Thảo Lâm - Amsterdam University College, Utrecht University Graduate School of Life Sciences

Publication date: 10/04/2014 10:25

My name is Thao Lam, I’m a second-year master student at Utrecht University Graduate School of Life Sciences (GSLS). Currently I am doing my second research internship at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and will be graduating in October 2018.

My journey in the Netherlands started back in 2013. I was fresh out of high school in Singapore without a clear idea of what to study- so I applied to a liberal arts college (University College- UC) in Amsterdam called Amsterdam University College (AUC), just to buy myself more time to decide. As the Netherlands is known for its environmental studies, I ended up as an Environmental Sciences major. Along the way, I also picked up classes in International relations and Environmental Laws. I would strongly recommend international students to apply to UCs because in general you receive very high-quality education in small class settings, personal guidance and most of the time, access to good and affordable student housing. Besides, these colleges have great scholarships for international students, which other research universities usually lack! The degree is highly accredited here in the Netherlands, as well as anywhere in Europe. The student body is very active, international and friendly- which will definitely be a good starting point for a non- English speaking countries like the Netherlands. Having said that- (1) Dutch people speak excellent English- so good that I hardly noticed the differences when I moved to Dublin for an exchange semester during AUC. Isn’t that crazy cool? Also (2) UCs are great for your English. Not so much for your Dutch. I would recommend being proactive and taking Dutch classes as soon as possible if you plan to stay here for the long(er) run. UCs usually have obligatory language requirements- which means you can take Dutch for free- so make full use of that!

After 3 years in Amsterdam, I decided to proceed with a master programme for practical reasons. I applied to four different master programmes: Earth Sciences at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA), Eco-toxicology at Vrije Universiteit (VU), Environmental Sciences at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and Toxicology and Environmental Health at Universiteit Utrecht (UU). In the end, the attractive Utrecht Excellence Scholarship (UES) was the main reason I chose the last programme.  

I entered my first semester at UU having thought I would become a toxicologist. However, through the introductory courses, I realized laboratory work was not going to be my lifelong friend- so I opted for the second option, which is the Environmental Epidemiology (EEPI) track. The EEPI track looks to assessing human health not from molecular perspectives but rather from a population perspective. That means I get to learn to apply statistical models in population health research, possibly the best of both worlds! Better still, statistical modeling, in general, is a highly sought-after skill in many disciplines, thus this master programme does not grant me the access to the healthcare industry but far beyond!

The first day of the Master programme. On the far left is Dr. Mieke Lumens, the best programme coordinator one could ever ask for!

In practice, however, the programme is harder than it seems. What got me struggling the most with this programme is that the number of class hours is smaller than, for example, the Environmental Sciences master at WUR. Whereas at WUR you spend the entire first year attending classes and doing group projects, for us it is a merely 10-week introduction and another 10 weeks of elective courses. The main idea of a research master (at least that of UU GSLS) is that you develop most of the skills while doing research, and not before- which is why the largest proportion of the master’s programme is dedicated to two research projects, one span nine months and the other six months. While you are often free to choose a research project (and along with that one or two supervisors), research works require lots of independence, self-discipline and a good eye for details.

In my first internship, I challenged myself to go off the beaten track and be in charge of my own learning, write my own codes and use completely different programmes for my research. When in doubt, I signed up for courses or reached out to faculty staff or other Ph.D. students for help. You would be surprised how helpful researchers are- given how previous little time they have! To stretch my research skills and network further, I also applied to GSLS’ U/Select honors’ programme that funds overseas internships. With the help of my supervisor, I wrote to a professor at the Harvard Chan School and was delighted to be accepted for my current internship. Currently I am analyzing data from one of the largest cohort studies in the States, and it certainly is a wonderful experience!   

Academic matters aside, I enjoy living in both Amsterdam and Utrecht- for different reasons of course! In Amsterdam, I worked part-time for the first two years, sang in the school choir and even went on exchange to University College Dublin, Ireland. In Utrecht, I organized parties for my fellow master students, participated in representative groups, ran a charity campaign and went to lindy hop classes. Admittedly, there are lots of things that you cannot do as an international student in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the bottom line is, there are so many things you CAN do, too! My final advice would be to stay within the Randstad (for the ease of language and internationality) but do take up internships and exchange opportunities wherever!

With fellow Dutch students in crazy cold Boston!

To close off (and this may sound like a complete cliché but): At the end of the day, it is all about your personal choice. I came to the Netherlands completely clueless- but along the way, with small cues and nudges, I have achieved some degrees of success- not big, but sufficient to keep me going. And as long as you get going, you’ll get somewhere! Good luck! 

cập nhật lần cuối 20/08/2018 13:24