Practicum Exchange through Materials Science and Engineering

Practicum Exchange through Materials Science and Engineering

Rewarding.  Eye-opening.  Fun.  Different.

These are just some of the words, a small group of material science students would use to describe the three months they spent at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and Tsinghua University.

Whilst Sydney was sweltering in heat, these students spent their summer vacation in university laboratories getting first hand experiences in research in an entirely different cultural context. For them, this was a chance to witness science in a global scale and to see the many areas that material science can take them. Projects that they were involved in spanned from piezoelectric ceramics to dielectric polymers, cryogenics, 2D materials, computer simulations and thin films...

Of course, it wasn’t all work and no play. Having the opportunity to spend three months in another country was the perfect excuse to do some exploring. For the group in America, Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles were just some of the locations on their itineraries. In China, the three students who called themselves the ‘Tsinghua Trio’, visited sites like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and found themselves taking a high-speed train for a five-hour hike on one of China’s most dangerous mountains.

The students share their remarkable experiences below.

North Carolina State University Exchange

As five materials engineers packed their belongings and boarded on a 15-hour flight to America, excitement filled the air. Landing in the USA brought us all a sense of awe, wonder and excitement. Spread across LA, San Francisco and Chicago, we soaked in the culture, scenery and foods that this beautiful country has to offer. Slowly, we made our way to Raleigh - the small quiet capital of North Carolina that we would come to call our second home. We were immersed in a variety of research topics during the week, things that some of us had never even heard of, such as computational simulations of DNA materials, doping of monolayer molybdenum disulphide and studies on the mechanisms behind piezoelectrics. With each of these projects, all of us were able to develop important skills that would equip us for our future careers. Some of us greatly improved our computer skills through running numerous computer simulations, one of us became a cryo-SEM-imaging dynamo while others learned how to use various pieces of laboratory equipment, such as vacuum chambers, sputtering devices and X-Ray diffractometers.

Although most weekdays were spent in the lab, learning about the intricacies of research, our weekends were filled with many small trips to different areas of North Carolina. We visited our host Jacob Jones’ lake house where we spent the days kayaking and the nights by the campfire, roasting s’mores and poorly singing classic rock songs (which always ended in laughter). A highlight of our exchange was definitely the Ski Trip that was organised by some PhD students from Jacob’s research group. We spent the weekend skiing down the slopes taking in the beautiful natural scenery that North Carolina had to offer. Another weekend was spent visiting the largest city in North Carolina, Charlotte. Here, we indulged in the amazing food and a few of us even caught an NBA basketball game! We were rooting for the Charlotte Hornets and luckily they won!

One of the highlights of our exchange trip was visiting New York City - the city of dreams, during the Christmas break. Whilst in New York, we spent hours exploring the streets, taking in the rich culture and scenery as well as visiting well-known landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park. A highlight of this trip was having group dinners at different restaurants within the city. Some of the scrumptious food we ate included spicy Jamaican chicken wings, delicious wood fired Italian pizza, rainbow bagels and traditional Japanese food. After our New York adventure, each of us parted ways and visited different places within the US on our way back to NC State. Some of which included Boston, Washington and Michigan and Miami.

After our eventful Christmas break, we returned to Raleigh refreshed and ready to continue researching. In addition to researching we also spent many hours at the university gym burning off the copious amount of junk food consumed. There are so many memories that we won't forget; the Krispy Kreme Challenge - where you run 5 miles and eat 12 Krispy Kreme donuts in less than an hour, college sport games, the friendships we built with each other and with those from NCSU, copious amounts of shopping and enjoying the beauty of the snow.

At the end of February, the five materials engineers reluctantly boarded a 15-hour flight back to Sydney. Their luggage filled to capacity and journals filled with incredible recollections of the best three months of their lives, where each of them in their own way learnt to spread their wings and fly. Each of us have been greatly missing our new friends since returning home but we’re all very excited to be reunited with the incoming UNSW research exchange students and to have the chance to show them around our own beautiful city.

Tsinghua Research Exchange

An average day at Tsinghua started off with breakfast in our student apartments before heading off on our bikes to the laboratories. There we would undertake practical work, including sample preparation and recording measurements with equipment that, more often than not, were completely new to us. Processing data from our samples saw our software skills put to practice (and certain content covered in earlier year coursework proved to be highly relevant at times)! Alongside the laboratory work, reading research papers helped us to better understand the topic - one article lead to another and then another and eventually we may have found ourselves on some completely obscure article wondering how we ended up there. We were even asked to help read over and edit papers that the group intended to publish – a few of us got our names on a paper too!

Initially arriving in a completely different setting, we were anxious about expectations that they might have had for us (and for one of us, the language barrier), but equally importantly, we worried over how to get food at dining halls and how to build rapport with our respective research groups. But we soon found ourselves eating both lunch and dinner with our shi xiong and shi jie (translated as our seniors) almost every day. There were days we found ourselves stealing glances at the group as lunchtime rolled round, anticipating that remark that signalled mealtimes. We marvelled at the diverse range of Chinese dishes available and some of us found new favourites we won’t be able to find in Sydney. The university itself was a great place to explore and we couldn’t possibly miss out on the tourist sites at Beijing. But as with any trip, it is also about the company – the people we met and the friendships we built made the trip especially memorable. Three months may seem short but it was enough to have us reluctant to leave the group that taught us so much and welcomed us into their research family.

Immersion into the culture and professional environment of the research group at Tsinghua University truly gave us an experience of what academic research entails.

This learning experience, cultural experience, this experience of a lifetime, we will never forget.