Calgary Herald: Super students from around the world work at U of C this summer

Since arriving in Calgary in June, Chinese university student Hao Wang has immersed himself in Canadian culture while helping research new ways for the visually impaired to navigate the world around them.

Wang, from Chonqing, was one of 41 international undergraduate students chosen to spend their summer at the University of Calgary as part of the Mitacs Globalink program. Across Canada, 473 students from partner countries including China, Brazil, Vietnam, India, Mexico and Turkey were chosen from thousands of candidates vying for a chance to experience how academic research is done here.

“This program was launched to accomplish two things,” says Mitacs interim CEO Rob Annan. “The first was to try to attract top-notch international students to Canada to gain research experience, and hopefully get them to come back to do their PhD or masters and stay on as skilled immigrants. The second was to raise the profile of Canadian universities like the U of C, internationally.”

Annan says the program grew virtually through word of mouth alone, from a couple dozen students involved in the first exchange in 2009 to 473 this year.

Wang says he learned about Globalink through a friend who took part.

“My major is electronics engineering,” he says. “I (looked) for something that was similar to my major.”

Dr. Dan Jacobson, associate professor of geography at U of C, is researching ways the visually impaired can access tools such as maps and charts using computer interfaces. Wang’s computer-programming and engineering skills were a boon, he says.

“It’s nice to have someone from another culture with another perspective bringing in outside ideas and new ways of looking at information,” Jacobson says. “A lot of relationships form at the personal and academic level.”

Wang hasn’t spent all his time in Jacobson’s lab. He’s taken part in a number of cultural events (including, of course, Stampede), has visited Banff, and has also toured local industries.

“I’ve enjoyed my life here, and I think Calgary and Canada are excellent,” says Wang. “The people are very well-educated and everything is quite clean and I love it here.”

This was Jacobson’s first Globalink experience, and he says he has three research applications in for next time, adding he’s also hoping to work on “potentially recruiting students in a more proactive way from countries Mitacs works with through academic networks.” He also hopes to keep in touch with Wang after the student returns to China in September to finish his undergraduate degree — both in terms of continuing their research collaboration and on a personal level.

A reunion might not be that far off. Wang says he plans to take his master’s degree in either Canada or the U.S.

“I think the biggest benefit for me is the experience,” Wang says. “It was very pleasurable to have the experience to do research abroad. And this is a chance for me to get to know Canada better.

“I haven’t decided what university to go to, but I know I love it here.”

According to a Mitacs news release, international students generate an estimated $7.7 billion in Canadian economic activity each year, and Annan says Mitacs aims to grow its list of Globalink partner countries.

This year, Mitacs also sent its first Canadian students abroad. A student from McGill, for example, travelled to China to study cookstove air pollution; an undergrad from UBC did animal-welfare research in Brazil.

“We think we’re just scratching the surface,” Annan says of Globalink’s potential. “We had roughly 4,000 student applications (to come to Canada) with 473 chosen . . . and received 1,700 applications from professors in Canada to host these students. They see real value in working with these students and we think there’s a lot of room for growth.”

“When it comes to research, national borders are less important.”

For more information on the program, visit Mitacs also has on-campus representatives at the U of C and other Canadian universities, Annan says.


By: Alex Frazer-Harrison