My trip to the Greek Island of Santorini in the summer of 1994 remains indelibly ingrained in my memory. I had come to Greece just a few weeks earlier to set up a research project sponsored by the European Union. Working in the Department of Cell Biology and Biophysics at Athens University under the auspices of renowned Greek Drosophila biologist Lukas Margaritis, I had successfully subcloned a peroxidase enzyme sequence that would later be used in genomic library screens. With that achievement safely under my belt, I had earned myself a short break from the laboratory bench to explore the Greek islands.
As my colleagues and I pulled into the harbor of Santorini’s main port on a warm, sunny morning after an overnight ferry trip from Athens, we were met by impressive rocky escarpments on every side. My question to the captain regarding the origin of these prominent geological features was met with an air of sadness. History after all tells of how this island had suffered a major volcanic eruption that had split it in two. Today there exists a small island off the Santorini coast that boasts the warmest hot springs of the Greek Cyclade Island chain- a claim that I was able to savor just a few days later as I bathed in the morning sun. Armed with just a small scooter and a bottle of sun lotion, I later rode to the top of the volcano on the main island and looked out once more at the escarpments which from a height looked just like a gash in an animal’s hide.
My visit to Santorini marked the beginning of a three week-long journey that would eventually take me island-hopping across the Cyclade islands of Ios, Paros, Naxos, Amorgos and Tinos. Each island displayed its own unique features- Moorish castles, beautifully decorated dovecotes, natural caves, well-preserved archaeological remains and to top it off a ship wreck that years earlier had been a highlight of Luc Besson’s Hollywood blockbuster The Big Blue. I completed the entire journey with nothing more than a tent and a backpack containing the bare camping essentials.
And yet my return to Athens and its university life served only to remind me of the real reason for my trip to Greece- that of cultural and educational exchange. ‘Panepistimio Athinon’- the University of Athens campus where I was staying- stands on the southeast side of the city. Its student residences provide a welcoming setting for socializing and integrating with both Greek and international students. From there, a short bus ride to the top of the campus is all it takes to be within easy access of most faculty buildings.
The ERASMUS Student Network, the organization that funded my project, today prides itself in being “one of the biggest interdisciplinary student associations in Europe”. With over 150,000 students from 297 educational institutions in 32 countries having received ERASMUS support at one point or other during their college careers, such a claim seems well justified. Twenty years since its inauguration, the European Union aims to expand the ERASMUS program considerably. In fact by 2012 it hopes to have achieved the ambitious target of at least 3 million student exchanges across Europe.
From my own perspective, both the scientific and cultural rewards that I gained from working in Greece have served me well in later academic endeavors. In fact only two years later I repeated the experience by spending eighteen months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France as part of my research into the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy (this time funded by the Association Française Contre Les Myopathies – AFM).
All who have taken on similar student exchanges testify to being the richer for it. Indeed after my return from Greece those who attended our ERASMUS wrap up meetings told of the new languages they had learned and the long term friendships they had forged. Many like me relished the idea of returning to study abroad once more if given the opportunity. In fact I keep hoping that the day will soon come when once more I can don my backpack and head off for the excitement of learning in a new country.
For more on the ERASMUS Student Network, visit http://www.esn.org/