Summer School in Utrecht

My name is Liviu Chirondojan (that’s me with my sister), Liviuand I am a fourth year student at the University of Strathclyde. It has been two years since I have moved to Glasgow and I do not regret my decision in any way. The classes here are very well organised and the staff are always helpful.

Less than a month ago I was in the Netherlands for a summer school in Theoretical Physics. The course took place in the campus of the University of Utrecht, very close to the city centre.

The summer school at Utrecht covers more than 100 different subjects, and is an ideal place to meet students from all around the world, with academic interests ranging from linguistics to sub-atomic particle physics.

The city of Utrecht is absolutely charming, being one of the greenest cities of Europe. I believe that the car to bike ratio is well under 1 to 100. Every person in the city seems to prefer the bicycle over any other mean of transportation. The omnipresent bike lanes are much wider than the sidewalk, and some streets are only for bicycles and buses.

The city also has an extended water canals network, looking like a Dutch version of Venice. Some of the pubs and restaurants are right next to the canals, offering a spectacular view.

The theoretical physics course was quite challenging. It felt like a two-week boot camp, with classes starting at 9.00 am and ending at 5.30 pm. The lecturers covered various topics of Electrodynamics, Quantum Physics, Computational Physics and Statistical Physics.

There were also four talks given by the scientists working for the Spinoza Institute of Theoretical Physics. One of them was given by Gerard ‘t Hooft, Nobel prize winner in physics. They offered me a good understanding of the current trends in modern day theoretical physics.

During these two weeks I made some new interesting friends. I was also visited by students that I initially met at the University of Strathclyde, while they were on an Erasmus exchange programme.AmsterdamThe summer school at Utrecht was a very enjoyable and useful experience. I am now looking forward to start my fourth year at the University of Strathclyde.

Studies during first semester

While there were a range of events happening in the last months, from a reception with the University President, a night market on campus with lots of food  and music, Homecoming weekend (which seems to involve a lot of drinking and a football game) to ice skating and several Christmas parties, including a fancy dinner with performances, I want to finally write a bit about my classes and actual studying at McMaster.

Interestingly, the university seems to automatically register exchange students as 3rd year students, even though I, for instance, am in my fourth year right now. However, this is not a problem, as one can choose courses from basically all levels, as long as the course prerequisites are fulfilled.

Although I had chosen courses already before my arrival in Hamilton, once there I still had to work on my curriculum in order to receive waivers for the online registration of all my classes.

For a Chinese course I wanted to take (and probably other non-beginner language courses), for example, I needed to take a placement test which, although sounding serious, was simply to determine whether I would fit better in the beginners or the intermediate course. For another two courses from a different programme (Engineering Physics) I had to convince my study advisor that I had the prerequisites which, unfortunately, only worked out for one of the two classes.

So in the end I only took four instead of five courses for the first semester: Intermediate Mandarin, Lasers and Optoelectronics (my Engineering Physics course), Soft Condensed Matter (a Biophysics course) and a research project on theoretical aspects of quantum physics. In order to choose the latter, I had to contact McMaster physics staff and find a supervisor before my arrival.

With my four courses I have been well within the full time study load and busy enough. Nonetheless, the number of courses other students take varies a lot from 5-7 classes per semester for Engineering students to around 4-5 courses for exchange as well as, at least in physics, fourth-year students who do a final project.

Regarding the individual courses, my Chinese class was a straight-forward language class with regular quizzes, hand-in homeworks and marks for class participation. I had two tests and a final exam with a speaking component for each. As McMaster offers a wide range of languages (e.g. Japanese, Greek, Hebrew, native American languages), I would assume most of their courses are based on a similar concept, although I know that at least beginner French courses are aimed at less practical aspects focusing mostly on a writing-only university-specific computer program.

For my physics and engineering physics classes, it was a bit different and more work, since I had three assignments / three class tests plus an oral presentation and an exam at the end of the semester in each class. Nonetheless, these classes were very interesting and organized rather practically. In my Biophysics course for example, we did quite a few experiments in class as well as at home (as part of the assignments), while at the same time also going through all the mathematical aspects in detail. The Engineering Physics class, on the other hand, was more focused on the concepts than calculations.

With exams the university is relatively strict as, for example, only a specific calculator model is allowed and, especially in larger exams where not only the lecturer invigilates, any unnecessary items (water bottles, calculator lids, etc.) have to be placed under the table.

Nonetheless, my first semester went well and I am now – after a brief, but amazing winter break – already a few days into the second semester, this time with rather theoretical courses, such as 4th year quantum mechanics, general relativity and stellar evolution.

Finally, as a little extra, some pictures of Hamilton in the autumn and winter seasons (which includes the hockey season):

Algonquin Park

Studies have been very busy these days (which I will write more about another time), but since I’ve been on a canoe trip to Algonquin Park a bit more than a week ago, I wanted – before I forget – to post some pictures of the amazing Canadian forests.

The trip was organized by McMaster’s outdoor club which is basically a bunch of people that organize really great outdoor trips all over the Hamilton area and Ontario. We were in total about 60 people, but spent most of the time in smaller groups of 8-10. Algonquin Park is a huge national park in the north of Ontario – about 4 hours away from Hamilton – so we drove off with a coach bus on Friday evening to spend the first night at a campground just next to the place we’d be renting our gear from. The next morning we then set off bright and early to start our two-day canoeing journey. On the first day we paddled for about 5-6 hours, each in two person canoes with a large backpack containing our tents, sleeping bags, food and personal things. Since we were nine people in my group, one person had to take the role of the „princess“ meaning he / she would be the third person in one of the canoes sitting in the middle with the luggage and doing nothing. Surprisingly, this role was not very popular, as paddling at least kept you warm from the cold wind and the middle seat was not very comfortable.

As we canoed through three lakes in total, there were also several short distances of portaging that had to be covered meaning half the group would carry the backpacks, while the other half would each lift a canoe onto their shoulders and walk with that for 400-1000m. Although the canoes looked pretty heavy, they were actually lighter than most of the backpacks we had with us.

In the evening, we camped at one of the designated camp sites (consisting of space for tent, fire place and wooden box as bathroom substitute) around Tom Thomson Lake, our final destination, with a great campfire, marshmallows and hot chocolate all of which was definitely needed after a long, exhausting and slightly wet (one of my team mates fell into the water) day of canoeing.

The day after we paddled to our starting point again (another one fell into the water), but on a different, easier route and finally met up with all the other groups to make our way back to Hamilton with a quick stop for burgers at Wendy’s.

The weather for the trip was quite cold, but luckily relatively dry and, as it was one of the brightest full moon nights of the year, there was an amazing atmosphere in the forest at night. I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t meet any moose, yet at least I saw a beaver and a couple of sausage- and cheese-stealing birds. So not a bad outcome for a first outdoor trip…

Visiting China – Final Thoughts

So I have now been back in Scotland a few weeks and just started the new academic year at University. I have had time to reflect on my experiences over the summer and first and foremost I would definitely recommend the experience to any student up for a bit of an adventure.

My project in China was made up of performing a holography experiment and some image analysis towards the end. It required me to set up some optics, interface a device with a computer, and to perform coding to create the phase image used in the hologram reconstruction (see images below). The staff were very friendly and I definitely felt as if I improved my physics skills whilst there.

Phase ImageUniversity of Strathclyde Hologram

Not only that but I was able to visit Beijing and some of the spectacular sights such as the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the pandas when I was there. One of my favourite areas in Beijing was the Art District that is literally loaded with awesomeBlocky Statue statues, installations and art galleries which I could have spent days looking through! Even after almost 2 months in Beijing, I only scratched the surface!

Einstein's monster


The trip is already proving useful now that I have been choosing my projects here at Strathclyde as I have a little more experience than others in my class in what to expect from them, especially when it comes down to coding with MATLAB, at which I have become much more confident as a result of my time at Capital Normal University.

I would warn though, that visiting a country where you do not speak the language can be very trying and stressful at times, such as when trying to order food, settle bills or haggle with merchants, and sometimes lonely, especially during the day when there aren’t people at the local bar to hang out with! I definitely suffered from a little culture shock there but that is all part of the growing experience and I would say I now find it easier than ever to talk to new people!

Great Wall of ChinaGreat Wall of China


So to sum up I would like to thank the University for helping me have an excellent experience this summer, and to you if you read this blog! If you would like to know anything else, don’t hesitate to ask! And if you are considering an international experience then my advice is go for it!

– Calum

Welcome Week!

As one would expect from Canadian people, Welcome Week, or Frosh Week, the week before the beginning of classes, was pretty wild and eventful. Most of the events are officially designed for first year students – and there were huge groups of people with special group T-shirts walking around campus and shouting out faculty “war cries” – but basically everyone was allowed to join in, especially if you are an excited-, but clueless-looking exchange student.

So for me the week started with an American football game between McMaster and Guelph University during which McMaster destroyed Guelph with a final score of 50-9 (possibly among other reasons due to the slightly biased audience of about 6,000 McMaster students and no visible Guelph fans at all). After first having to wait for about 45 minutes in order to get one of the last available tickets – as the game was officially sold out – I finally made my way into the stadium past the typical team mascots, cheerleaders and hotdog stands, just as one would imagine from the movies. The game itself was pretty boring: first because I did not have a clue about the rules of football and second because, as it turns out, they have a lot of breaks during the game which the team uses to regroup, discuss their strategy, etc., while the cheerleaders perform a bit and the commentators cram in as many advertisements as possible. Almost half of the people actually left after half-time and another quarter started chanting and dancing to McMaster cheers instead of watching the players, so it was a slightly weird experience. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was really great and I, at least, had a lot of fun with the noise makers they were handing out for free in front of the stadium.

Between all these general events there were also a few specifically organized for international and exchange students, such as a trip to Ikea, an induction session with campus tour and – definitely my highlight – an afternoon at the university’s Alpine Tower followed by a BBQ. The Alpine Tower is a wooden construction about 18m high designed to climb around on in lots of different ways. So we not only got to try out some climbing and belaying, but also had the chance to meet other international students of whom there are many, especially English and French, and join a few other fun outdoor activities, such as an eskimo blanket. This is a kind of elastic blanket used with one person lying down on it and being catapulted into the air by other people pulling at the sides of the blanket.

During the next days there was a number of events I only partly attended as I was busy preparing for my parents’ visit and the installation of the internet connection in my house. Among others, there were two concerts, a “clubfest” which gave all the sports clubs and societies at McMaster a chance to present themselves (and me the opportunity to sign up for tons of event emailing lists) and – for most students probably one of the highlights – a sidewalk sale, i.e. a lot of shops in Hamilton had stands on campus handing out freebies and advertising themselves. I personally did not have enough time to go there, but I heard stories of free pizza, bags full of groceries and, of course, pens and sweets everywhere…

So Frosh Week was definitely a good start into the semester, especially as the work load from my courses has increased quite a bit since, of which I will tell a bit more soon.

First, though, some more, hopefully very Canadian, pictures of the Niagara Falls which I visited with my parents. It is amazingly just an hour away from Hamilton and easily reachable, even by bus. Most people say the Canadian side of the falls is better, so here a comparison of both:

American side of the Niagara Falls

Canadian side of the Niagara Falls

More studying abroad

After a set of exams and a pretty busy internship this summer– I apologise for the long silence – I’m back again with some news, namely that I will spend the next eight months as an exchange student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and thus from now on will write about my time “abroad from abroad”.

While my exchange was finally confirmed around the middle of May, I spent a good part of my summer organizing everything that had to and could already be sorted from the UK. Although slowed down a bit by the late arrival of the confirmation of my acceptance at the host university, my visa application went through surprisingly fast – only 4 weeks – and I could book my flight to Toronto in the beginning of June for an amazing price of ₤290 (

Having taken said flight one and a half weeks ago, I spent the first days after my arrival in a hostel in the city centre of Hamilton (the only hostel in town!: while flat hunting in the area around the uni in the west of the city. Although it is possible to apply for a room in university accommodation and McMaster specifically offers this option to international students, these rooms are very expensive compared to private accommodation and so I decided against it. Instead I had found a number of advertisements for privately rented rooms on the internet (,, and, as it turned out that in most cases you only had to call the landlords an hour or two in advance to arrange a viewing, I went around the first six places alone on my first day of search. Most of the accommodation available around McMaster uni is rooms in student houses (houses entirely rented to students); apartments are almost only found in the city centre, 15 to 20 minutes away by bus. The standard of the houses varies quite a bit and a large portion of the places still available for rent by the time I was looking were only basement rooms. Also, while most landlords don’t expect any safety deposit (only first and last month’s rent), they are usually pretty strict in renting out for either eight months (exactly until the end of the second semester on April, 30 2013) or 12 months only. Nonetheless, after a few fallbacks, I was finally successful and found a relatively cheap basement room only 10 minutes away from university.

Filling my room was another thing as it came unfurnished. A trip to Ikea just outside Hamilton solved that problem and for smaller items, such as kitchen equipment, etc., there are a lot of options to shop, such as any of the bigger supermarkets (which in accordance with North American standards are indeed very big), Dollarama (the Canadian equivalent of a pound shop) and a chain of second-hand stores, called Value Village, which have a range of random, but mostly useful items on sale.

As for my studies, I chose almost all of my classes already in July over the university’s online system and courses are not due to start until September, 6 2012. Next week, however, is welcome week for all new students with lots of events, including a BBQ and an open mic night for internationals, so I hope to get more into the local university life then.

Update from China

I have been in China almost three weeks and thankfully my body is getting used to the heat and the food. The weather here is very extreme compared to Scotland! The hot days are too hot to stand walking about in direct sunshine for more than a few minutes and when it rains, it is much heavier than anything I have ever seen in Scotland.

The public transport is the cheapest way to get around at 10p for a bus ride and 20p for a subway ride though at busy times you are packed in like sardines in a can! Google maps is the most useful app on my phone, ensuring I can find the places I am going and which buses I can take. It must be said though that I must look very strange spinning in a circle till my phone tells me I am facing the correct direction!

At the university everybody is extremely nice and friendly and enjoys talking to me in English as they don’t often get the chance to practice. I have even been out for a meal with the graduate students and departmental staff, had lunch with my supervisor and played table tennis with another academic at the University! The dinner with the graduate students was thoroughly enjoyable and I tried many authentic Chinese dishes including the world famous Peking duck, which in all honesty were absolutely delicious.

I have had more mixed reactions from the public here in Beijing. Outside the university people blatantly stare and some shopkeepers have tried to short change or overcharge me.

On the Physics sides of things, I had the opportunity to see some of the graduates’ work that I will be attempting to replicate over the next week. The experiment involves displaying 2 dimensional holographic images using a Spatial Light Modulator to modulate the phase of an oncoming collimated laser beam. It also involves coding a program in MATLAB to create the phase images used to make the output image of my choosing. I was very interesting to see the whole process done in front of my eyes and I look forward to replicating it. The only difference between my version and theirs is that I will be using red rather than blue laser light which is much safer! I am currently researching papers on digital hologram reconstruction and attempting to write my own version of the program. I have set the coding as a challenge for myself; should I not manage it by the end of the week, the graduate student has his code which I could use as a guide.

In my free time, I am still enjoying visiting the local attractions and recently I visited Tiananmen Square and Beijing Zoo. I am also trying the many new foods on offer! Even supermarkets are fun to rummage through here due to the exotic food and drink they have. Anyway I better get back to coding for now!

– Calum

First Day in China

The adrenaline from the first day has gone now and I feel wrecked due to jet-lag! Was on the internet today where I found that certain websites are blocked in China including Facebook and youtube, stables of the internet in the UK! As I have been trying to learn some basic Chinese, the lack of youtube is quite infuriating.

Went to Beijing park today and even in my rather grumpy state was absolutely bowled over by the beauty of the place. It is also funny to see people clearing the throats and spitting completely openly without offending anybody! Beginning to notice some people staring at me as I walk around though, not sure if that’s due to me being white or having a beard but will continue to investigate!

As you can imagine, it is really difficult to communicate with people, but luckily drinks (which you are constantly buying due to the heat) cost 3 to 5 yuan so I have just been showing the drinks to the shopkeepers and raising 3 or 4 fingers and they will raise the correct number of fingers. For other purchases shopkeepers will show you the price on a calculator. Thank God numbers are the same characters here!

Arriving in Beijing

Well, now the international blog really begins! I have arrived in Beijing today after 18 hours of nerve-wracking travel, and my first impression is that this is going to be one very fun trip! I was most fortunate in that the Physics department at Capital Normal University had arranged for a student named Wenbo to pick me up at the airport. As we exchanged pictures through e-mail before my arrival we found each other straight away much to my relief! All I can say is that this man is a God-send! He took me to get a SIM card for my phone (which worked straight away) and a bus pass that allows travel for approximately 10p per journey. We then had a delicious meal of noodles and chicken before he helped me check into a hotel on campus. Without his help it would have been a very scary first day so for that I will be eternally grateful! It is Thursday today, and I am to meet the head of the physics department on Monday which will give me a few days to settle in and try and get my body clock reset before I start any actual Physics! I can’t wait to find out what the trip has in store for me!