Student Stories from Abroad - Joe A.-M.

Join McGill Abroad as we take a tour around McGill's global learning opportunities. Science student Joe completed an exchange to Germany and shares the experience with McGill Abroad.

I had a life-changing experience interning abroad this summer in a robotic surgery lab in Germany. Like many others, my summer internship was only possible because of a Schull Yang International Experience Award. I do not know how to thank Mr. Schull and Mrs. Yang for their amazing generosity. This experience opened so many new horizons for me.

As a former research assistant in Montreal, I am very familiar with the scientific field in the McGill community. However, I was always curious to experience research conducted abroad, where I would get a chance to embrace new cultures, techniques and opinions. This is why I searched vigorously for internship opportunities abroad that could both meet my area of expertise and at the same time open up new interests. This is also why, when I got an internship offer from the Department of Minimally Invasive Surgery at the University of Heidelberg Hospital, I was overwhelmed with excitement. However, I was also very worried. How would I be able to afford this trip? I had to find a way, because the will was there. This is how I got exposed to funding sources such as the Schull Yang International Experience Award.

The project I was assigned to focuses on assessing the performance of the da Vinci robot. This machine performs minimally invasive surgeries. It overcomes the limitation of the usual laparoscopic surgeries by providing additional advantages, such as 7 degrees of freedom and 3D vision. Most importantly, it has the capacity to eliminate essential tremors. The main goal of this research project is to be able to assess the performance of the surgeon with the robot. This was done with the help of the da Vinci Logger which records the surgeon's movements during operations. It also gives the team objective feedback on the performance. That way, we were able to differentiate between beginner and advanced surgeons. I was actively participating in the training operations in the project's experimental operation rooms. I was also able to intensively train in the facilities and learn the fundamentals of laparoscopy and robotics, which are important in order to understand some of the challenges of minimally invasive surgery. I became proficient in laparoscopic suturing, in order to be fit to grade videos and therefore collect data. Additionally, I learned how to design and 3D print structures to be used in the operation room later on. In the OR, the vast knowledge in physiology and anatomy I had accumulated over the past 3 years at McGill was extremely helpful, and was an added advantage in my pocket.

Ever since I heard about this internship back in November 2018, I challenged myself to do my best to seize this opportunity. This took me 7 months of preparing, applying to many funding sources, and getting rejected many times. But I did not take no for an answer.

It was the first time I felt this strongly about something, and I was not willing to let it go easily. My personal growth had already started before even leaving Montreal.

The time came for me to leave, and I was extremely excited. But the first day I got to Heidelberg, I noticed the huge difference from cities I am used to. Whether it is Beirut or Montreal, I have always lived in busy, dynamic cities. Heidelberg was the complete opposite. Despite being one of the oldest and most beautiful German cities, Heidelberg seemed a bit too calm at first glance. This pushed me to start meeting new people and making new friends extremely quickly. In fact, that day I made my first friend, who helped me get settled. This process of meeting new people and expanding my circle never stopped. I decided to transform culture shock into a true immersion in the culture. The help and assistance that I was given before and throughout my stay was essential. I was well-prepared and accompanied during my trip.

On a professional side, the extensive work on our robotic surgery project was very fruitful, and an amazing experience. Knowing that the work we’ve done will most likely advance how surgeons learn and practice surgical techniques is very satisfying. This internship has also constituted a big turning point in my prospective professional aspirations. I am now certain of my medical career choice, and I also hope to go into surgery. Spending nearly 3 months in the surgical department, watching closely the lifestyle of surgeons in parallel to my research project, gave me an insider’s look at the field.

Giving back to the broader community is a crucial part to remember once we enter our professional lives. Mr. Schull and Mrs. Yang lead and inspire us by opening up so many new horizons to students each year, and by showing us the values we must hold high in the future. The Schull Yang International Experience Award was the only way I could afford this very expensive and life-changing experience interning abroad in Germany. And with that I want to thank them again.


Joe in front of the Surgical Clinic of Heidelberg University where the offices and operation rooms are found.


Joe robotically suturing using the da Vinci machine.


Joe suturing laparoscopically.

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