Learning Abroad, Becoming Intrepid

Christina Elder, Neuroscience Major

Christina Elder, Neuroscience Major

Before studying abroad, Christina Elder ’18 says she followed a predictable path through life. Then “predictable” malfunctioned.

When Christina arrived at the University of Otago in New Zealand to study neuroscience, the school would not accept her pre-requisites after all. Christina had traveled far to focus on her academics, but she also wanted to experience independence. The setback became her chance to strike out on her own.

Christina decided she would learn as much as she could about her host country by taking courses at the university in New Zealand history and Māori culture, even its dance and music and some Te Reo, the Māori language. With this glimmer of cultural understanding, she visited museums all over the bustling city of Dunedin. She saw not only art and artifacts but the stories they tell come alive her mind.

“We don’t learn about New Zealand history in the U.S.," Christina said. “We know The Lord of the Rings was filmed there, but the true history of New Zealand made me look at everything differently.” She gained an understanding of New Zealand — or Aotearoa in Te Reo — and its long road to becoming a nation that prides itself on the promotion of human rights and racial equality. When New Zealanders sing their national anthem, they do so in both the English and Māori languages.

When she returned to Mount Holyoke for her Spring semester, she got herself accepted to an internship back in New Zealand at Victoria University of Wellington to study addiction science over the upcoming Summer.

It was her first time working in a lab. New Zealand labs are rumored to be a less stressful workplace than U.S. labs, and Christina agrees that in many ways they are. “New Zealanders believe life is for living,” she said, “For them, it’s about balancing a good day’s work with time for family and friends plus all the recreation and beauty their country has to offer.”

But for Christina, the pressure was full on.  She was on the team researching the effects of methamphetamine on behavioral flexibility in rats. Her supervisor, although welcoming, kept driving home the message that Christina was responsible for making sure that animals’ lives are put to good use. “Don’t make a mistake, don’t mess up,” her supervisor drilled.

Rats bite and scream when mishandled, Christina learned. “You have to scoop them up like a baby and scratch their heads to settle them.” Giving them injections is an essential skill, but she fumbled. Her colleagues cheered her on—a kind of one-two punch of pressure and support. Many nights Christina left the lab distraught over her failure. But she came back each day, seven days a week, a clue she loved the work even if she couldn’t yet “shoot straight”.

She figured out that when she held a rat and dipped it back slightly, keeping its feet supported on her chest, she could quickly insert a needle, and then pull the rat back up into cuddling position.

Christina mastered the skill; many skills in the end and her supervisor invited her back to the lab for her Master’s and Ph.D.

“My study abroad experience helped me succeed in my internship,” said Christina. “I found I could push through barriers. Now I know I can push through anything, and it’s a great feeling.”