NSights Blog

Abandon your expectations - reality is far more exciting

Student researcher reflects on her experience in Cambodia

A group of people in muddy water holding a large fishing net
The research team collects fish from arrow traps in the Tonlé Sap Lake.

I never expected to spend part of my summer 7,882 miles away from home - most people probably don’t. If you had asked me one year ago what I would be doing this summer, I would have had one answer for you: studying for the MCAT. If my summer went as I originally planned, I would have been sitting at my desk, perspiration on my forehead from the intensity of my studies. Instead, I was sitting on the floor of a thin wooden boat, perspiration on my forehead from the relentless sun and humidity of the Cambodian summer.

The inaccuracies of my expectations don’t end there.

A family including four adults and three children pose with Lucy on the steps outside their fishing hut near the water.
A local fishing family along the Tonlé Sap Lake.

Even as a long-time resident of the Nevadan desert, the word “lake” evokes a specific image in my mind. Perhaps Tahoe’s picturesque nature has spoiled me, but certain qualities define a lake: pristine blue water; calm, petite waves; vast depths of water; clean, sandy shorelines.

A floating structure on muddy lake waters.
A floating house along the Tonlé Sap Lake.

Thus, I expected Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake to be quite similar. With annual precipitations averaging around 50-70 inches, I imagined Cambodia as some sort of tropical dream, filled with magnificent waterfalls, lush forests and abundant wildlife. My expectations were subverted once again upon arriving at the lake’s shore - the water was brown, opaque, and no more than four feet deep. The wildlife I imagined included monkeys, panthers and vibrantly colored birds - not water bugs, sea snakes and periwinkles.

A large group of people at a long table eating dinner and smiling up at the camera.
The research team trying Ethiopian food.

I want one thing to be clear: just because my expectations weren’t congruent with reality does not mean I was disappointed. I never expected to sort through fish on the floor of a floating house. I never expected to learn Cambodian phrases. I never expected to make Cambodian friends, or try Ethiopian food or ride in a tuk tuk. All of these things I never expected, and yet, I couldn’t have been happier to have the opportunity to experience them.

I learned to abandon my expectations, both for myself and for others. My expectations of my future could never even scratch the surface of what is to come, for better and for worse. My expectations of lands I have never seen, people I have never met and cultures I have never experienced are sure to be subverted. It may be intimidating knowing that your expectations are more than likely completely wrong, but I promise that the reality is far more exciting.

Two student researchers smiling at the camera with fish in their hands wearing Nevada hats.
University of Nevada, Reno undergraduate researchers sorting through collected fish.

About the author

Lucy Burnham is a senior majoring in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. She traveled to Cambodia in June 2023 as a member of the Nevada Young Explorers Program (N-YEP) to conduct research under Dr. Sudeep Chandra and Dr. Zeb Hogan.

Lucy Burnham on the quad wearing a blazer with her hands on her hips, smiling.
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