Exchange report - Student at KI
Home university: Universiteit Leiden
Study programme: Biomedicine
Exchange programme: Erasmus
Semester: Spring semester 2021/2022
Name: Natalia Malig
Email address:


What does it take for an exchange student to become an exchange student on an exchange? Courage? Curiosity? Dreams? Recklessness? Whatever the reason, a decision to give away the newly obtained status quo is never an easy one, especially when made in times of a global pandemic. Despite the odds, this is the story of the girl who took the risk and went into the unknown, of the girl who struggled at the beginning but eventually met the best people, went to the best places, gained a massive amount of experience, and had the time of her life. 

When I applied for an exchange, I was only in my first year of BSc in Biomedicine, still very new to the university environment, doing science and living abroad. At that time, some questions were left unanswered, for example, if the Covid-19 pandemic will ease in the next year or will I bond with Stockholm to the point I do not want to leave. However, the inner drive to take the opportunities life offers pushed me to apply for an exchange and soon I got an acceptance letter from Leiden University, feeling like the adventure is now set in stone. 

To apply, it takes some effort to write a cover letter and CV which will convince the jury that you are a good fit to go for an exchange. Followingly once nominated to go for an exchange, the rest is straightforward and well explained. I strongly recommend making sure that all the information is correct as well as the courses you are going to attend line up with those you would do at KI. Nevertheless, at this point, you can relax and wait for the adventure to come.

Arrival and registration

My flight to Amsterdam Schiphol from Barcelona was a short one and without any problems. Wait a minute, why from Barcelona?? An extra benefit that comes with going for an exchange to Leiden is a little time shift in the start of the spring semester. After a long, dark, and cold winter in Stockholm, I was dreaming of some warmth and sun to recharge my batteries before taking another semester by storm. Eventually, I spent a few days in beautiful and sunny Spain and from there I continued to Leiden, arriving a few days before the semester started. 

If you are lucky and there is no global pandemic at the moment, the University of Leiden organizes Orientation Week (OWL) for newly arriving students. The event, held at the beginning of the semester, aims at introducing new students to the university and making an opportunity to meet new people. However amazing the event is, there is one downside that prevents some from taking part in it, including me. Unfortunately, for biomedical program classes start already before the OWL and if one wants to take part in it, they have to find a way to compromise lectures and workgroups with OWL activities, which combined with a big workload might be backbreaking. Spoiler alert: even if you decide not to attend in OWL, you will not be missing out (at least I certainly did not).


Money is usually an issue and in the case of doing an exchange semester in Leiden, it certainly might be. Due to the Erasmus agreement, you will be given 400EUR per month to cover the cost of living. Surprisingly enough, that money will not come to you month by month but one day you will get one big transfer of 18 609SEK and your task will be to manage it wisely. As you might notice, this is not a full scholarship amount. In fact, money is provided in two parts – 80% beforehand and the remaining 20% once you have finished the exchange, passed the semester and handed in all the necessary documents, for example, the report you are reading right now. 

Even though my monthly budget distribution was very different in Stockholm and in Leiden, at the end of the day the overall costs of living were quite the same. In the Netherlands, I paid less for groceries, transport, a dinner out with friends, and a ticket to the cinema, yet the cost of accommodation ate all the money I managed to save on daily expenses. In fact, most of my scholarship money from Erasmus went to my landlord as instead of paying around 300EUR per month as in Stockholm, I was paying 580EUR of rent. 

Nevertheless, as you can see, my life was a little less strict in the Netherlands than in Sweden when it comes to extra activities. I definitely went out for lunch, dinner, or drinks more often and did not feel like I ruin my budget by deciding to watch a movie in a cinema. In addition, there are ways to additionally reduce the cost of living, for example, go to Jumbo instead of Albert Heijn and visit the local market on Wednesday or Saturday to get cheaper fruits and veggies. 

Finally, probably the most Dutch thing to say but a bike is a must. You probably know that the Netherlands is the country of bikes but you cannot understand it to the fullest unless you stand in front of the bike parking with thousands of bikes in front of you. Everyone uses bikes and it is not only because it is running in their genes but also because it is actually the most convenient and joyful way of transport. You do not have to worry about buying a bike for yourself and then selling it soon after – Swapfiets, a long-term bike rental place comes with a solution. For a few euros per month, you can rent a bike, being sure it is absolutely functional and has everything that a bike needs. 

Things get a little more tricky if you want to travel across the country, using a train. The system is absolutely convenient and easy to follow, with trains always arriving on time (unless there is a cross-country system failure and none of the trains arrives anywhere for a day, which happened to me once or the wind is so strong that they cancel all the trains, that happened once as well). However, you have to pay for this convenience and in fact, you pay a lot. There are ways to make traveling cheaper, for example with personal OV-chipkaart you can subscribe 40% discount on weekends or even weekdays (outside of rush hours) which costs you a few euros a month. However, when we went for a weekend trip to Brussels with my friends, we rented a car instead of going by train because it was less expensive.


I can definitely think of easier and less stressful things to do than finding accommodation in Leiden. As a student city with too many people looking for a place to stay and too few offering ones, there is an apparent disbalance, not to say a crisis in the housing market.The University of Leiden offers some accommodation, yet applying for it requires paying a high fee which does not guarantee you will get an offer of a place. Therefore, I started looking for a place a couple of months before I arrived in the Netherlands, mainly on Facebook groups. I was lucky to find an offer that looked good and the landlord agreed to have an online viewing with me. After discussing the details and seeing the contract, I signed it, paid a deposit, and soon a nice room with huge windows and a balcony was meant to be my new place. 

I did not live very central in Leiden, in fact – even though 15 minutes to the University – the place was already called Oestgeest, not Leiden anymore. One can think that it is a lot of struggle to live that much outside, yet you have to remember that Leiden is a small city, and daily commuting to the city center or university took me a fraction of the time I spent on the buses in Stockholm. Additionally, coming back home at night, when everything is quiet and empty became my new favourite feeling. However dangerous it might seem, I must say that Leiden felt like one of the safest places I have ever lived and I never experienced there anything that would challenge this feeling.

Studies in general

Before I went to Leiden, whenever I would talk with someone who went there for an exchange, they would say that the study pace and workload are huge. I always had a feeling that they must be exaggerating a little because even though Karolinska is very demanding, I am managing it. Well, they were not exaggerating at all. 

As Biomedicine students, we had our classes at Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) which was a vast complex consisting of a hospital, lab buildings, educational buildings, and even an anatomy museum. By stepping into those buildings, I felt like I also stepped into studying medicine instead of biomedical sciences which I was familiar with. The approach of Leiden University gave me the impression of being far more medically/clinically oriented rather than focused on research. We had a lot of case studies, we were dealing with – hypothetical – but real-life patient situations and many of the professors were doctors coming to us straight from the ward. I must say I did enjoy having the taste of it yet personally I am more determined to pursue a career in academia in the future and this clinical setting was challenging for me at the time. 

When it comes to mentioned workload, it mainly comes from the heavy weight of the self-study component and a justified need to read all the literature suggested. It took me a while to adjust my studying habits and worked-through system into the new reality but do not worry – as long as you are motivated to work and dedicate your time (sometimes free time, weekends, evenings, and public holidays) to study, you will certainly do well and pass the courses.

Courses during the exchange period

Courses corresponding to semester 4 at KI

During the 4th semester, I attended 3 courses at Leiden University and one remotely at Karolinska Institutet. 

Physiology Basic Concepts 

This course was the primary reason why I got the impression of studying medicine instead of biomedical sciences. Our lecturers were mainly doctors, bringing up stories from their profession and encouraging us to think as if we really had a patient in front of us.The course was divided into two parts and there was an exam after each part, accounting for half of the final grade.

Unfortunately, most of this course was held online as the Netherlands was still struggling with a high number of Covid-19 cases. These circumstances were a bit of a burden in adapting to the new system as Leiden University has its own online platform, called Kaltura. The exam consisted of multiple choice questions which required the use of the acquired knowledge in practice. Nonetheless, I think its level was adequate for the level of teaching (in other words: it was very difficult but not surprising). 


I had a high expectations for this course already before I arrived in Leiden as I knew about its very specific, practical component. 

The course was again divided into a few parts, each dedicated to one theme. Within one theme there were lectures, workgroups, and a lot of self-study. We would start by discussing the topic at a default condition and then move to the pathology. 

One of the themes was about anatomy and here comes already mentioned practical. We had a week of dissections with cadavers in a dissection hall. Our work was divided into exploring different parts of the body each day and I cannot stress enough how much of an insight into the human body and understanding of the whole system it gave me. I am very grateful that I had a chance to take part in such practical, especially since Leiden University is the only medical center in the Netherlands (not sure about other countries) where biomedical students are engaged in such activities, not medical students exclusively. 

Unfortunately, I have to point out that the organization of the course has a lot of room for improvement. There were both general problems with the organization of the classes, workgroups held online and unfavouring schedule of the course as well as more personally experienced difficulties related to being an exchange student. The anatomy practical was mainly targeted toward Dutch-speaking students and all the materials were in Dutch, with only a few pages being translated into English. This kind of problem, probably arising from miscommunication, put extra work on our hands and made the course very stressful, nevertheless still enjoyable. 

Hormones and Nervous System 

If I was about to say what was my favourite course, I would definitely go for this one, without any hesitation. This course was partially the reason why I decided to go for an exchange, as it is not offered by KI and as a big Neuroscience passionate, I thought it will be beneficial as well as fun to attend it. I must say I was not disappointed at all. 

The course had new to me and definitely a challenging structure. Each day a new topic would be introduced with a brief lecture and later in the day, there would be a lot of self-studying to read dedicated literature and make notes. On the next day, we would have a response lecture to address our questions, some time for expanding the topic by extra lecture (usually not included in the examination material). To conclude we would have a test of 3 open questions when our knowledge of understanding the topic would be tested. We were allowed to use books, notes, and even the Internet to provide the answer. Altogether, we had around 20 tests and they accounted for 25% of the final grade. They were not obligatory but I would strongly suggest not to take advantage of the free choice and skip them all. 

In addition to this highly demanding schedule, we would have a literature assignment to write in pairs during the course. Based on the article, we would produce an essay where we discuss the study, think about its strong and weak sides, and design a follow-up experiment. I was lucky with the topic I was chosen for as the supervisor was also the first author of the article and we had a very inspiring and motivating discussion with him. 

When it comes to the exam, it was rather a difficult one, not to say that the most difficult I have ever been challenged with. It was an open book exam, yet the combination of 18 open, detailed questions, lots of literature, and only 3 hours resulted in a rather unpleasant experience of rush, panic, and an adrenaline boost. The highlight was the fact that not a single person left before the end of the time, while usually, only a few students would stay till the very end. Nevertheless, I highly enjoyed this course and I would go for it again. 

The Life Science Industry 

Even though initially this course was supposed to be dealt with on our own, with very short notice we got the information that we will be enrolled in a light, online version of it with help of the course director herself. We did it instead of the Physiology Advanced Concepts which was a short course right after Physiology Basic Concepts. 

The light version of it meant that there are some adjustments due to short time and distance teaching. We had a couple of great workshops and both group and individual assignments which accounted for the final grade. Even though the course was a lot of work including self-study of the material that otherwise would be included in the lectures, I enjoyed taking part in it and becoming familiar with a different aspect of science. I think it was a very thoughtful and beneficial decision of the KI to provide such an opportunity to the three of us, Karolinska exchange students. 

Communication in Science (CIS) 

CIS is an additional subject that goes in parallel with other subjects throughout all 3 years of the BSc degree in Biomedical Sciences at Leiden University. As only one-semester students, we took part in a few activities which were: a critical essay, symposium, and presentation. In my opinion CIS was a very valuable component, putting stress on different aspects than a hard-core science subject. By engaging in it, I got a lot of personal, insightful, and valuable feedback regarding both my writing and presenting skills. I had an opportunity to listen to other people presenting their work which made me both inspired and aware of different presentation styles and techniques. I am happy I had a chance to get involved in CIS, even on this small scale. 

Extra activities 

Some of the courses gave us an opportunity to take part in extra activities. During Pathology we went to the anatomy museum at LUMC and looked at even more anatomy (including anatomical pathologies) as an illustration of what we have been studying. During the last course, we got an opportunity to visit the Johnson&Johnson company campus, located in Belgium. During a one-day excursion, we got to know the history, beginnings, and main goals of the corporation and later on we walked through different labs to see what exactly people are working on and with. It was an amazing experience to see the real application of the knowledge we gained in the course before.

Language and Culture

During my stay in the Netherlands, I did not have to worry about learning any Dutch as Dutch people speak perfect English, once you convince them to do so. It took me a while to get used to the new language whose pronunciation was black magic for me. In fact, I was very proud and relieved when heard the question Where do you live? I could confidently answer In Oestgeest. All in all, language was not a problem (apart from the dissection manual of 70 pages all in Dutch) and I never had difficulty dealing with a problem using only English. However, it might be essential to mention that fellow students spoke Dutch with each other most of the time which sometimes made me feel uncomfortably excluded. 

The cultural differences were not striking and I did not find it hard to fit in the convenances. I loved how much flowers are important for the Dutch people and how mesmerizing looked tulip fields, stretching out between the cities. I was happy to join the culture of biking and many times was taken aback by the kids who barely could walk but already tried biking on tiny, tiny bikes. I cannot forget to mention how much I liked the architecture of the Netherlands and how many times buildings made me go wow! If you ever go to the Netherlands, make sure to have a look at the stairs in a typical Dutch building and maybe try to walk up the stairs. It is astonishing how steep are the stairs in those buildings, to the point that when people move out, they carry things through the windows on a line attached to the hooks over the windows. Finally, even though I have heard more peculiar food combinations from my Chinese friends, Dutch habits also managed to surprise me. Cause how many of us would come up with the idea to put chocolate sprinkles on bread?

Leisure time and social activities

People say Erasmus is all about parties. Well, the first party I went to knocked me out for a week with two stripes on a Covid-19 test and successfully discourage me to test my luck again. So, let me tell you a story of how amazing was Leiden from a non-parting point of view. 

My first day in Leiden was a Sunday and my newly met flatmate insisted we go to the city center to get some cheap and fresh vegetables and stroopwafels. I fell in love with the city immediately, with its cozy streets, beautiful canals, and amazing atmosphere. Soon I was about to realize, that what makes Leiden even more amazing place are the people who live there. 

The first person I went for a coffee with was a friend of a friend whom I met in Stockholm, while living in a dorm. He was doing a Ph.D. and was one of the most research-enthusiastic people I have ever met. We found a lot of common ground not only talking about science but also in the area of books and movies, agreeing that Sally Rooney is the author of our times. From week to week, we would meet to cook dinner together, watch a Midsommar on the longest day of the year (my longing for Sweden was there), or get stuck on a train to Amsterdam (and go to the Japanese museum in Leiden instead of Japanese movie). As he knew my love for films, he also got me involved as a volunteer in Leiden Shorts, a 4 days festival of short movies in Leiden which attracted great people and collected amazing movies. 

As Leiden University and Karolinska Institutet have a close partnership, during the third year KI students go study in the Netherlands but there are also people from Leiden coming to Stockholm. Having met some Dutch students during the previous semester, it was nice to see familiar faces when I joined their ground. Some of them made sure to ask how am I doing and if I have already found my way through Leiden which was very sweet and encouraging of them and made me feel less alienated, especially at the beginning. 

When in Leiden, I also made one of my dreams come true and signed up for ballroom dance classes. It turned out to be a perfect, joyful hobby that also extended a group of my friends as well as the number of potential dance steps I could use. 

Yet those who made my time in the Netherlands an adventure not to forget were – paradoxically – the least Dutch people. Austria, Italy, Finland, USA, India, Singapore, Bulgaria, and the Caribbean – a cultural mix that is the highlight of my Erasmus. Even though each of us doing a slightly different thing at LUMC, we managed to get to know each other and slowly become like a family going on road trips together and having a BBQ on a Sunday afternoon. With those people, it was impossible to have a bad day. Together, we went for a boat tour, realized billiard is more difficult than it seems, did a little BBQ in the middle of the park, escaped from a crime scene in Brussels, screamed on a roller-coaster in Wallibi, captured unique moments on polaroids, became too Italian customers even for the Italian restaurant, got a sunburn at the beach in April, saw thousands of flowers in Keukenhof, got stuck in Rotterdam because of the marathon, saw the miniature Netherlands at Madurodam, got absolutely rain soaked in Groningen, found the most charming streets of Leiden, walked hundreds of kilometres, had long hours of talks, found way too many squirrels in a Naturalis museum, had dumplings making night, listened to the live jazz at Bimhuis, caught butterflies in a botanical garden, played chess, saw beautiful sunsets and talked until the sunrise, got the habit of being too Italian, confront our music tastes, found a way to deal with car sickness, did a late night biking and many, many more to be mentioned…


People say that the best things in life aren’t things and this Erasmus was definitely one of those things. I met the best people, visited the best places, and had the best time of my life. The complexity of the past half of the year transformed me as a person, allowed me to grow and get to know myself better. Even though not every minute was smooth sailing, and the rain would hit in unexpected moments and places, I would miss an important lesson by not taking up this challenge. With all certainty, I would go on this amazing adventure with those amazing people again and again, till the end of the days.