Monday, 1 August 2016

Starting a PhD in Cambridge

In Februrary this year I began my PhD and so I thought I would write about how it has gone so far. Before arriving I contacted a professor in the Chemical Engineering department who leads a group that studies the formation of soot in engines and the flame synthesis of nanoparticles. It took about a year to organise funding and VISAs for my wife and I. This was by far the most challenging aspect and required applying for every scholarship under the sun. Funding eventually came through the Singaporean government who are interested in reducing carbon emissions from industry. With funding arranged we could apply for study. Cambridge University has many colleges which provide accommodation, catering and tutoring. We joined Churchill College, a newer college to the west of the main city centre.

Churchill College has flats for couples and families which are very comfortable. Packing everything into five suitcases was very challenging but soon enough we were ready to board the plane. Two 10-hour flights were needed to transport us literally to the other side of the world. 

Arriving in Cambridge felt as if we were transported back in time. The colleges have some amazing buildings and grounds. Behind the colleges runs the river Cam and hiring a punt gives you one of the best views of the colleges.

The many different departments are scattered around the city. The Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, where I am currently base, is hidden behind the old Cavendish laboratories site (the labs have moved out to west Cambridge).

Here I began to research soot formation in the computational modelling group, which works predominately in the field of combustion. 

One great thing about starting in the group was how welcoming everyone was. The group has members from all around the world; South Africa, Bulgaria, China, Poland, Austria, England, Scotland, Germany and now New Zealand. The pace is also very fast, there is a lot more focus on individual projects, perhaps less collaboration than I was expecting. There is also more self-direction than I am used to which is a good thing but also requires careful time management. Coming into the field of combustion I was surprised how little we understand about formation of soot and am excited to work on the topic. I have begun to simulate the self-assembly of molecules into soot particles making use of the cluster of computers we have in the group and the university's supercomputer.

Everyone works long hours but there are good breaks. At 10:30 and 3:30 we have a tea break and everyone is served tea by the catering staff; it's a good time to catch up with the other students and professors. For lunch we head to the market to buy bread and cheese and eat in the park or outside King's College chapel.

We joined the community at Holy Trinity church and have enjoyed the band, teaching and post-church drinks at the pub. I was surprised that Cambridge has the highest church attendance out of any place in England. There is also not the same conflict model between science and faith that I am used to with regular lectures at the Faraday Institute about Christianity and science. We have a friend doing a PhD on the implications of evolution on Christianity theology and philosophy. The main critiques of the church that we hear are historical in nature, such as the subjugation of woman (not as historical as I would like) and killing in the name of God.

Being so close to Europe has meant being able to travel on cheap flights to Sweden, France and England. We have also been able to help out in Calais at the refugee camp. England is much closer to the action and it has been interesting to hear the different opinions around Brexit and frustrations surrounding the government and the European Union. 
What I miss the most about NZ is family, fresh food and the beaches. But I now know why people travel all this way to live in Cambridge, the people really make Cambridge what it is.