Aarhus University, Denmark August 2018
In today's blog, I would like to share the experience of being a student at Aarhus University and living in Denmark for six months as part of the Ph.D. program. In August 2018, I was lucky enough to be given a chance to take part in a research exchange program and join the Integrated Circuit and Electronics (ICE) LAB. My advisor Dr. Hadi Heidari discussed the possibility of me joining them for three months prior to August at the ISCAS conference in Florence, Italy. When I heard about it, I wasn’t too convinced that it would be possible due to the visa process and my housing arrangements in Glasgow. Long story short, luckily, things went well and I had managed to arrange all of it. The moment when I realised I had a green light to go, it was exciting for me. This is because in my research group not a lot of people are working on circuits, and in ICE LAB almost everyone is circuit and system designer. It was a great opportunity for me to be part of the community that is experienced in circuit design. Moreover, as a student who holds a Tier4 visa in the UK, it was a huge chance for me to explore EU countries during weekends as usually, I would need to apply for a visa to do so. Little did I know, at the end of the six months I had hardly left Aarhus city itself, let alone going around Europe. Why? The following are reasons why I enjoyed myself a little too much in Aarhus, without any regrets.
From the airplane window, my first impression of Aarhus was that it is a coastal city. Luckily it was still the end of summer when I arrived there. For me growing up in Yangon city, the beach is something we don’t take for granted. Far from it, it is something we have to spend time and money to see. Therefore, living next to the sea excited me a lot. What I didn’t know at that time was my home dormitory was 10 minutes' bike ride from the beach. Speaking of bicycles, fun fact, did you know Aarhus has a separate lane on both sides for bicycles? People in Denmark bike even in wintertime. You can imagine the struggle I had for a few weeks to build up the stamina to travel by bike from my dormitory to university without needing to stop a few times on the way. It was embarrassing when a grandma would drive past you while you were resting on the way. At the beach near my house, there is an infinity bridge that is in a circle shape connected to shores and sea. There is no experience comparable to walking on this bridge or sitting on it while gazing at the sea. Also right across the road from beach there is a national park where you can feed deer which walk freely in nature and live alongside humans with no fences separating them. Yes you read it right, O-M-G indeed.
People in Aarhus
They are some of the nicest people I have come across so far. They speak perfect English for those who worried about communication problems and are interested in visiting or studying in Denmark. Everyone looks fit, maybe because they ride their bikes every day. It will be no news to you that people from Scandinavia are happy because, from my personal point of view, they are encouraged to have a second life outside of the work. Enjoying Friday evening is a must and hence even in every department in university there is a Friday bar. Don’t be shocked to see students drinking or playing pub games in the study place on Friday afternoon, although it can be little too loud for those working hard or witness lecturers skillfully open the bottle with another bottle. Arr spoiler alert!
My favorite part of my visit was my friends from the dormitory. As I’ve been living independently in the UK, when I first arrived, I did not fit in the shared kitchen culture with a lot of people. As I got to know these people who also come from various other countries, the kitchen became my favorite place and will be for many years. I looked forward to coming back home every day just because of these people and they are the very reason I did not travel to another European country. To me, I only had one thing to do after my tiring day, which was to meet with all my friends in our dorm. We shared so many beautiful memories such as biking around on the weekends, our nicknames (mine is King Kong, get it?), winter bath in beach in freezing water, beach at midnight, feeding deer in deer’s park, cooking together, international dinner nights when everyone cooked their own cultural dishes and ate them together, and the forty-five-minute walk to our favorite pub. I am not into nights out all honesty, but with them, I will say yes 9.5/10. Last but not least I enjoyed listening to their experiences which come from different academic disciplines and cultural backgrounds. It is not common to witness students who are passionate about their subjects and maintain the balance of happy life outside of school. They are all truly good at what they do. One thing I am sure is these friendships will grow for many years to come.
Experiences in ICE-LAB team and Aarhus University
ICE-LAB team is very organized and focus mainly on integrated circuits and systems. They have state-of-the-art equipment and made me felt like it was the right place for me to be. They are all very friendly and welcoming towards me, always making me feel like I am one of them although I am just a visitor. The structure of the team run is quite different from my home team in Glasgow. In Glasgow, you are in touch with your supervisor every almost every day and we have monthly meetings where you present what have you done in the last four weeks. In Aarhus, I met with the head of ICELAB, my second supervisor, Dr. Fashard Moradi, every fortnight and had a discussion on the progress and difficulties I was facing. In group meetings, rather than with PowerPoint presentations, group members discuss the circuit design problems on a whiteboard and solve them together.
Call me an old fashioned engineer, I am so glad they stick to the whiteboard and solved the problem that way. Personally, I like doing so because presenting the problem on a whiteboard requires reconstruction of understanding the fundamental problem and presenting in sequence, therefore, the audience is not looking ahead as if they are watching the PowerPoint slide but rather on the same page as the presenter on the thought process. Both the audience and presenter being in the present helps understand the problem on a deeper level and it is easier to point out any flaws in the presenter's thinking. Thereby discussions are composed of different engineering points of view and you always end up coming out with a full understanding of issues that potentially lead to the solution later. Moreover, another favorite of mine was that we had cake every now and then in meetings, which I am not complaining about. I also witnessed strange phenomena such as the students from Aarhus being given the opportunity to continue their laboratory work before and after the assigned section hours and really understand what they are doing.
In Aarhus University, you are encouraged to have a second life outside of the school. At first, for someone who used to be in a hard-working environment, it made me skeptical about the effectiveness of the system. However, once you practice it, one may come to an understanding of working smart rather than working hard during the limited office hours between 9-6. Then, you can do something else, later on, which helps your mind focus during working hours effectively and your work improves significantly. Time passes quite fast as you focus more, and I always look forward to starting the next day and eventually I enjoyed the process in my day to day life. It felt like I was no longer missing out on both social life, work-life and a healthier lifestyle. I still remember when my supervisor asked me “What are you doing at university during the weekends? Go enjoy your favorite beach." Rather than abusing the freedom I was given, on the contrary, I wanted to work more by choice. I had learned to earn my own free time through finishing my work in a more organized fashion and thus whatever free time I had for friends became more enjoyable and made me concentrate well on my work the next day. It makes sense when you think about the creative mind: ideas come from your mind being free, not from your tiredness and exhaustion, after all.
I was also invited to attend every staff meeting, viva defense, and other university occasions. Therefore I was always informed of what was happening around me and I did not feel left out. I had a clear vision of the direction Aarhus university is taking. Their university staff are always helpful and ensure that you can fully focus on your research and make things easier for you. One thing I have learned is by building mutual trust between university, their staff, and students, everyone is respectful about their work ethic and they treat all the university assets as if it is their own, with respect and care rather than enforced by the rules. Thanks to my supervisor Dr. Hadi for the tremendous opportunity I had for my visits, and Dr. Farshad and his team members for taking care of me during my visit. Due to these experiences, I have learned so many things not just as a researcher but also open my eyes on so many different levels. For those who are considering to do an exchange program, I strongly encourage you to do so because some of the experiences you will learn from outside of your own bubble can be life-changing and it is a good opportunity to make lifelong friendships too.
Kaung Oo Htet is a Ph.D. student who started with meLAB in October 2017. He holds an M.Sc. in Automation and control from Newcastle University, UK, 2017, and a B.Eng., Electronics and Communications Engineering, Birmingham University, UK, 2016. His research interests include power management, DC-DC converters, and wearable and implantable systems.