Published: Aug. 27, 2013
Melissa Rabin with REU participants in Botswana

After seeing a flier for a research experience for undergraduates (REU) involving sustainable energy for Sub-Saharan Africa, undergraduate student Melissa Rabin applied and was soon off to the University of Botswana (UB). She shared some of her experiences below.

How was the REU program organized?
The program was created by researchers at Case Western Reserve University and UB. Students participated in solar, biofuel or wind energy research as well as cultural activities. We received a stipend, room and board, and a travel allowance. There were twelve students total, half of whom were from various schools in the US. The US students were partnered with local UB students who were from all over Botswana. It was interesting to hear how different it was to be raised in one part of the country versus another.

What was your research project at UB?
The agave sisalana plant "Sisal" is very hardy. It has been used for hundreds of years to make rope and rugs. The project to which I contributed is investigating methods of chemically strengthening the sisal fibers for use in composite materials. While I was there, I manually extracted the fibers from the plant leaves, chemically treated them, and then examined their tensile strength.

Can you relate a particular adventure?
One of the other REU projects examined how to provide electricity to a rural village.  The whole program drove 5 hours out to the village Tsetseng and we each got to see the school and conduct interviews with the locals. The kids at school were intrigued; we were probably the first white people they had seen, and they had fun playing with my hair. Although the official languages of Botswana are English and Setswana, many villagers only spoke a local dialect. Luckily my REU student partner was from a neighboring village and he knew the language, but it was funny to hear that even the other Botswana students were forced to use elementary words and gestures to communicate. It was extremely eye-opening to see how an entire village lives without refrigeration or lights.  We also got to spend a few days on a safari in South Africa. It was incredible to be so close to the animals.

What struck you as some of the biggest differences between Boulder and Botswana?
Though the research facilities at UB were nice, the machines were outdated. When we hit a road block in the fiber characterization, my research mentor jokingly asked if CU could send them a new X-ray diffraction machine. Another thing that really stood out was the ease of the metric system compared to our English units. Finally, even though it was the beginning of winter while we were there, the days still got up to about 80 degrees.

What was the hardest thing about this REU?
The more than 30-hour travel each way was rough, and it was sometimes difficult to slow down and be comfortable on "Botswana time". But the hardest part was leaving; knowing the difficulty and expense of traveling to the US, I will probably not get to see my UB friends again.

What have you gained from doing an REU abroad, and in particular in Botswana?
My REU was a fantastic way to gain engineering experience and to see how culture affects the scientific process.  I was also amazed to learn how similar people are, despite the differences in our cultures. I would strongly recommend an REU abroad!