Category Archives: Study Abroad

Volunteering Abroad: A Change of Plan in Cartago, Costa Rica

Michigan Tech mechanical engineering student Alexandra Tateosian volunteers in Cartano, Costa Rica through for the non-profit organization UBELONG.
Michigan Tech mechanical engineering student Alexandra Tateosian volunteers in Cartago, Costa Rica through UBELONG, an international non-profit organization.

As a mechanical engineering senior at Michigan Tech, Alexandra Tateosian left campus for Cartago, Costa Rica thinking she would be assisting with the construction planning of a center for disadvantaged youth as a volunteer for the non-profit organization UBELONG. 

Tateosian wanted to spend time abroad before beginning a full-time job at 3M. After tutoring many international friends in English while studying in Australia, she began considering living abroad to teach English or for other volunteering opportunities. Her experiences as an intern for two international companies, Bemis Company and 3M, also sparked her interest in working abroad at a future point in her career.

The day she arrived in Cartago she learned that instead she would be working at a care center for the elderly. “The drastic change in projects was a good lesson in the nature of volunteerism as well as the importance of flexibility and adapting to local needs,” says Tateosian.

“I was able to make the most out of the new experience and learned a lot by approaching it with an open mind.”

While the center is very familiar with having volunteers come to assist staff, Tateosian was the first international volunteer to come with the objective of working on a specific project. “The first step was to identify areas of need,” she says. “We decided to focus on the Taller de Carpinteria (the woodshop).” One portion of her volunteer work she helped assess safety recommendations for the tools and equipment. She also designed woodworking projects to get more of the seniors involved, including building and painting puzzles that are used in other areas of the center as mind exercises.

“One goal was for me to train some of the seniors to be leaders for future projects after I left.” Tateosian worked closely with the staff to coordinate all the details. “It was certainly an amplified lesson in the importance of communication due to the language barriers,” she says.

“Exposing myself to different places and cultures became an important part of my life. I learned about human nature and how people interact similarly and differently and reasons for the differences,” adds Tateosian.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago, Costa Rica
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago, Costa Rica

Cartago is about a one-hour bus ride from San José, the capital city of Costa Rica, with many restaurants, museums, and other sites. Tateosian climbed to the top of Volcán Poás. She ate dinner each night with her host family and took a rock climbing and mountain biking trip nearby. On a visit to nearby Nicaragua to explore Ometepe Island she happened to meet a fellow Tech student in the Peace Corps Master’s International Program.

Her most memorable experience while living, working and studying abroad? “At the care center we ran an activity with the seniors where they reflected on what amor (love) meant to them. Afterwards, an elderly woman approached me and said ‘este es amor’ (this is love) and gave me a big hug.”

Alexandra Tateosian earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Tech in 2014. She is now an Advanced Project Engineer at 3M.

Analyzing the Behavior of Light in New Zealand

Mitch Kirby at Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand
Mitch Kirby at Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand

The natural beauty and easy access to both snowboarding and surfing first attracted Mitch Kirby to New Zealand—that, and the legendary fly fishing. Kirkby was a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering at Michigan Technological University when he received a Whitaker International Student Fellowship at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

“One of my professors at Michigan Tech, Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick, told me about the Biophotonics and Biomedical Imaging Research Group at the University of Otago. As I learned more about New Zealand, everything sort of seemed to line up.”

Kirby worked with a group focused on light/tissue interaction. “As light propagates through biological tissue, the light waves exhibit different behavior based on the internal characteristics of the tissue,” Kirby explains. “Ultimately the goal of the project was to gather enough experimental data on the different light-tissue interactions so that down the road it would be possible to use a light-emitting device to make medical diagnostic decisions non-invasively. While the project was in the early stages, most of my time in the lab was spent lining up the different lenses and filters for the experiments with elliptically-polarized light. Later we began writing code on MATLAB and analyzing the behavior of the light.”

Kirby’s everyday life in Dunedin involved getting up very early, completing schoolwork and attending classes. After spending a few hours in the lab, he would finish up for the day around 3 pm. If the waves were good, he would surf. If not, he would explore the countryside. During the weekends, he traveled with a small group of friends to different locations throughout New Zealand. Trips usually involved snowboarding, backpacking, and just general adventuring.

Mitch Kirby crosses the Copeland Valley in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand
Mitch Kirby crosses the Copeland Valley in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand

“Spending time overseas definitely opened my eyes to the ability of a college education to take you places,” says Kirby. “Traveling and living abroad while studying and working in the lab showed me that it is possible to mix work and play so that each day is an enjoyable one,” he adds. “I also enjoyed the excitement of working on a research project that could potentially change the way many medical diagnoses are made. There is a great deal of potential in the continued advancement of biomedical optics. My ultimate goal is to develop new technologies through academic research.”

Working with people in the lab from different backgrounds was a high point for Kirby as well. “Everyone had something unique to bring to the table, particularly because we all came from different countries and cultures.”

Michigan Tech biomedical engineering student Mitch Kirby surfs in New Zealand. "Traveling and living abroad while studying and working in the lab showed me that it is possible to mix work and play so that each day is an enjoyable one.”
Michigan Tech biomedical engineering student Mitch Kirby surfs in New Zealand. “Traveling and living abroad while studying and working in the lab showed me that it is possible to mix work and play so that each day is an enjoyable one.”

Once back in Michigan Tech, Kirby returned to the optics lab at Michigan Tech to investigate Optical Coherence Tomography as an undergraduate researcher.

Mitch Kirby earned a BS in Biomedical Engineering from Michigan Tech in 2016. The same year he received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and is now a doctoral student in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.