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!

A year in Scotland

Since last summer, the first time I came to Scotland, I have spent almost a year studying in University of Strathclyde. Glasgow is a beautiful city, full of culture, lots of green spaces. People living here are so kind and generous. So I’m quite enjoying living and studying here.

Young and energetic is my first impression of Strathclyde, though it is an old university with more than 200 years history. The lecturers and students here are all passionate for researching and studying. Regardless of background, teachers are so kind, explaining problems for me, inspiring me to get further understanding. I learnt a lot from them during the last year.

As an undergraduate student of physics, in the 4th year project, it’s my first time doing an entire experiment independently from learning, preparing, experimenting, modifying, to analyzing and presenting. This is quite a valuable research experience. And therefore I’d like to spend one more year studying here for the 5th year project, where I will study new techniques and applications that will help build my future business in China.

Although leaving my hometown makes me homesick sometimes, my new foreign friends always bring me pleasure. We share the same joy in games; we experience different cultures from different nations, we also suffer the revision week before exams togetherL. In our traditional spring festival, I invited them to have dumplings to celebrate the New Year; in turn they sent me Easter eggs as gifts. I really appreciate that I spent the last year with them.

What to do when you’re not studying

Since the spring holidays just ended last week, this is usually the time of the year when everyone (or at least me) realizes how many activities and fun things they still wanted to do before summer and how little time they have left thanks to upcoming exams in May.

While I have resigned myself to hoping for dry weather and lots of barbecues this year, there are actually many more things to do, not least many events offered by the university and the student union (most of which run throughout the whole year, so you don’t have to wait until Easter to get involved).  The student union (for everyone who is as lost as I was in the beginning) is an association of students who represent Strathclyde’s student body when dealing with university or more general education issues and organize events, clubs and societies (for more detail: Furthermore, the building where the student union has their offices is called student union as well and at least for Strathclyde University it also includes several bars, cafés and multi-purpose rooms distributed over 8 floors.

So, anyway, the student union – besides offering cheap drinks – organizes and subsidises a lot of sports clubs and societies. The latter are almost free, as far as I know, and there are nearly a hundred different societies, ranging from charity and fundraising clubs to politically engaged groups and societies for students of certain subjects (such as the physics society). There are also societies for people from certain countries to meet fellow countrymen and –women which might be especially helpful in learning to find one’s way around after arriving in a new uni environment.

As for the sports clubs, they are a bit more expensive, as you have to become a member of the sports union (about £22 per year, I think) and usually pay for facilities or any extra equipment, depending on the sport. But again the range is pretty wide. While I’m not a big sports fan and have only tried one or two of the sports offered, you can basically find clubs for any common sport as well as martial arts and several outdoor activities, such as sailing, mountaineering and skydiving (see

The fun thing is that you can try as many clubs as you want in Freshers’ Week (first week before start of lectures in September) and even if it turns out you’re not a total sports enthusiast, most clubs include a lot of social events and nights out.

Finally, there are many events organized for international students, especially by the International Society (surprisingly) (also see They run trips to other places in Scotland, movie nights, pub crawls, etc. One weekly highlight is the international pub night where tens to hundreds (depending on the season) of international students meet at a different pub every week. The pubs are chosen by the organisers and usually include pretty nice places in the city centre, so there’s a good chance you’re going to find your new favourite pub on one of these nights. But, of course, it’s also a great opportunity to get to know new people and a few of my “non-international” friends liked it so much, they also started going there regularly.

Another great place to meet international students is the international café organised by the Christian Union (CU) which is actually where I met many friends from my first year.  Every Thursday evening you can get a warm meal for £2 at the chaplaincy centre (on campus) together with other internationals and members of the CU. As the name suggests, it is mainly an event for international students and everybody is welcome to join, no matter which religious views you might or might not have.

Finally, the chaplaincy centre itself, together with an organisation called Glasgow Internationals (, is quite active as well when it comes to events for international students. In my first two years here, I participated in several of their hiking daytrips and Scottish cooking lessons.

While all of these international events are great to get to know people at the beginning of the year as well as to get opportunities for travelling around in Scotland, unfortunately, most “non-international” students (those considered as home students by the university, e.g. Scottish, English, Northern Irish) don’t know about them and so you’ll really just meet other foreign students there.

As a small addition, I found the following quite interesting website, while roaming the internet for some useful links: The tips and pieces of advice it gives on living and studying in the UK might be especially helpful for anyone from a non-European country.

Summer Project in China

Having shown my desire to have an international experience, I was offered the opportunity to do a summer project at Capital Normal University in Beijing, China. This has the benefit for the University of increasing its international awareness and of course means I get the unique experience of performing a physics project in an intriguing country.

This has been set -up by a few members of staff in the physics department, in that they found a Chinese university to host me and the department will partly fund the experience. Fortunately I have been told living expenses are not much in China compared to Glasgow! The exact details are still to be confirmed but it looks like I shall be performing experiments with microwaves with a member of staff who has previously spent a year living in Glasgow (which should help with any communication problems due to my accent!)

In preparation so far I have had to fill out an application for Capital Normal University, attaching copies of my passport, official transcript and the signature of the head of the physics department who will act as my financial guarantor for the trip in the unlikely event of something going wrong. CNU will provide student accommodation and help applying for a VISA should I need one.

As I am sure is understandable I am very excited but also a little nervous as I don’t know what differences to expect in day to day life in China such as the food there, the attitudes to western culture and the fact that I currently do not speak a word of Chinese! On the other hand, I am very excited about all the new people I will meet and places I will see and look forward to being out of my comfort zone for a while. The experience will give me the chance to find out if I might enjoy performing international research as a future career and will enhance my job prospects no matter what position I am applying for.