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 (www.canadianaffair.com).

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!: www.facebook.com/hamiltonguesthouse) 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 (macoffcampus.mcmaster.ca/classifieds/index.php, craigslist.org, padmapper.com) 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: http://www.strathstudents.com/). 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 http://www.sportsunion.co.uk/).

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 http://www.strathstudents.com/international). 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 (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Glasgow-Internationals/55844921694), 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: http://www.friendsinternational.org.uk/. 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.

A quick overview over what your physics course could look like

As I pretty much left out any details on the University of Strathclyde or my degree course in my last post, it is probably now time to catch up with that and mention a bit about the physics department and the different study options (for which there is also lots of information on the physics department website which you probably came across on your way to this blog).

In general, there are two types of degrees one can receive: a 4-year bachelor honours and a 5-year integrated master’s degree. While the former has different possibilities of specializing either on physics with teaching, physics and maths or just physics, the latter follows the same structure as the physics bachelor honours, but involves two years, instead of one, for specializing and gaining research experience through projects. I am currently in the master degree programme, as I am planning to continue with a PhD and go into research, but the degree system is pretty flexible and one can switch between degrees up to the beginning of 4th year.

At least during the first three years, teaching is structured relatively similar to school with most subjects being compulsory and only a few classes to choose in the form of electives in first year and as extra credits in second and third year. I chose introductory astronomy and a course on flight and space flight engineering as electives in my first year, but there is a wide range of possible classes from languages, history and psychology to science courses with tempting names like “Everything you ever wanted to know about physics, but were too afraid to ask”. Compulsory courses, on the other hand, comprise the most important areas of physics, e.g. mechanics, optics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, solid state physics and computational physics, as well as the necessary maths whereas many classes are part of the curriculum every year but deal with increasingly difficult and complex aspects of the subject.

In 4th and possibly 5th year (depending if you go for bachelor honours or master), from what I have heard and seen, most of the curriculum is free to choose from a set of subject areas, whereas one of the only compulsory parts in both years is a research project which you work on in both semesters. Obviously the choice of topic is not totally free, as there are about 80 other people also wanting to choose, but the physics department has a broad range of research focuses, especially in photonics, plasma physics and quantum information, so there are many possibilities in both theoretical and experimental physics (let’s hope my words will still turn out to be true when it comes to me choosing a project…).

Most courses involve exams at the end of each semester (January and May), but also class tests or assignments during the semester which count towards the final mark. During the first two years, there is also the option that one can be exempted from exams if the class test or assignment marks are good enough, with which you can help yourself to incredibly long summer holidays (amazing 5 months!).

Especially first year is rather easy for anyone who has done advanced highers or any equivalent advanced courses in physics, and there is the possibility to enter straight into second year. I personally decided to start in first year which gave me time to get used to the whole new university environment and also to learn and talk about the course material in English.

One of the most important aspects of the physics course, which I haven’t mentioned yet, is labs. From first year on all physics bachelor and master students have to do a few hours of laboratory work per week whereas the format varies from year to year. While in first year we were doing pretty easy experiments, such as determining the viscosity of a fluid and finding the speed of waves on a guitar string, in small groups for 3 hours per week, in third year we have 8 hours per week to perform about four to six experiments in a year, alone or with a partner, from a whole selection of experiments, e.g. analysing gamma rays from different radioactive samples or generating and examining the second harmonic of laser light of a certain frequency from nonlinear optical effects (which basically means fun with lasers). Although I’m not the greatest of experimentalists and unfortunately all experiments also involve writing reports in which you summarize your results, I have quite enjoyed lab classes, especially in third year, as many of the experiments are actually tasks that one could be doing as part of “real” research work.

For exchange students who only stay for one semester or one year the whole system of course choices, etc. as mentioned before is usually less restricted (or maybe more, but from their home university) since they do not have to follow any curriculum requirements, but can choose from all courses from 1st to 5th year (again following the restrictions from their home university). From the physics Erasmus students I have met so far, most were in third year, but found that they could take fourth and fifth year courses without having difficulties with the course material.

In any case, there are really nice and helpful people in the physics department that can assist with any sorts of problems (visa problems, course problems, other preferably uni-related problems), so there is nothing to really worry about.

Why would anyone go to Scotland…?

One of the first questions I usually get asked when meeting new people is why I decided to come to Glasgow for studying. And for anyone who has been here for a while and seen the weather this might actually be a fair question.

For me it has been quite an easy decision as I came here with my boyfriend and, out of the five universities that we were allowed to apply for, Strathclyde was the only one that offered both of us a place. All this sounds rather boring, though, and is, of course, not the whole story, I usually skip that part and go straight to the unspeakably breath-taking Scottish landscape, the top-notch teaching and research facilities at Strathclyde, the indescribable beauty of Glasgow and, of course, the indeed surprisingly low costs for studying abroad all of which convinced me to spend five years of my life here.

To be fair, there is not much of a breath-taking landscape in Glasgow. But once you get out of the city, there are a lot of great things to see from the famous Loch Lomond – not more than an hour away – to the Scottish highlands, lowlands and isles most of which can be reached within 4 hours. The prospect of being able to visit at least some of these places – along with haggis, bagpipes and men in kilts – was what sparked my interest to choose Scotland as a place to study.

Two more important factors were that Scotland is mostly English-speaking (other languages spoken at times are Scots, Glaswegian, Gaelic or any other local dialect), so that I’d be able to actually understand what I was going to study, and that I would not have to pay any tuition fees. The latter point is, I think, quite unique to Scotland. Unlike in England, Wales or Ireland, the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS), a government organisation, in most cases pays the tuition fees for Scottish as well as non-British EU students. While this is rather unfortunate for non-Scottish British students, I personally am very thankful for these regulations as it allows me to study abroad for about the same costs that I would have studying in Germany.

Finally, Glasgow is, despite its reputation as an industrial city, really beautiful with a huge park in the middle of the city and historic buildings distributed all over the centre. For students it is a paradise since there are several gigs and hundreds of pubs you can choose from every night (actually, according to www.myglasgow.org there are exactly 812 (!) pubs and bars in and around Glasgow). And many of them along with shops and restaurants even want to give you student discount!

So what’s still keeping you…?