By Brooke Coupal
Mélia Pillet was excited to gain hands-on experience when she visited UMass Lowell this summer.
Now, she is conducting her own experiment on microscopic worms in Biological Sciences Asst. Prof. Teresa Lee’s lab.
Pillet is one of four University of Versailles students participating in a 10-week internship at UML that’s part of a new exchange program run by the Kennedy College of Sciences. KCS Coordinator of Undergraduate Programs Foozieh Mirderikvand says this program is a way for the college to enhance its global engagement while giving students from other universities the chance to learn from UML’s faculty.
“Coming to UMass Lowell is a great opportunity for these students,” she says. “They’re getting one-on-one interaction with a faculty member and with other students and researchers in the labs. They will learn tons from this experience.”
Pillet and her University of Versailles classmates Athena Collange, Maelisse Trancart and Linda Meritus arrived on campus in late May to begin their summer studies in the labs of Lee, Department of Chemistry Prof. Olof Ramstrom, Asst. Prof. Michael Ross and Asst. Prof. Pengyuan Liu, respectively. The students, who will be entering their third year of college in the fall, are each focusing on different research projects.
Meritus is assisting Liu with his research on polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are long-lasting chemicals linked to possible environmental and health hazards. They are working to characterize and quantify levels of PFAS in different commercial products that are used by fire departments and found in hardware stores, as well as looking at how PFAS compounds change with varying temperatures.
For this project, Meritus is using a mass spectrometer, a scientific device that identifies the chemical constitution of a substance, to analyze PFAS. She had learned about the device while taking classes in France, but she did not gain hands-on experience with a mass spectrometer until she came to UMass Lowell.
“Now I understand what the point of this machine is and why we use it,” she says.
Liu volunteered his time to work with Meritus for the summer, knowing the value she would get from this experience.
“I love to get undergraduate students opportunities to learn this type of advanced instrument, because students usually talk about the instrument in class, but usually it's not reachable for most undergraduates. They just learn the principles of the instrument, but they probably don’t have the chance to use it,” he says. “But this type of instrument is widely used in most pharmaceutical companies, and there’s a huge need for researchers with the skills to operate mass spectrometers, so I would like to give more students more opportunities to have the chance to learn the instrument.”
Trancart and Collange are also conducting chemistry-focused research and learning new techniques while working in the labs of Ross and Ramstrom. Trancart is focusing her time on gold and tin nanoparticles; she is designing experiments to see how the nanoparticles change under different temperatures and light conditions. Meanwhile, Collange is gaining new skills in organic synthesis and microbiology through her experiments.
Pillet is studying the lifespan of microscopic worms known as Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans for short, in Lee’s lab. She is comparing the lifespans of wild-type C. elegans to mutant C. elegans.
“Because C. elegans are relatively easy for people to learn to work with, four weeks into her internship she was able to come in unsupervised and do her work,” says Lee. “That’s the kind of training students need to be successful in a research-based environment, whether that’s at a university or at a company.”
Immersed in a New Culture
KCS Dean Noureddine Melikechi invited the students to the UML campus knowing the important experiences they would gain both in and out of the labs.
“I thought it would be good for the students to get the opportunity to see another culture, another language, another way of living,” says Melikechi, who is from Algeria. “The students who come to UMass Lowell get to see a different system of doing things. They get to meet students who live in the United States and get to know them.”
Taking part in the internship at UMass Lowell marked Pillet, Trancart and Collange’s first time in the United States. Meritus was born in Boston, where she has family, but she was raised in France.
The University of Versailles students moved into an apartment in the River Hawk Village on East Campus that the KCS dean’s office furnished to make them feel at home. They have most of their meals in the Fox Dining Commons, but have also ventured into downtown Lowell to try out the diverse cuisine that the city offers.
“Lowell is a pretty city,” Pillet says. “The downtown is very cool, and I’m very happy to be here.”
The students have been able to hone their English language skills by working in the labs and traveling to places like Boston, Rhode Island and New York City.
“Since last year, I wanted to do an internship abroad because I thought that it would allow me to improve my English,” Trancart says.
Professors, researchers and other students in the lab help teach the University of Versailles students some English words and phrases as they work on their research projects.
In exchange, the University of Versailles students teach them French. Pillet takes to the whiteboard in Lee’s lab to share different French words with the others, while Trancart teaches students in Ross’ lab a French word a day. Cologne helps Ph.D. student Hasitha Raviranga, a biochemistry major from Sri Lanka, understand the French on her laptop while they work together in Ramstrom’s lab.
“I’m learning some French, and she’s learning some chemistry,” Raviranga says.
Raviranga is one of the many international students enrolled at UML that Cologne and the other University of Versailles students have gotten to know. Meritus says she enjoys the diversity at UMass Lowell and learning about the home countries of students and professors.
“There’s a lot of culture on this campus,” she says. “To be able to talk with people from all around the world is great.”
These summer internships are just the start of a growing exchange program in KCS. Melikechi’s goals are to work with other universities to get more students to UMass Lowell while also sending UML students abroad. He also wants to create a faculty exchange program.
“Science is a global community,” he says. “It’s not one country versus another. It’s a global community of scientists trying to solve problems.”