Broadening horizons through exchanges

Tuesday 21 November 2023

St Catharine’s funds a number of exchange programmes directly with partner institutions to broaden the learning opportunities offered to the College’s undergraduates and postgraduates. These opportunities are on top of the programmes established by the University of Cambridge and the year abroad included in the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos.

In early 2024, the College plans to invite applications for three exchanges:

  • California Institute of Technology (Caltech) – summer exchange programme
  • Heidelberg University – summer exchange programme
  • Heidelberg University – an exchange for a full academic year

Dr Holly Canuto (2020), Senior Tutor at St Catharine’s, commented:

 “St Catharine’s has a track record of successful exchanges with institutions around the world and I look forward to receiving applications for the next round of exchanges from our students. We are also fortunate to be able to provide some financial support if needed so our students can make the most of these opportunities, thanks to the generosity of our donors and partner institutions.”

To help guide students considering applying in 2024, we caught up with the students who benefited from the programmes offered in 2022–23. 

Caltech | Pasadena, USA

Anthony Phung and Tze King Lam, both now third-year Natural Sciences undergraduates, were selected by St Catharine’s to participate in the 2023 summer exchange programme offered by Caltech. The exchange is supported financially by Caltech and the College’s Anthony Haller Fund, which contributes up to £1,000 per student towards travel and accommodation. 

Anthony Phung and Tze King Lam at the Griffiths Observatory
Anthony and King at the Griffiths Observatory

King said, “Only a few Cambridge Colleges offer direct exchange programmes and it is fantastic that Catz has this connection with Caltech, one of the leading technical research centres in the world. I applied to the programme because I wanted to find out more about the opportunities open to me after my undergraduate studies and whether PhD and postdoc life at Caltech would be a good fit for me.”

Meanwhile, Anthony has previously been involved with an award-winning, student-led science project and wanted to build on this experience, as he explains:

“Caltech has a fantastic reputation for synthetic biological engineering and my earlier science project was directly relevant to the bioengineering advances being made by Caltech scientists. I hoped the exchange would develop my skills in this field and give me a taste of a postgraduate research environment.”

Immediately after their end-of-year examinations in Cambridge in June 2023, King and Anthony travelled to California and each were assigned to one of the Institute’s research groups for the duration of the 10-week programme.

King said, “This exchange was a great opportunity to work with world-renowned scientists. I was based in the Cushing lab where they are pioneering on-chip entangled photon spectroscopy, 

with the ultimate goal of translating advanced sensing applications into portable and even wearable devices. I ran computer simulations to characterize the design of various optical components on an integrated nano-photonic platform, laying the foundation before lab experiments are conducted. The tranquillity of the Caltech campus, amidst the picturesque backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains provided the perfect environment for me to reflect on what I was learning from these simulations during my walks to and from the lab. 

“An unexpected benefit was the time we spent with some of the several hundred undergraduates enrolled on the Caltech summer programme, a great majority hailing from other US institutions and different parts of the world. We were able to pick up valuable insights about other universities from conversations over the summer, which will help us when making decisions about our future careers.”

Tze King Lam presenting at Caltech
King presenting his research at Caltech
Tze King Lam with Professor Scott Cushing
King with Professor Scott Cushing

Anthony, “I really enjoyed my time with Professor Mikhail Shapiro’s lab, where they are developing the first genetically encoded and engineered imaging agents for ultrasound based on gas vesicles. Gas vesicles are hollow structures made of protein which vibrate and emit ultrasound. This unique phenomenon opens the door to designing new biogenic contrast agents, which could make ultrasound for deep tissue/cancer imaging less expensive and more efficient for labs around the world. 

“Beyond their day-to-day academic support, the team of scientists in the Shapiro lab were very welcoming, offered me advice on postgraduate opportunities and even took me on road trips in their cars to show me the area (although Caltech does subsidise travel on local buses and trains for getting around Pasadena). I’d definitely encourage other Catz undergraduates to apply, especially if they have already completed an internship in a lab over the summer between their first and second years – Caltech is looking for previous relevant experience and evidence that you are going to be highly motivated.” 

Heidelberg University | Heidelberg, Germany

Two St Catharine’s students successfully applied for the summer exchange programme: William Lan, a Medical Sciences MPhil student specialising in Psychiatry, and Anna Grayson, a second-year Music undergraduate. Thanks to support from Heidelberg, the summer exchange includes accommodation and tuition costs so St Catharine’s students only need to budget for travel and day-to-day expenses.

William applied primarily to support his language skills and academic interests:

“I loved starting to learn German during my first year at Catz through the University of Cambridge’s Language Centre and got really interested in learning about German culture. I thought spending a month in Heidelberg would be an amazing way to experience life in Germany and improve my proficiency with German. I’m also interested in how to make mental health services more accessible for children and adolescents. I have already specialised as a registered behavioural technician and suicide prevention counsellor in the US, and I currently volunteer with the Mental Health Foundation and Childline in the UK. 

“Through these experiences, I have worked with German children as well as colleagues, and learned more about the efficient community mental healthcare system in Germany. I was intrigued by whether there were lessons we could learn from Germany that could benefit other countries, such as the UK or the US. My experience in Heidelberg gave me the chance to learn how to best advance efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and safety in psychiatric research as an MPhil student, in mental health advocacy as a Mental Health Foundation Young leader, and in providing inclusive mental healthcare as an aspiring psychiatrist.”

Heidelberg (credit: William Lan)
William Lan with other exchange students in Heidelberg
William with other exchange students in Heidelberg

Anna added, “I studied German all the way through school but didn’t have a qualification more advanced than a GCSE, so I knew a lot but didn’t feel very fluent. A month of immersion in Heidelberg – a city that I’d loved when I visited on a school trip – and the opportunity to come away with a qualification was ideal. I’m also weighing up whether living and performing in Germany is a realistic option for me after graduation because of the vibrant music scene there.”

The exchange ran from 1 August until 31 August 2023 and the schedule was identical for William and Anna: language classes in the morning (with beginner, intermediate and advanced classes running in parallel), followed by optional seminars and workshops in the afternoon. At the weekend, students had free time to explore Germany and, for an additional charge, the programme offered excursions to sites such as the Black Forest or the city of Trier. 

Anna explained, “It was a great learning environment for me, with grammar-based classes followed by extra-curricular activities surrounded by people who were fluent German speakers. I passed my B1+ language exam at the end of the course and I’m intending to continue with German this year in the hope of getting an even higher qualification. I’d encourage anyone at Catz to apply as there’s a really friendly atmosphere and students from all over the world participate in the summer programme – in fact, I felt I learnt just as much about cultures from around the world as I did about Germany!”

William said, “This exchange programme encourages you to get out of your comfort zone, try new things and immerse yourself in the German language and culture. I had so much fun and networking with psychiatrists in Heidelberg prepared me to pursue mental health research and clinical opportunities across Europe with the goal of enhancing mental healthcare for all adolescents. It can be intimidating being among a large group of new people so it was great that Catz is often able to send more than one student. Anna and I met up for lunch once a week to discuss our experiences and I appreciated having a friendly face in the same city.”

Anna Grayson in Loriot's 'Kosakenzipfel'
Anna in Loriot's 'Kosakenzipfel'
Alte Aula free concerts in Heidelberg
Alte Aula free concerts in Heidelberg (credit: Anna Grayson)

Doshisha University | Kyoto, Japan

Georgi Kocharyan, a third-year Mathematics undergraduate, was nominated by St Catharine’s to experience student life at Doshisha University, one of the oldest universities in Japan, for a full academic year. 

“I arrived in Japan in early September 2022 and spent two semesters at the Imadegawa campus on the city block adjacent to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Because of ongoing travel restrictions due to COVID-19, I got to explore Kyoto without any international tourists for the first two or three months – a unique experience for a city that used to welcome over 87 million tourists.

“My first semester was spent studying on the language, history and culture of Japan, followed by a second semester focused on maths. It was a bit of a shock returning to my degree subject in a new language but everything clicked after a while. I did have to study both the kanji (written characters) and maths that I would need to use to answer questions in upcoming examinations, which was a lot of extra work.”

Georgi Kocharyan with deer in Nara
Georgi in Nara, near Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto (credit: Georgi Kocharyan)

While this particular exchange will not be open to applicants in 2024, Georgi shares advice that may be useful to students considering a year-long exchange through another programme.

“It was already a requirement stated during the application process but, truthfully, it was essential to know some of the local language before leaving Cambridge. I gained so much by being able to connect with other students in my accommodation and interact with people I met in neighbourhood shops and restaurants. So check out the University of Cambridge Language Centre for courses relevant to the year-long exchange that you’re interested in.

“I’d also encourage other exchange students to make the most of exploring beyond where your programme is based. During the holidays in Japan, I visited other parts of the country and made trips to Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. 

“Finally, remember that you are still a Catz student! You can smooth the way for your return by staying in touch with friends online, rereading your lecture notes and doing background reading. I am excited to be back at Catz now but really appreciated this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”


Find out more about the 2024 exchange opportunities for St Catharine’s students.