At home and abroad with MISTI 2020

“My hopes that the internship would be possible were dashed,” rising sophomore Nieky Wang reflects about the impact Covid-19 had on her plans to take part in MIT-India this summer. “I wasn’t sure if I would be personally comfortable with traveling abroad during a pandemic, even if it was allowed by MIT.” Wang is one of many MIT students for whom summer means an MIT International Science and Technology (MISTI) opportunity, with over half of the 1,200 annual student placements taking place during that period. But when Covid-19 shut down travel worldwide, many students’ aspirations for an international experience had to be put on hold indefinitely.

In a non-quarantine world, MISTI is one of MIT’s primary connections to the international community, with programs creating internship, teaching, research, and coursework opportunities in countries all over the globe. Students translate their classroom knowledge into real-world applications, all while gaining valuable cultural insight. “Our goal is for students to have a transformative experience that enriches them academically, professionally, and personally,” says April Julich Perez, MISTI’s executive director.

With over half of graduating seniors participating in an international opportunity at some point during their MIT career, it was clear that keeping MISTI operating was critical. So MISTI did what it always has done in its nearly 40-year history — leveraged the staff’s flexibility, international connections, and entrepreneurial spirit to develop innovative programming to help students adapt to changing global circumstances. “We put our heads together, and MISTI 2020 was born,” says Julich Perez.

First, MISTI staff brainstormed with their international partners to reshape programming options, translating internship opportunities into a virtual format whenever possible. “The MISTI-India staff has done so much to make my experience as un-stressful as it could be. They were the ones to reach out to my host and arranged the logistics of a virtualized experience,” says Wang, who is now digitally interning at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune, India. “My goal for MISTI was always to explore a potential field of interest, learn about working in a new environment, and explore a new culture, and I am still able to achieve these goals. I’m still learning a lot about computational biology and how to work effectively in a virtualized environment where, because of the time difference, almost everything is done asynchronously. And from just interacting with my mentors, I am learning a lot about the differences and similarities between our cultures and the lab environments and workflow we are used to.”

“IISER Pune have been great partners, working with us to convert some of our existing internships into remote opportunities,” says Nureen Das, program manager for MIT-India. “As they are a campus community, too, navigating how best to support their own faculty, students, and staff during this pandemic, we are greatly appreciative of their efforts to accommodate our program and continue to collaborate with us.”

The foundation of MISTI programs is intense cross-cultural preparation, and, generally, students are sent to countries previously unfamiliar to them. However, in response to the pandemic, program managers used their networks to help set up internships for international students to work close to home. MIT-Spain Managing Director Alicia Goldstein Raun was able to work with her partners at Veridas in Pamplona to place rising sophomore Maria Ascanio Aliño, who was sent back to her home country due to coronavirus. “I received an email from both MISTI and the International Students Office that said I could work with MIT-Spain to find an opportunity for the summer,” says Aliño. “Throughout the uncertainty, Alicia was there to support me through the complicated process, and I was able to find a last-minute opportunity. Her previous experience with Spanish companies made the process a lot easier.”

This commitment to new student opportunities also led to the development of MIT-US, a pilot program aimed at matching MIT students with internships in the United States, where MIT students do not traditionally work. While still in the early stages, MIT-US has generated significant interest from students who have returned home to locations where working for a company is still possible, as well as students who are interested in taking part in the program virtually.

This quick pivot from MISTI’s customary internship model has been very successful. As of mid-June, well over 100 students were participating in adapted internships with MISTI, and more are still being placed.

MIT’s updated travel policy also disrupted MISTI Global Seed Funds (GSF) faculty projects. A well-known program that has awarded over $22 million since its inception in 2008, GSF provides funding for travel and meetings, which enable participating teams to collaborate with international peers. These projects often include opportunities for students to work abroad, but as Covid crept through the world, plans began to grind to a halt.

“We had planned to meet in person in both Rehovot [Israel] and Cambridge [Massachusetts]. Obviously, this is no longer possible,” says GSF awardee Max Price, regarding his collaboration with Professor Christine Ortiz and scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science. “We have therefore reimagined the workflow of our collaboration around web-based communication and bringing on additional partners and students to initiate the pilot study in Israel.”

To support faculty as they reconfigure their project plans, MISTI is helping repurpose a portion of the GSF funds for student salaries to help with research progress. The goal is to keep the projects moving while also providing additional opportunities for students. “Being able to support students and their research — especially this summer, when so many of the other funding sources are overtaxed — is a crucial part of the MIT faculty’s mission to provide opportunities for students to develop research skills and expertise,” says Price.

On top of restructuring their internship and GSF programs, MISTI staff are also hard at work coming up with additional activities for summer to help students and the MIT community learn and engage. New international book and movie clubs are starting up, while mini cultural sessions help students stay connected to their MISTI programs. Program managers have also partnered with the Language Conversation Exchange, a program where MIT community members can get together and practice language learning with native speakers. Students can even up their international IQ with a weekly trivia challenge and program videos that teach cultural terms and factoids.

Electrical engineering and computer science PhD candidate Taylor Baum is optimistic about the new programs. “I’ve been sad because I just got back from Uruguay in January, and I have been craving furthering my connection to Latin America since Covid-19 started!” Baum was a member of the inaugural Global Startup Labs (GSL) team in Montevideo, teaching local students how to build prototypes, create business models, and pitch presentations.

Now that MISTI 2020 is officially underway, MISTI programs have turned attention to international responses to the health crisis and how the MIT community can help. Numerous global hackathons have brought together hundreds of student participants from around the world to solve critical problems surrounding the novel coronavirus. A series of webinars has examined the topic through different cultural lenses.

The MISTI Radio Podcast also addressed the pandemic, giving international perspectives on how Covid-19 affects things from communications to climate change. The podcast is a newly launched platform for students, staff, and faculty to reflect on their experiences abroad and how they relate to issues of identity, culture, and broader global challenges.

As MIT’s plans for the next academic year begin to shape up, MISTI staff are now planning activities that will best support students in an environment that will most likely differ from the norm. “Covid-19 has demonstrated that international collaboration is essential to tackling challenges that span countries and cultures. Our aim in the coming year is to continue to equip students with the skills and awareness they will need to confront such challenges in the future.”