By William Sachson
It was the first week of summer and I had just finished my freshman year at Duke Kunshan University. But instead of heading home to Los Angeles for some well-deserved rest and relaxation, I found myself in Beijing’s Xicheng district walking into the Chinese Academy of Sciences to start my dream job as a summer research intern for one of their most senior paleontologists.
As the only undergraduate student on this project, and as one of the few Americans in the whole building, I was understandably nervous – but at the same time I was excited to have the opportunity of working with some of the most accomplished researchers in the world.
Specifically, my job was to take hundreds of scanning electron microscope images of fossils and then examine each one systematically, searching for miniscule patterns on their chaotically pitted exteriors. If I was persistent – and perhaps a bit lucky – I’d find some fossilized evidence to support the ongoing work of the academy. Either way, I knew the internship would be an amazing experience, and only Duke Kunshan could have brought me here.
The path to Duke Kunshan
I’ve always gravitated toward the natural sciences. In high school, I worked for two summers in a university paleobiology lab, so I’ve known for a while that I wanted to continue with hands-on research in college and have a career related to the Earth or environmental sciences. I also have enjoyed studying Mandarin for many years, and I wanted an immersive language experience as part of my college journey.
So it was a truly serendipitous event when Duke University announced that it was going to establish an undergraduate degree program that combined three years of study at Duke Kunshan in China with a semester at Duke’s campus in Durham, North Carolina. And even better, the program would grant me two distinct bachelor’s degrees – one from Duke Kunshan (accredited by the Chinese Ministry of Education) and another from Duke University (accredited by the U.S. Department of Education).
The Duke Kunshan academic experience
It wasn’t just the appeal of dual degrees that drew me to Duke Kunshan. A more important factor was DKU’s strong program in environmental sciences. I’m among the next generation of scientists who will be tasked with addressing the ecological and environmental challenges facing our planet, and having a global perspective (East and West) will be vital.
Further, in order to formulate an effective response to the multiple crises we face with the Earth’s climate and biodiversity, it’s often useful to study both the past and present states of life. For me, that means working and studying in the fields of paleobiology, geology and environmental science, which fits perfectly with the Duke Kunshan academic experience.
Admittedly, I was pretty nervous about heading off to China right out of high school. But having now entered my sophomore year at Duke Kunshan, I know I made the right decision. I have thrived intellectually, made new friends from all over the world, expanded my cultural knowledge and traveled around East Asia on breaks. And I’m confident that this experience has been shared by my classmates, as no matter what countries they hail from, we’ve turned out to be pretty similar: globally minded, open to new challenges, and ready to build things from the ground up at a new campus.
My Duke Kunshan future
Considering all that happened in my first year, I think it’s safe to say that my summer internship at the Chinese Academy of Sciences won’t be the last college adventure. Duke Kunshan’s combination of complementary campus locations, challenging academics, supportive faculty, and a diverse and accomplished student body is helping me grow in ways I never imagined and presenting future opportunities that seem almost endless.
Oh, and as for all those fossils we were examining, we did find what we were looking for. I look forward to providing an update when the results are published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
William Sachson, a dual U.K.-U.S. citizen, is a member of the Class of 2022.