Chance of a Lifetime: Giving Students Worldly Research Experiences – Dr. Ilona Kretzschmar 

by Noah Fleischman

Many science and engineering students may never leave the United States and could be missing out on the opportunity to gain valuable perspectives on the world. Barriers exist for students that want to study abroad, whether financial or otherwise. These barriers make it nearly impossible for some to realize the dream of performing research in another country.

The International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program, headed by Dr. Ilona Kretzschmar, Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, aims to make studying abroad an attainable goal and give disadvantaged students research experience. In addition to this, recipients receive an all-expenses-paid chance to gain research experience with a global perspective. For many students, it is their first time being away from home. Many past IRES scholars have completed or are in the process of completing Ph.D. programs. Their international research experience being one of the drivers to decide on going on to graduate school.

IRES was started in 2007 and has been running for 14 years, giving over 185 underserved students the chance to work on various research projects and learn valuable techniques. Minority, female students, first-generation/low-income students, and students from alternative pathways, i.e., the typical CCNY student, students from institutions with limited exposure to research opportunities, persons with disabilities, and veterans research at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, alongside professors at the institution.

“I’ve heard from many of the IRES scholars that for them, it was their first time being away from New York. The first time being away from their parents, and the first time being away from the United States. What many participants experience is an extreme personal growth process.”

Kretzschmar can relate to the growth that many of the IRES Scholars experience. She was in a similar program early in her career. As a student studying abroad in Ireland, she gained a new perspective on the world and changed how she saw her future. She does not think she would have become a professor in the United States if it were not for her year abroad.

“The reason why I started the program is because I grew up in Berlin, Germany and then I studied a year abroad in Dublin, at the Dublin City University,” said Kretzschmar. Her traveling abroad for a year “completely changed my perspective on how Germany fits into the bigger global picture,” and it helped her “grow.”

The students in IRES program receive early career mentoring and the ability to work alongside international and U.S. researchers in a focused 10-week program. The selection focuses on recipients having a willingness to work independently and gain an international research experience. In addition, they need a completed application with a one-page CV, a statement of interest, and three potential project advisors.

“The overarching, long-term goal of the IRES program is to enhance U.S. leadership in science and engineering research and education and to strengthen economic competitiveness through training the next generation of research leaders,” stated the NSF site.

Funding for this program comes in various ways, including funds from the National Science Foundation, KTH, CCNY, and other donations. In 2019 the IRES was able to raise all its funding through philanthropic efforts to give three students the chance to participate in the IRES program. Due to COVID-19 traveling restrictions, the program has been on a temporary hiatus in 2020 and 2021, but we hope to restart in 2022.

The program’s goal is to help students grow as researchers and as globally aware individuals with an improved understanding of their potential. When they are working overseas, they are learning a new culture and making new friends giving them an added confidence to make themselves feel comfortable anywhere around the world.

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