Christopher Zieber

Major: Environmental Science

Hometown: Asheville, NC

Study Abroad Program: National University of Singapore Science Summer Lab Exchange

Some experiences that stay with you forever. My 10 weeks in Singapore as a Phillips Ambassador is one of them. Everything about my Asian adventure, from the beautiful sights to the amazing people I met and worked with, was extraordinary. I competed in my first triathlon, worked at a world-class research university, and tasted durian for the first time. These sights, sounds, smells, and tastes will always stay with me as the beginning of my long relationship with Southeast Asia.

When I began searching for somewhere to study abroad, I wanted to go somewhere exotic, unique, and culturally diverse. Singapore is all of those things and more, in ways I could not even begin to imagine before arriving. The growing metropolis is a mix of almost five million energetic Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Eurasians. These diverse cultures each have different religions, traditions, foods, and dances. While there are distinct areas of dominance, such as Chinatown or Little India, the people have mixed so much over many generations that tens of sub-cultures now exist in Singapore. This diversity makes up part of the unique haven that is Singapore.

My trip to Singapore began with a whirlwind of activity. I finished my final exam for spring semester at UNC on a Thursday morning and moved out of my dorm room.  The next day I began my two-day journey to the other side of the world. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I arrived at Changi airport, not knowing a single person in all of Singapore.  The following day was my first day of work, and it began with an epic quest to find the Applied Plant Ecology lab, colloquially the ‘APE’ lab, in the Singaporean heat and humidity. Eventually I encountered Ted, my lab director and mentor. A few hours later, I had been acquainted with the basic techniques of DNA extraction and the friends who I would spend many long hours with for the next few months.  

The lab work was tedious and challenging—hours of concentration, stirring, transferring, and tens of other steps to get one small Polaroid picture.  Yet, when all was done correctly, that picture showed small pieces of DNA, the beautiful build blocks of all known life.  I also discovered why it seems all research projects are over-budget and late:  random, unexpected difficulties seemed to pop up every other day in the lab.  As the final deadline approached, I found myself spending every waking moment in the lab, trying desperately to finish my short research project. Eventually, I completed my research, which laid the foundation for current work in the lab.

While the lab work was interesting, the moments I remember most occurred elsewhere. For instance, imagine my surprise when, not once but three times, I was approached by current or former UNC students because of my Carolina-blue baseball cap. I also joined the NUS ultimate Frisbee team for the summer. While I had very limited experience playing, the group gladly took me in and taught me how to play. They also showed me the in’s and out’s of Singaporean nightlife. By the end of the summer, I was best friends with several of them and we still keep in touch.  The entire trip was punctuated with stories like these two; where an outgoing and adventurous sprit brought many good memories. 

While I learned many things about culture and science in Singapore, the lesson I took most to heart was about friendship. The kindness shown to me by everyone I encountered made me reconsider how I interact with my own friends back home. In the end, it was this, not complex DNA techniques, that had the most lasting impact on me. When I eventually return to Singapore, I know I will be traveling not to a strange place but to my second home, filled with old friends and faces.  My Asian family, as I like to call them, will always be important to me and I can’t wait see them again soon!