In January 2020, following my research experience at JSALT 2019, I had the opportunity to leave Montreal and fly to Baltimore in order to study at Johns Hopkins University. It was there that I started my research for my master’s degree in information technology (machine learning).
Before I left, I had no idea what I would work on once I was in the United States. Some told me that I was crazy to get on board without knowing about the subject which I was going to work on, but I am so happy to have done it. Today, it’s safe for me to say that I love my research topic! I took part in the BEAT-PD Challenge, a challenge that ran from January 13 to May 13, which aimed to predict the severity of Parkinson’s symptoms from data collected by smartwatches like an Apple Watch.
My research internship was to last 4 months, but I had to leave the United States on March 16, after 2 months, due to COVID-19.
What I worked on during my research internship
During my research internship at JHU, I worked in the CLSP laboratory (Center for Language and Speech Processing), and more precisely in the laboratory of Dr. Najim Dehak.
The challenge is organized to advance research in the context of using mobile smartwatch sensors to predict the severity of Parkinson’s symptoms:
- Does the medication work or not? (On/off phenomenon)
- Severity of tremors
- Severity of dyskinesia
I will not describe my research in more depth in this article (it will be for another one!). This post aims to share my experience studying abroad and to give my advice to future students interested in doing a research trip abroad.
Johns Hopkins University (JHU)
JHU was founded in 1876 and is located in Baltimore, Maryland. The university was named after Johns Hopkins, who inherited $7 million, which today equals to $147.5 million. The money was used to found half of Johns Hopkins Hospital. JHU is considered to be the best research university in the United States.
For my part, I worked on the Homewood campus, which you can see in the photos below!
Lifestyle differences between Canada (Quebec) and Maryland, United States
I only lived in Baltimore, Maryland for two months, but I had quickly noticed that there were still significant differences between this state of the United States and Quebec!
First of all, as you would expect from any college campus in the United States, the university is huge, grand, and so beautiful. Each morning, on my way to my office, I would stroll and take the time to look at all of the buildings and the beauty of the campus.
Another aspect that stood out for me was when it came to the environment.
Very few people used reusable bags at the grocery store. I had only taken one reusable bag with me, which I was planning on using several times. Unfortunately, that was not possible. The plastic bags in the grocery store are so thin, so much so that the milk I would buy had to be wrapped up in two bags in order to hold up until we arrived home. The bags would tear before you would even use them. It’s so disappointing to see this, when a few hundred kilometers away, in Quebec, some cities are starting to abolish single-use bags.
Then in the grocery store, there were so many single-use plastics. Pre-prepared foods that didn’t even need to be. For example, I wanted to buy a large 500ml container of coffee yogurt. Well, there wasn’t. There were only small containers, but this generates more plastic packaging.
One last point. Here in Quebec, cans, plastic liquor bottles, and beers are returnable. It means that we receive 5 ¢ or 10 ¢ when the containers are returned instead of recycling them. I tried to find out: is it better for the environment to return these containers, or is recycling them comparable? I didn’t find a clear answer.
In any case, in Maryland, no container is returnable.
The cost of a research internship in Baltimore
Before I even left for Baltimore, I think I had already spent around $2000. Weirdly enough, I have no idea where this money went. It feels like there are many low-cost stuff that we need to buy to get ready, and they all add up. Here is a list of some expenses that come to my mind:
- Pay for the visa and for shipping (~100 USD)
- Security deposit for the apartment (500$ USD)
- The first day that I arrived, I had to pay my rent (700$ USD), I had two roommates
- Buy the plane ticket (300$ USD)
- Cost of a couple of Ubers as this is what it takes to go around safely in Baltimore
- Open a US bank account (20$ USD)
- Buy a SIM card for my mobile phone. I used Mint Mobile. It was $60 for 3 months, and I had 8GB per month (70$ USD)
- And then $ 4 per load of laundry in a tiny washing machine, it goes up quickly!
How to find accommodation in Baltimore
I think the best solution, if possible, is to live in university residences if they are available. Unfortunately, at JHU, only first and second-year undergraduate students are allowed to live on campus. So I had to find accommodation!
It is very risky to secure accommodation without being there, in the city where you are doing your research internship. However, that’s what I did in Baltimore. Not knowing where I was going to live until I got on a plane stressed me out a lot, so I started looking at Facebook groups. Johns Hopkins also has a site to help students find accommodation on campus; all you need is your university email address to register.
- Off-Campus Housing Search
- Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Housing, Sublets & Roommates
- I also considered using Airbnb, and there are some interesting discounts if you rent for 4 months
Safety in Baltimore
Before going to Baltimore, I was terrified! There are a lot of murders and violent crimes. In 2019, there were 348 homicides in the city. Since 2015, there have been more than 300 homicides per year. On the other hand, crimes are concentrated in a small number of neighborhoods. According to the Baltimore Sun, 80% of homicides with guns are committed in 25% of the city. So, just stick to the tourist spots and stay on the Homewood campus. On the other hand, it seems that the campus of the JHU hospital is in a more dangerous and problematic district … You should not venture there alone when it starts to get dark.
Before I left, I read a lot about the city’s safest neighborhoods. I was afraid to venture to a place not recommended in the city unknowingly. Finally, the best thing to do in Baltimore is not to wander. From one street corner to another, the atmosphere and the level of security can completely change, and you can feel in danger!
However, there is security around the Homewood campus and all over town, on every few street corners, so you feel safe. These agents are there 24 hours a day!
Some tips for staying safe in Baltimore
- It is best not to walk alone until you are comfortable in Baltimore and know the surroundings well. If you are about to meet a group of people on the sidewalk, change sides of the street
- Do not listen to music with headphones when walking in the street to stay alert to the environment
- If you finish working on campus after dark, try to come home with colleagues. Most of the accommodations are in the same areas, so you can usually find someone who lives near you!
- To get from point A to point B, use Uber or JHU’s Night Ride if you are a JHU student!
The Night Ride surprised me at Johns Hopkins University. This seems to exist in other American universities, but it remains to be confirmed! The Night Ride is like an Uber, but free and offered by the university to travel around a certain radius of the campus!
The service is available from 5 pm to 3 am if I remember correctly, so it’s a really safe way to get around the city. And it’s free! It’s kind of a mini-bus, so it can make a few stops along the way to a destination to let people out or in. It’s like a shuttle.
On the other hand, if you wait more than 15 minutes after ordering it, you automatically get sent a private Lyft, so it’s an excellent service!
What to visit in Baltimore
- George Peabody Library
- R House
- Inner Harbor
- Federal Hill
There are lots of things to do in Baltimore! The George Peabody Library is so beautiful, especially in photos (and free to visit). On the other hand, when I was there, I found it a little disappointing, it took 5 seconds to visit, and it was over. It’s such a beautiful place. I would have the impression that a visit to Baltimore is not complete without a visit to the library!
On the side of the Inner Harbor district, a tourist (and safe) district of the city, there are several things to see. There is a great National Aquarium. Tickets are quite expensive, but you can spend several hours there, and it’s worth it. Try to witness when the dolphins are being fed. It’s entertaining to see!
Another beautiful neighborhood, on the other hand, is Hampden. It is mostly 36th street, which is pleasant to visit, with several strange shops and excellent restaurants. I loved the Golden West Café restaurant and the two bars: The Bluebird Cocktail Room & Pub and Nepenthe Brewing Co.
To eat, there is also R House, which I liked. Unfortunately, this is a food court, so with COVID, it might be a few months or years before we return to those kinds of places …
My advice for doing a research internship abroad
There are a lot of steps to take before you can go abroad. With the help of an information session given by ÉTS on international internships, I created a list of things I had to do to prepare well.
Also, as I was leaving January to May, it was during tax season. So I took that into account and decided to change my address everywhere so that my documents could go to my mother.
- Change your address on official documents, so papers are sent to someone in charge of making your taxes.
- Prepare all the documents you already have, and put them in a folder, give to a person in charge.
- Find a sub-tenant for your apartment or room.
- Warn your home insurance about someone else living there
- Health and Insurance
- Contact the RAMQ to ensure that I will remain covered when I return to Quebec (or simply check their website). The RAMQ, where I live, is our free public health insurance.
- Print travel insurance official documents to prove you’re covered
- Fill the form online to warn your credit card that you will be abroad for some time.
- Call your phone provider and get information about a forfeit abroad, or put it on “pause” and buy a sim card abroad. You can shop around to see what will be the cheapest option for you!
- I had to hire professional translators to translate from French to English, my official transcripts. It turns out it wasn’t necessary, but it might be in your situation!
- Book a doctor’s appointment to check if you need any vaccines. I almost forgot about this. I brought my vaccines report card, and it turned out I was missing a vaccine!
After getting your visa, when everything is confirmed and ready to go:
- Buy a plane ticket or whatever you need to get to your destination!
- Documents to print for customs
- Invitation letter from the university
- If you are receiving a scholarship for your internship abroad, print the letter prooving you have the funds necessary
- Emergency card from your health insurance provider with phone numbers to contact if anything happens to you
- Copies of your vaccines report card (we’re never too prepared)
When you arrive:
- Open a bank account as soon as possible
- Change your address & phone number on your student account to your address abroad
For travel health insurance, it is essential to confirm what you are covered for. In my case, it was suggested to confirm that we were covered for:
- Medical care
- Dental care
- Repatriation, death or accidental dismemberment
- Luggage and personal effects insurance (sometimes, this is offered via your credit card, but it depends on the duration of the departure)
For luggage, I haven’t traveled that much in my life, so I have to say it was a challenge for me to decide what to take for 4 months in the US!
I decided to take as many things as I could leave there if I ran out of space in my suitcases on the way back. For example, I had old towels that I have been using for years that were due to be changed. So I took an old towel that I had to get rid of anyway.
I also took my socks a little more worn in general so that their useful life ends during my trip too!
I hope that through this article, you have been able to learn more about my incredible research internship at JHU as well as the beautiful city of Baltimore!