An Intern Abroad, or not really.

By Jade Dang (Student Intern, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

Chapter 1: Being a long-distance intern and my introduction to the Palestine Exploration Fund

Having my study abroad experience cancelled was, not going to lie, a huge disappointment. After dreaming about travelling before I started college, I had decided to delay until senior year in order to finish my required major courses so that I would not be restricted by coursework whilst away. This was a chance in a lifetime, and I did not want to mess it up.

Everything was going to plan, except, that I did not expect a global pandemic this year.

Upon hearing that my overseas experience to London would be cancelled for Fall 2020, I felt a massive wave of disappointment rush over me, which turned into a swirling mixture of sadness, regret, and anger for the missed opportunity, which I still feel from time to time.

Fast forward to August, and I was greeted by a positive email from my study abroad office for the first time since the pandemic started. No, study abroad was still cancelled, but virtual internships were now a new opportunity. So naturally, I jumped aboard and began searching. Part of me wanted to still explore and try new things, even from the comfort of my room. 

I came across The Palestine Exploration Fund in my search, and was interested because I knew very little about the Palestine/Levantine region, but also enjoyed learning history and archeology. I was especially intrigued by the scientific angle PEF has taken in regards to research and was curious to learn more. As a biochemistry major and a STEM oriented person however, I was concerned whether my lack of knowledge and experience would prove to be limiting. Still, I decided to go for it and joined PEF as a temporary remote intern at the end of August 2020. 

Enjoying the weather on the quad in front of Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  

My work at the PEF revolved around the Survey of Western Palestine, one of the most important and influential field projects carried out by the society between 1871 and 1878. I would meet over Zoom with my project supervisors, Ava and Felicity, and they would send me digital material in the form of database spreadsheets, jpegs of the unpublished manuscript field maps and other images from the survey, as well as references to reading material. Much of the time I spent taking notes, reading articles, and examining the maps and other images produced during the Survey. In addition, I studied the broader historical context of the surveys to better understand the significance of this work. I also worked on a Google & Arts Project to catalogue the current database of manuscript maps using a spreadsheet. While checking and entering files, I was able to look at each of the maps, and though I only saw digital images, the sheer beauty and detail of these maps was incredible. To think that they were hand drawn and scaled to near perfect accuracy demonstrates the skill and dedication that these scientists had at the time. To me, these maps were both scientific documents as well as works of art.

PEF-WS-171: Original cartographic field tracing of Tiberias Camp (Sheet 6) made during the Survey of Western Palestine. This image depicts very detailed hill shading., and sows the town of El Mejdel (Magdala) on the shores of Lake Tiberias  

Working remotely from North Carolina on a placement based in London  has been a very interesting experience. For one, the 5-hour time difference meant that all communication occurs in my early morning hours. In addition to working 10 hours a week on my computer, I still had a full course load, my chemistry research, a part-time job, and extracurriculars on top of that (precisely what I was trying to avoid doing when I planned my overseas experience). This meant that I had to organize my hours carefully to avoid computer fatigue and work burnout. For me, the PEF project work fell on the weekends, when I did not have any other zoom classes or assignment due dates. Being remote also meant that I needed to learn to separate my work life from my school life, so I still chose to move myself physically to a spot on my college campus or to a different room in my flat.

Having a weekly meeting with my supervisors Ava and Felicity over Zoom!

I was right that I was very limited in what I’ve been able to do so far, and the reason was lack of expertise in the history of Palestine/Levant, but also because of the nature of remote work. This was a new experience for everyone at all levels, so no one knew what to expect from it. Still, PEF has been very accommodating and very welcoming, and I have never regretted meeting them and working with them.  I started with the database work, which enabled me to familiarse myself with the manuscript material. I also have spent a lot of time studying the material so that I may one day share this knowledge in the future. One of these ways is this 4-part series blog, where I will talk about point of view of the West’s understanding of the Levant, Victorian society, and the development of science. Through these series, I will attempt to draw upon my scientific knowledge of research and understanding that I’ve developed in the past couple years. 

PEF-SWP-Keymap: The printed keymap from the Survey of Western Palestine, showing the area covered by the survey, and how the region was divided into 26 ‘Sheets’

So, what has my life been like since this pandemic started? Luckily, not all was lost. I learned how to bike, picked up knitting again, and met my current flat mates (and cat). I’ve gained a deeper understanding of my work/life preferences and career goals for my future, and that I should take better care of my health. Having been through so many disappointments and failures (*cough* chemistry exams, grades, knee surgery and rehab) I have also been building more resilience and a better perspective on these disappointments and learning how to work around them. I have also learned how to better tame my anxious personality, which is a milestone I never thought I could have achieved.

Attempting to knit a hooded sweater for my flatmate’s cat Froome (named after the British-Kenyan cyclist, Chris Froome). 

2020 has been a tough year for everyone, but I believe that we will emerge from it stronger and wiser. As Albert Einstein said, “Out of clutter, find simplicity.  From discord, find harmony.  In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”