Learning Biotech in a New Country

Current Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) student Haocong Ma looks back on her first quarter at Northwestern — and in the United States.

With one quarter of MBP done, Haocong Ma has confidence that she lacked when the program started.With one quarter of MBP done, Haocong Ma has confidence that she lacked when the program started.

Haocong Ma had never been to the United States before coming to Northwestern Engineering to begin the school's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP). She knew she would be in for an adjustment, but the process has been alleviated thanks to the support of her classmates and faculty.

Now, with one quarter of the program completed, Ma has confidence that she lacked when the program started. She recently took time to talk about that confidence and how it helped her navigate her introduction to school and culture in the United States.

How would you describe your fall quarter experience?

When I look back, I prefer to describe the fall quarter as a bridge between my former 21 years and my future, as well as my bridge from China to the United States. The language, classmates, and culture were totally different, and I struggled to get used to the new atmosphere. Luckily, all the faculty and MBP students helped me overcome my homesickness and fall in love with this new environment.

What were your highlights from the quarter?

The biggest highlights of my fall quarter were choosing a research preceptor and starting my new research area in medical science. The MBP seminar class provided us plenty of opportunities to learn about different research topics and ideas. Through broad readings and conversations, I chose immunology and microbiology as my MBP research direction and found my preceptor, Dr. Gottwein, who inspired my research interest and helped me build my own confidence to be a scientist in the future.

The teaching method of Prof. Tanner in Applied Statistics appealed to me during the fall quarter. He always used some news or interesting stories to introduce statistical questions and then he used those topics to lead every class. I also learned how to use the R software, which was pretty challenging and complex. However, when I finally finished 10 weeks of classes, I loved programming and was so proud of myself.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in starting the program?

Since it was the first time for me to come to the United States, the English environment was an adjustment. I felt I couldn’t speak in front of others in English, and I was so shy to say "Hi" to others, even though I really wanted to know my new classmates. Also, I felt exhausted after classes for the first three weeks of the fall quarter since I made every effort to try and grab every word of class every time. With practice, I overcame those language and inner embarrassment barriers and was delighted to share my ideas with others and enjoyed every class afterward.

What are your career aspirations and how do you think MBP will help you achieve those goals?

Currently, my plan is to apply for a PhD after MBP. The 1,000-hour research requirement is one of the main reasons that I chose MBP. Because of the extended research, I have my own research project and have the opportunity to build a systematic research method that will ultimately benefit me. I am enjoying my wonderful research time in lab even though mistakes and failures always happen. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing what I could become after this two-year program. Hopefully, I can gain confidence from my biotech knowledge and become qualified to be a potential Ph.D. student. 

Thanks to my kind teachers and friends in MBP who provided me with a new, harmonious environment and encouraged me to go further.