PALs 2019-2020 Q&A with Selene Li, CAS '22

December 17, 2020
By Ashley Shah, Huntsman '21

Selene Li, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, spent a summer conducting research in Japan through the Global Research and Internship Program. During the 2020-2021 academic year, Selene is serving as a Penn Abroad Leader, which is Penn Abroad’s student advisory board focused on special projects and supporting fellow students interested in global experiences. We sat down with Selene to discuss how she aligned an abroad experience with her professional and academic goals, how she made the most of her time in Japan, and one way the experience shaped her college experience. 

What do you study at Penn?

I am studying Cognitive Science with a concentration in Computation and a minor in Computer Science. I am on the pre-med track. 

With such a heavy workload how did you manage to go abroad? 

I knew I had too many classes and I still don’t know if I can graduate without an extra semester so I knew I could only go in the summer. Freshman summer was the one time I wasn’t super committed to a lab yet and I wasn’t going to have to take the MCAT so it was my best chance to travel. 

Where did you go and why? 

I went to the University of Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan in the summer of 2019. Basically, I did wet lab research because I didn’t want to lose time on the research experience or lose a summer while everyone else was getting internships, so it was a good opportunity to gain experience and travel. 

How did you find that opportunity? 

There weren’t too many research specific programs so I cold emailed professors. The one lab I ended up joining was most interesting and so I went.  

How did you secure the funding? 

I applied for a funding-only award through Penn Abroad. The application was straight forward; I had to create a really comprehensive budget sheet, find a cost-effective plane ticket, propose a housing option, and have a really secure plan. 

How did you find housing?  

I was born in Japan, so my parents had friends that still lived there. I lived with my mom’s old neighbor’s friend of a friend who gave me her second apartment as a homestay. It was cheap and I knew I wouldn’t get scammed. 

What did a weekday look like? 

Depending on what part of the lab process we were in and how much time it would take, I would wake up at 8. The commute was one hour, so I tried to avoid rush hour because it’s awful.  

I learned a lot of new things and did quite a few things for the first time in the lab. For lunch either we would go two steps to the convenience store, which is like a nicer 7/11, or the area surrounding the university has restaurants so we would try new stuff. Then I would do more lab work, get off at 3 pm and go explore the city. Sometimes we would be stuck at the lab till 7 or 8 pm, but I would still try to explore a different location in the city. I really took advantage of where I was. 

What about weekends? 

I would make plans with the friends I made in my lab and do fun stuff like explore different parts of the city.  

How did you meet people abroad? 

My lab was heavily English-speaking because the PI is Canadian, so it was easy to communicate. We bonded really quickly and hung out together for the rest of the summer. Sometimes we would go to a bar and become friends with random people but it was a good mix of American and Japanese students so I got to see the culture.  

Where did you travel? 

I stuck to the Tokyo area, the urban spot, and a bit outside the metropolitan area. I planned to travel after the lab work ended so at the time we just explored within the local area.  

Also, transportation was expensive; the JR pass provides unlimited travel on the mainline but has day limits so it could get pricey. Because the transportation system is pretty good, we got to know Tokyo super well. 

Did you have any travel mishaps? 

We stayed out too late the night before our trip to an island and trains stopped at midnight. We pulled an all-nighter, ran around the city, and at 3 am it started raining really hard. We walked around 7 miles back, crashed in a friend's studio apartment, and were up early enough for our trip the next morning.  

What is your favorite memory from being abroad? 

Being spontaneous! We wanted to try Japanese pizza: they have Korean bbq toppings and really new flavors. Each slice is tiny but carries tons of calories so we wanted to walk off our meal. We decided to walk three miles to the famous staircase featured in Your Name, the movie. We did a round trip in 4 hours with lots of speed of walking which sums up how we experienced the city. 

What was a challenge you faced? 

Using the public transportation system. The map looks scary but having Google Maps downloaded and knowing exactly how you get from the airport to the place you are staying is really important because you don’t know basic phrases and that is the first time you’ll have to get from point A to B in the new country. I didn’t know how to hail a taxi and directing the driver to the station was hard but Google Translate is your best friend 

What was something you loved in Japan that you can’t find here? 

Ramen here is so much more expensive, while in Japan it’s the equivalent of fast food like Shake Shak. It’s around 10 dollars there and 20 here. They also have loads of pretty snacks and cakes. There was one cookie I really liked and it was 20 dollars for a box of 30 while here it's double the price! 

How do you feel you or your college career changed after the abroad experience? 

I realized I want to travel more. I wasn’t enamored by it but I had always taken family vacations and I realized traveling on your own or with people your age is very different. Now, I want to get to know Philly better because in Japan I got to know the city really well. In Philly, I barely know how to navigate Septa and I stay within the Penn bubble so I want to explore Philly more when I go back.  

Rapid Fire Questions 

Most essential item you packed?


Most useful local phrase?

“I don’t know” in Japanese 

Coolest thing you ate?  

Massive raw oyster 

Describe your abroad experience in two words?  

Wild and spontaneous 


The Global Research and Internship Program (GRIP) provides outstanding undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to intern or conduct research abroad for 8 to 12 weeks over the summer. Participants gain career-enhancing experience and global exposure that is essential in a global workforce. Placements and funding awards are available.