mine) sitting in front of white boards and struggling to detangle multi-variable equations made up of nothing but Greek letters. Working with PhD students in the middle of their research was an amazingly humbling experience, and I was able to see a side of science that I otherwise likely wouldn’t be able to see for some time.
The brilliant thing was how they treated us as equals when it came to science - sure, we definitely didn’t understand the maths they were throwing around or the quantum physics they were “explaining”, but they always took the time and effort to help us through problems and allow us to learn completely organically by working with them, rather than for them. Whilst they were our mentors, I definitely felt that they saw us as temporary members of their team, from our morning coffees in the garden to having free reign of their lab when we needed to test the machine we made - we were given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with incredible minds in fields we are deeply interested in, and nothing was more exciting or generous than that.
We all ended up falling into our own routines, and these became so natural it felt like we’d been on ISSI our whole lives, and yet also like we’d only just arrived. I swam with some others from 6 - 7am, partially because we felt guilty because others were running miles even earlier than that. We’d have breakfast, drink copious amounts of coffee, go to labs, go to lunch, sometimes we’d have lectures in the evening and then social activities, which ranged from sessions in the “arts of science” to excursions into Rehovot with counsellors. In these evenings you realised just how rounded and talented everyone actually was - the piano in the club house meant that every night someone new was playing either a standalone piece or accompanying someone else who’d brought a different instrument.
On weekends we would travel and see the rest of Israel. These weekends punctuated the course with long bus rides and walking tours, new memories and friendships, and new living quarters. We loved them because they provided much-needed breaks from our work, and gave us an opportunity to learn more about the culture and environment of the country we were living in for the month.
To top it all off, we spent a week in the desert, doing short hikes, living in kibbutzim, and at one point, sleeping under the stars by Masada. That night, we had to wake up at 3:30am for the sunrise hike, and we slept on the floor in a humid and hot desert, and yet it was the most fun I think we had on the course. We sat around a campfire (which only made us sweat more) and made S’mores, we complained together and laughed together and then fell asleep together, staring at a sky full of stars, and when the moon disappeared below the horizon, we could see the Milky Way stretch across. We all stayed quiet then, and just sat for a short while in silence, acutely aware of just how lucky we were to be there in that moment.
At the end of the trip, we all presented our work from our lab projects and then performed skits we’d worked on throughout, we signed yearbooks and took photos and cried as we said goodbye to the people who had gone from strangers to best friends in a painfully short amount of time.
Yes, this trip has been full of contradictions, of exhausting late nights and long talks (and walks) and an immense amount of science. I’ve met brilliant people, made close friends and connections I know I’ll have for life, and I’ve come out with a much stronger security in the knowledge that I want science to be a major part of my later life. This trip was one of the most intense and life-altering experiences I have ever had, and if I could go back and do it all again, I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Published: October 04, 2018
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