Over the years, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Augusta University on a variety of international programs. The University’s mission is to inspire and build world citizens who are international leaders in service, research, and teaching. They encourage and support study abroad, and we’re thankful for the opportunity to help create these memorable travel experiences.

Last year, we partnered with Dr. Amy Abdulovic-Cui and Dr. Jessica Reichmuth to design a custom itinerary for their Genetics/Biology-focused trip to Iceland. Abdulovic-Cui is a Professor of Biology and Genetics while Reichmuth is a Professor of Environmental Biology, Zoology, and Ecology. We chatted with them to learn more about this incredible faculty-led program and their experience in Iceland.

What was the focus of your Iceland program and why did you choose that topic?

Abdulovic-Cui – That was our second trip together. We have this combination of ecology and genetics that we try to do wherever we go, we want to show students how these two topics can meld together. We picked Iceland for both its ecology and its genetics. I’m in charge of the genetics part and Iceland has a culture of genetics.

About one-third of the country has their genome sequence. There’s a company called deCODE whose mission is to sequence all Icelanders. In doing so, they’ve come up with treatments for many diseases. We visited them and had our students really immersed in this culture where talking about genomes is an everyday thing. One of our students talked to a person working the register at a gift shop who pulled out their phone to show their genetic map. The students also did their 23 and Me and as the last component of the trip, they received their own genetic sequence.

Augusta University students learning about genetics in Iceland
Augusta University students learning about genetics in Iceland

Reichmuth – I stay away from the humans and take it from an ecology standpoint. Iceland is really neat because the country is a volcanic island. Since they have such great human and cultural records, they’ve been able to record volcanic eruptions since 900 AD. There’s excellent records on how volcanoes shape not only the culture but also the wildlife systems — how they go through succession and how they change over time.

There’s this culture that likes to get sequenced and they apply the same technology to wildlife conservation and climate change. The largest seed bank in the world is in Iceland and there’s concern about how rising sea levels will effect the seeds. We discussed that topic during the trip and listened to lectures from scientists at the University of Reykjavik. The students learned what Iceland does with the genetics in applying it to human genomes, as well as how they’re using genes for fish conservation.

Did the students have any “a ha” moments?

Abdulovic-Cui – The students really enjoyed talking to the researchers at the University of Reykjavik and the University of Iceland. They liked seeing that people are doing this in other places and hearing what they do. They also saw how powerful the volcanoes were. We saw wreckage of what used to be a bridge that is now just a pile of twisted metal. I think just seeing the power of nature was really cool for them.

Reichmuth – None of us had visited a black sand beach before and the students learned how black sand beaches get black sand – it’s all volcanic rock eroded over time. So, a lot of them were really fascinated with learning about the power of those moving forces. They enjoyed visiting the place where the continents come together. They’d heard about plate tectonics in their biology courses and actually seeing the division in the earth’s crust was really cool.

Augusta University students in front of the Deildartunguhver thermal spring.

Abdulovic-Cui – The other neat aspect of the trip was the geothermal power. The country is almost all geothermal. We went to the Blue Lagoon and sat in the hot springs. We also visited a geothermal plant and learned almost the entire country is run that way, which was a big a-ha moment even for us.

Reichmuth – It’s a small country that’s not part of the European Union. They experienced a stock market crash in 2008, just like us. They’ve rebounded on their own, they know what they are. Iceland’s economy has been completely reorganized – one-third goes into fishing, one-third tourism, and one-third into changing bauxite (a raw material of aluminum) into aluminum. The geothermal energy naturally makes the hot temperatures necessary for that reaction. Countries like Australia ship in loads of bauxite to turn into aluminum.

Abdulovic-Cui – We always try to get students to immerse themselves into the culture. We had them try puffin and different things to get them out of their comfort zone. For some of them, this was their first time out of Georgia.

Have you encountered any challenges coordinating short-term study abroad?

Reichmuth – We get a lot of support here, that’s probably different than most universities. There’s a national movement to support more programs like study abroad as experiential learning. The biggest challenge for most of us is probably recruiting the magic number of students to get a program to run.

Abdulovic-Cui – Cost is something we really stress and work around. It’s an additional expense for these students who are, a lot of times, living paycheck to paycheck. We try to remind them that its an experience that they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.

Students at Dverghamri
Students at Dverghamri

Reichmuth – A lot of our students at Augusta live at home and support families. We have a lot of nontraditional students and many who are veterans working with a G.I bill. While they’re good students, a lot of them have a hard time being convinced to have this experience. It’s different than traveling with military or family. You’re getting immersed into a country where you’re being not necessarily forced, but highly suggested to learn something different than you may have heard. I’d say that’s the biggest issue with recruiting students. But, we get a lot of department support, a lot of college support, and a lot of university support and I think we’re lucky for that.

Do you have any words of wisdom to share for those who are looking start a faculty-led program?

Both – Just do it.

Reichmuth – Especially if it’s something that’s not normal, I think you can make it something that’s normalized in your area. What our study abroad emphasizes is that this is an experience that you’ll share with these people on this trip. You don’t know these people, but you’ll eventually become friends and when you look at the pictures in the future and see them. You’ll always have these memories. I think that’s the biggest thing, just go for it.

Abdulovic-Cui – There’s a lot of groups like FTI that can help you organize if you’re worried about finding a place. It’s an amazing experience.

Reichmuth – The worst you can be told is no. There’s always a workaround, I think, in academia. It’s not like you’re going behind your boss’ back but there’s always resources available you just don’t know. Maybe its getting together with a colleague and presenting an idea.

Abdulovic-Cui – As educators we want this to benefit our students, and there’s not one downside to studying abroad.

Tell us about your proposed faculty-led program in Nova Scotia

Reichmuth – The topics are the same, but we’ve added a third colleague. We now have a Women’s History/Canadian Atlantic Maritime component thanks to our colleague Ruth McClelland. She’s an Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies in our Pamplin College of Arts, Humanitarian, and Social Sciences. She’s our third wheel and really the one who drove us to Nova Scotia. She presented the idea to our study abroad director and we all took a scouting trip together last June.

Peggy’s Point in Nova Scotia

There’s going to be a lower-level History component, an upper-level History/Archaeology course, and the Ecology and Genetics focus from us. We’ve also included lectures at Dalhousie and St. Mary’s that focus on genetics and archaeology along with a visit to the health center.

There’s a lot of interesting history there in terms of Black Loyalists and the Irish and Scottish contingency. Compared to the United States, the indigenous population received way better treatment. There’s a lot of opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion. We submitted the proposal today, so fingers crossed!

What’s your favorite place you have ever been and why?

Abdulovic-Cui – I loved Costa Rica. My favorite city is London because I could just walk around. I love Boston and the old next to brand new — a city where I could see something several hundred years old next to a skyscraper.

Reichmuth – I felt that in Glasgow. I don’t really have a favorite place, I’ve collected unique memories from everywhere I been. To me, it’s important to be a traveler and not a tourist. Really immersing yourself in a new environment. Our first trip to Alaska was really neat as a biologist. My first faculty-led trip was to Australia and that was great. I’d go back just by myself to see the thing we may have missed.

Abdulovic-Cui – We do want to go to back to Iceland! There’s half of the country we haven’t seen. We want to do Ring Road next time.

Reichmuth – Our tour guide was fantastic. He entertained the students’ questions and really made the trip for us.

Abdulovic-Cui – You can tell he just loves his job.

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Professors like Dr. Abdulovic-Cui and Dr. Reichmuth truly inspire us with their unique faculty-led programs. If you’re interested in creating a custom faculty-led trip, check out our website for more information. You can also request a quote if you’re ready to start planning your trip today!

It’s a big world. Get out there!
Your FTI Team
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