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Pushing boundaries: Six Austin Peay students broaden their horizons through NSF program

By: Brian Dunn August 8, 2023

Austin Peay professors and students gathered at the end of the trip.

From the historic city of Rennes, France, to ancient castles of Europe, Austin Peay State University (APSU) students have been charting new territories in scientific research and cultural discovery. Six dedicated APSU students have returned from a transformative summer participating in an international research project called the International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program.

The program, funded by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), offers students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) the chance to engage in pioneering, cross-disciplinary research in international settings. Involved universities span the Czech Republic, France and Poland. The recent trip marked the program’s second year, following a successful debut last summer involving five students.

Participating students garnered hands-on research experience in cutting-edge fields, even as they navigated cultural differences and linguistic challenges. For many, the experience has broadened horizons and solidified future career paths.

Austin Peay students mingle with students from other universities.

Challenged from comfort zones

Among them, Jordan Spencer, an agriculture student specializing in veterinary technology, shared her unexpected journey into Poland’s antibacterial glass research realm. Stepping out of her comfort zone, the 27-year-old student powered through chemistry and physics to contribute significantly to the field.

“The challenges I faced in Europe pushed me,” Spencer said.

She returned to Tennessee with greater confidence, an audacious spirit to tackle academic challenges and a resolve to declare a second major in pre-veterinary medicine.

Meanwhile, in Rennes, sophomore Yuriy Holovchak delved deeper into quantum information science and materials development. The Barry Goldwater Scholarship winner experienced French culture firsthand and deepened his understanding of how particles absorb energy by using an instrument at the University of Rennes I.

Each student’s story illustrates unique personal growth, academic exploration, and global perspective-gaining.

Meleah Lanier’s journey focused on chalcogenide glasses. These iron-based glasses have potential uses in superconductors. At the same time, Bailey Shedden spent her time in a lab at the University of Pardubice in the Czech Republic, working on creating thin films from glass.

Yuriy Holovchak, left, and Meleah Lanier in Paris.

Lessons from abroad

These experiences gave the students and the APSU scientific community a broad perspective.

APSU physics professors Dr. Roman Holovchak and Dr. Andriy Kovalskiy, who led the students to these international laboratories, observed higher levels of confidence and independence in the students on this year’s trip.

This international collaboration doesn’t end once students return home. Lessons from abroad reinforce a global perspective in daily coursework, the students said.

However, the benefits extend beyond academic growth. Immersed in unfamiliar cultures, the students also gleaned significant personal insights.

“It changes their perception of the world,” Kovalskiy said. “They become much more confident.”

Austin Peay students Jordan Spencer, Ariana Lovings and Bailey Shedden mingle with other students.

‘Nobody gets to do this’

One standout moment came when Spencer and fellow student Ariana Lovings found themselves emotionally overwhelmed during a visit to Disney World in Paris, a poignant realization of their extraordinary journey.

“We traveled so much — we just kind of cried because it was one of those moments of ‘Wow. We are in Europe. We’ve traveled all over Europe. Nobody gets to do this,’” Spencer said.

For Holovchak, the excitement of climbing the Eiffel Tower and the experience of an unexpected 2-kilometer walk due to protest reflected the unexpected challenges and rewards of studying abroad. Moreover, Lanier’s struggles with impostor syndrome and the subsequent realization of their capabilities underscored the transformative potential of the IRES program.

Yuriy Holovchak in the lab in Rennes, France.

More to come

In the coming weeks, Austin Peay will release more stories about all six students who traveled to Europe:

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