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.

My Exchange Experience by Leopold Kellers, Germany

Alright, so my Erasmus year at Strathclyde University is ultimately over now. It was an enjoyable and informative time of my life, which I am sure I will never forget.

After all the paperwork back home in Germany had worked like a charm, I arrived at Glasgow Airport in September. The weather was bad, and that was directly a foretaste on how wet would be most of my time in Britain. But this was only a minor setback.

The first week of the semester, “Fresher’s Week”, introduced us new students to what social life was going on at university, especially the Union, an organization representing the students.  I decided to go for the skydiving club and the mountaineering club, as I was hoping to see a lot of places in Scotland this way, which worked out quite nicely for me.  Parties were also not missed out during that time, even though Erasmus students are often accused of having one single, long lasting party during their whole stay, which might partially be true for some of them.

Then the semester started and soon, everything was taking its even, orderly path that one is used to when studying.  At the first glance, the lectures appeared to be easier and less theoretically focussed than at my German university.  Instead of letting me crunch on the hard maths in assignments at my desk at home, I was rather being asked to lay out my understanding of the subject via writing essays.

However, I did find that more time-consuming than I expected.  Even in the exams, I was asked from time to time, to put some statement into context and describe what I knew about it, which I found quite surprising as our exams usually only test if one is able to solve mathematical tasks and physical problems.

But what makes a significant part of an exchange stay is the life outside of university and Scotland, especially Glasgow, has a lot to offer with respect to that!  At least after getting a grip on the local dialect.  I stayed with four Scottish girls in my flat and in the very beginning I was completely lost whenever they were talking with each other.  After two months, it got better and by the end I would claim that I was able to talk to most Glaswegians without problems.  I only gave up on bus drivers and construction workers – their pronunciation will always be beyond me.

Another thing that I will never forget is the local cuisine.  Not only, that some Scottish people consider a bowl of instant noodles and a pack of crisps a proper lunch, but also the omnipresent chip shops have brought the art of deep-frying to a maximum level of 1perfection.  One will have a hard time finding something that can not be deep-fried.  None of them would stop at burgers, chocolate bars of even a whole frozen pizza, traditionally served with chips, salt and vinegar, sometimes even topped with cheese and curry sauce.  The right accompaniment to that was a glass of IRN-BRU, a bright orange, highly addictive soft drink, which on its own might already have served me with sufficient calories for a whole day, leaving the aforementioned food aside. They did a lot of other stuff, too, which is often made from controversial ingredients (basically all slaughterhouse waste appears to be recycled there), but is incredibly tasty, like haggis or black pudding.

There were a few things, which I began to miss during the year though.  One of the most annoying was the absence of a transportation association.  Not only that one has to buy a new ticket every time on switching between train and bus, even between bus companies, of which there were plenty, I had to buy a new ticket every time I changed. Oh, and the subway is on its own again as well, of course.

Other stuff that I suddenly realized is not available everywhere, were good sausage, good beer, good bread and especially good döner kebab.  All these did exist, but tasted and felt slightly different.

I somehow did not manage to get used to each of them in a way such that I could have accepted it as a permanent replacement. Also it was not allowed to drink a beer with a friend on one of the rare sunny days outside in the park – the police would come and fine 40 quid without mercy.  And 5 minutes later one could watch them walking unhurriedly over a red light together with 15 other pedestrians.

But all this was a pretty fair price to pay considering all the completely new stuff I got to know.  An example for that was the ceilidh, a form of traditional Scottish dance.  Because most Scots seemed to be willing to dance only after having some quite impressive amount of alcohol, the overall performance was often a bit chaotic.  That fact gave the perfect opportunity to join in, even if one did not know how to do it, because no one would ever care whether I did it right or not.  With all the fast hopping and switching of partners it was a huge fun in any case, especially if one wore a kilt doing so.

Speaking of a kilt: this is a fantastic piece of clothing, and wearing it once really makes you jealous of the fact, that women can wear skirts any time they want.  Although I am pretty sure that women are rather rarely confronted with people that attempt to check if it is worn true Scotsman style (no underwear) or not.

2But if you decide to wear your kilt on the journey back home, because all the greasy Scottish food might have made you ultimately too fat to fit into your remaining trousers, then accept my advice and plan some extra time for airport security!

Another nice thing was getting into contact with the international students.  And at Strathclyde, there are a lot of them!  It results in a huge melting pot of different views and cultures.  Many of the friendships gained there directly came along with invitations for a home visit.  There were a lot of tours of Glasgow and Scotland offered especially for international students, ranging from historic sites to tourist attractions like Loch Ness and, of course, whisky distilleries.

There were also a few things in Glasgow that especially impressed me.  For example, Glaswegians were incredibly friendly and helpful.  If I just walked through the city looking confused someone would almost certainly come towards me and offer help.  It gets even better, when one is holding a map in one’s hand.  Then one would risk starting off a hand-to-hand fighting over who may tell the right direction.  And Glaswegian girls appeared to be very cold-resistant.  Even in freezing winter it was possible to watch groups of them walking home from the club, only wearing a top and a really short skirt. Barefoot!

Although in general the weather was not as bad as many pessimistic Scots claimed (cf. my flatmate: “This was the whole summer now, from now on there will be rain only!” after two nice sunny days in March), it was usually still rather wet.  That did not stop me from catching some pretty bad sunburn in the end, however.  No one back home wanted to believe that this could actually happen in Scotland.

Finally, at the end of my year, I walked the West Highland Way, a 150 kilometre long distance hike through absolutely stunning scenery.  In nice weather, this was one of the best trips I have ever done in my life, especially as it was legal to wild camp in Scotland.  The only drawback was the plague of midges in late June.  These were really evil and attempted to eat me up alive and close to nothing helped to protect from them.  But often enough I forgot about them just by enjoying the view.3

So whether you kept up reading all the way until here or just jumped forward to the last paragraph, let’s put it short: I can only recommend an exchange stay in Glasgow without any restrictions.  I for my part enjoyed it a lot and I decided to make a visit in the future again, and if it only is to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain, on one of the few cloud-free days, which I did not succeed to do so far.

I hope this report can be helpful to prospective international students, either those deciding if they should do it or those already preparing their stay, and of course everyone else as well.  In the case of any open questions do not hesitate to contact the office and ask for my email address!

An Exchange Semester at Strathclyde

I’m Martin Buschmann, a physics master student from Graz, Austria, and I decided to spend an exchange semester at Strathclyde, Glasgow. There are several reasons, why I chose Strathclyde. Firstly, I wanted to improve my English, which works best in an English speaking country. Secondly, UK universities have a good reputation in research and teaching.  The procedure for applying and getting a place in the Erasmus program was relatively simple at my home university.
P1000033So, finally I arrived in Glasgow on the weekend before the second semester started. I used the time to explore the city on my own and I was surprised how compact the city centre is, although Glasgow is one of the biggest cities in the UK.

On the first week of the semester, an introduction and orientation sessions for exchange students were held, which gave the most important informations for us international students. On the first day I also picked up my students card from McCance building and met my physics supervisor, Dr Francesco Papoff. I was surprised how fast and easy all those admission procedures went. But I was also lucky to meet a lot of other exchange students on the first day, who had to go through the same procedure.

Next, I had to find suitable classes for my study programme. Although I had already checked classes at Strathclyde before I came here, I had to make changes to them because not all of the classes were available. I soon found three interesting classes to take. In this case it’s good to be a physics student, there aren’t that many students and so you can have individual advising by Dr Papoff.

The semester began and I soon found out that the way of teaching and learning is a little different from what I’m used to from home. Here the students are expected to do more reading at home and do assignments in form of essays and presentations. I found this very interesting. I can’t say if this system is better than the one in Austria, which is more centred on hard math skills and oral exams, but I’m glad to have seen both worlds.

2013-05-27 01.16.17

The social life at Strathclyde seems very active. There are many clubs and societies and clubs to join for sports, cultural life, languages etc. Even if you’re just here for one semester you can use the opportunity to join them. It’s also a very good way to meet local Scottish students. I became a committee member of the Erasmus student network and joined the Mountaineering society for an amazing trip to the Isle of Skye.

In overall Strathclyde seems like a very international orientated university. Some of my lecturers come from other countries than Scotland/UK and there are a lot of foreign students doing their full degree here.

Of course, I didn’t spend all my time around university and used my free time to explore Glasgow and beautiful Scotland. Many of the museums in Glasgow are for free and make a great opportunity to learn about Scottish art, culture and history. Glasgow has many parks and green spaces for recreation or sports.
P1000847With my new exchange friends I did a lot of trips in Scotland. I visited historical cities like Edinburgh and Stirling, but also saw beautiful nature at Loch Lomond and the Highlands. My personal highlight was a hiking trip on the Isle of Skye.

The whole exchange semester is an exceptional experience and I’m very sad that it’s over.

Life in the lab

I’m in my fifth year, the last year of my Master degree, and I came to Strathclyde primarily to work on my diploma thesis. So, what does life in a Strathclyde physics laboratory look like?

IMG00201-20120925-1304The group where I’m doing my project is the Photophysics group of Professor David Birch. The main focus of the group is interdisciplinary molecular research using fluorescence methods. Everything revolves around fluorophores, biomolecules, colloids and nanoparticles.



Some of the current projects are concerned with aggregation of biomolecules (peptides linked with Alzheimer’s disease), melanin, gold and silica nanoparticles.

There are various devices and techniques which we can use for measuring/imaging, ranging from spectrofluorometers to atomic force microscopy.

DSC_0069 (2)Some of the devices (especially for time-resolved fluorescence) can get quite busy, but we have booking sheets for planning things out.

IMG00197-20120925-1301The seat of the group is on the 6th floor of John Anderson building with a number of offices and laboratories. I have a nice big desk and computer in the PhD office and I must say, my favourite thing about it is the beautiful view. I can see a pretty large part of Glasgow and when visibility is good, I can even see some mountains in the distance, snowcapped in winter. Right under my window there is a green patch where people are picnicking, barbecuing and throwing frisbees when the weather suggests it.

Every Monday afternoon the Photophysics group gathers for a meeting. First of all there is a presentation given by a member of the group. There is a different speaker every week, so everyone has an opportunity to present his or her work to the rest of the group, including project students. The presenter gets to choose the topic, but it should be related to the project he or she has been working on. During the presentation the other group members are listening, taking notes and afterwards there is a slot for questions. This can make you nervous and uncomfortable, but in fact it isn’t that bad! On the contrary, you get new insights from the listeners and ideas for your project. When the presentation and questions are done, there is the more relaxed second part of the meeting with cookies and coffee in the 8th floor common room. Anything can be discussed- visiting researchers, conferences to attend, broken or fixed instruments, the weather etc.

DSC_0656 (2)Every now and then the group also has an informal meeting outside the university to grab a drink and talk about physics-unrelated things. The photo is from the Photophysics Christmas dinner.

Talking about dinner, something worth mentioning is the fundamental question, where to go for food. Normally a couple of us meet for lunch at Todd’s diner, where there is usually a quite good selection of hot meals ranging from typical Scottish/UK dishes to Indian curries and pizzas. If we don’t go to Todd’s, the fridge/microwave/toaster in the PhD room may provide something edible. The kettle supplies endless numbers of coffees and it is probably one of the most important devices of the group, along with all the fluorescence spectrometers.

My First Impressions of Scotland

My first impressions of Scotland (as a student on exchange):

  • Scottish people are very kind. Most of the time I can’t understand them, they drive on the wrong side of the street and sometimes the men wear skirts (kilts, of course). But they are really nice and helpful.
  • Scottish weather isn’t as terrible as I had expected- there are sunny days as well! When the sun is shining, no matter which month it is and what the thermometer says, it’s summer time and Scottish people wear short sleeves. Sometimes you get spring, summer, autumn and winter all in one day. Don’t try to fight the weather with an umbrella; the wind will immediately punish you. Just face defeat and you will get used to it.Glasgow Weather
  • Glasgow has many pretty places. Kelvingrove Park, the Necropolis, Glasgow Green… no wonder the name of the city comes from the Gaelic words “Glas Ghu”, dear green place.

    The Necropolis, Glasgow

  • All those unhealthy, strange and tasty things they have here… ranging from shortbread cookies, full Scottish breakfast, Irn Bru, tablet, haggis to deep fried anything- fish, haggis, pizza and even Mars bars. Considering what haggis is made of, I would have thought it would taste horrible, but it’s actually delicious.Full Scottish Breakfast
  • Glasgow is quite expensive, especially accommodation. However, there are many student discounts, especially if you are a member of some student organisation or club. Bar Home, for example, is a great place and sponsors several student clubs with free food and cheap drinks.
  • Glaswegians love traffic cones. The symbol of Glasgow is a statue of the Duke of Wellington, and what do you think is on his head? Obviously, a traffic cone. If the police try to take it down, students (usually a bit tipsy) will put it back in place overnight. In the student halls there are even signs saying you aren’t allowed to store traffic cones in your room. I’m wondering how many people have done it and what they did with the cone in their flat.Duke of Wellington Statue, Glasgow
  • Museums are usually for free, so it is great to explore them. My personal favourite is the Riverside museum with a fantastic realistic street from around the year 1900 with many shops and even a tram.
  • The taps. I haven’t figured out why the invention of a tap joining hot and cold water hasn’t reached the UK. Until then I will have to keep alternately burning and freezing my hands.
  • Ceilidhs are so much fun. Strip the Willow, the Orcadian, Flying Scotsman, Gay Gordons are just a few of all the fun dances that you can enjoy with your friends.
  • The word BEAUTIFUL is not enough to describe Scottish nature. I love the majestic snow-capped peaks, rocky island shores, peaceful glens with grazing sheep, many different shades of green. The West Highland Way and other long-distance walks are like heaven for people who love trekking and hiking. After returning to civilisation from the windy-rainy-muddy-chilly outdoor activities, a fish ‘n’ chips supper and a nip of whisky or some cider work a treat to warm you up again 🙂Scottish Mountain View

Best regards,


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…