Global Urban Lab: Exploring Istanbul through a comparative lens

By Hanna Kim '18

Now in its sixth year, the Global Urban Lab (GUL) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for undergraduate students at Rice to carry out a semester-long research project and immerse themselves in a new culture. As part of the School of Social Sciences Gateway, this program allows students to conduct comparative research either between Houston and Istanbul or London and Istanbul (for those studying abroad).

This past spring break, twenty-five students, staff, and faculty spent eight days in Istanbul doing activities ranging from discussing the energy industry with a former president of Turkey to marveling at the Hagia Sophia. Sawyer Knight, whose project was on the topic of sustainability, recalls his meeting with the former president: “Getting to ask a question on energy policy (renewables in particular) will not be memory I soon forget. [President Abdullah Gül] answered with wisdom and kindness in everything we asked. He even posted about our visit on his website.”


Some of the other students in this course share Sawyer’s interest in sustainability, but the spectrum of research topics is anything but homogenous. Each year, GUL provides themes for research–this year, students worked on topics regarding cultural heritage, film, healthcare, seaports, and sustainability. Even with the same theme, individual research topics are vastly different. Within the “healthcare” category, two examples of research projects are Tim Wang’s “Social determinants of oral health disparities in Istanbul vs. Houston,” and Alex Alexander’s “Comparing the use of emergency care in Istanbul and London.”

Students are able to truly personalize their projects according to their own interests and utilize this trip to Istanbul to further their own research. Michael Robinson was able to spend part of his trip meeting with film scholars from Istanbul Kültür University. “They were gracious enough to spend over an hour answering our questions and giving a theoretical framework for the works in which we were looking into, as well as the historical background for the Turkish film industry. Their knowledge on the subjects allowed us to really engage our topics through a new lens and question the sorts of inquiries we were making,” he said.

When students visited Istanbul Kültür University and Koç University, they had the opportunity to meet with prominent faculty and deans. These faculty members provided students with a broader perspective of academically and culturally significant topics, and also connected them to their students.  Isaac Schultz, whose research centered around the attitude towards Syrian refugees among university populations and city-wide governments, got the opportunity to distribute his survey to a wide audience through these contacts.

Other notable ventures include a meeting with the Directorate General of Coastal Safety and a visit to the Istanbul Technical University Maritime Simulator. Not only did they learn about coastal safety and ship traffic in the Bosphorus Strait, but students also had the chance to navigate computer-simulated ships.

Despite having a jam-packed schedule, students had time to explore Turkish culture through the arts and cuisine. Whether it be exploring an authentic farmers market (at Çarşamba Pazarı), sight-seeing at the Blue Mosque, or folk dancing with Koç University students, this trip provided ample opportunity to get a glimpse into daily life in Istanbul.

To make the GUL experience even more memorable, students got a chance to attend a dinner overlooking the city, hosted by Ali Koç, a Rice alumnus who received his B.A. in managerial studies and economics in 1990. Mr. Koç has generously made this dinner a yearly tradition for fellow Owls to celebrate the completion of their research activities in Istanbul.

“Global Urban Lab is a powerful learning tool,” says Ipek Martinez, Director of Gateway, who oversees GUL each year, “It not only provides a unique immersion experience into new cultures with the comparative research aspect, but also generates team building among students around learning.”  Since 2011, the Global Urban Lab has had 127 participants in it.  The program aims to combine both academic and life experiences to “bridge the gap between the promises and challenges of our world’s great cities.” As the Dean of Social Sciences, Lyn Ragsdale, says, “[GUL] gives students first-hand experience in understanding the cultural, political, and economic differences that make these cities among the most vital and fascinating places of the twenty-first century.”

At the conclusion of the program, students submit a 10-page research paper to Dr. Nia Georges, faculty director for GUL Istanbul, and Dr. Jeff Fleisher, faculty director for GUL London. The top four research papers receive GUL research awards and are published, along with other notable papers.  For more information and to read the published papers, please visit