Annie Bananie en Europe

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Wait, what do you mean…I finished my PhD?

Uh, so I finished my PhD.


How in the world did that happen? You mean, my three years in Europe are over? I am…a Dr. now? Somehow it all feels…surreal.

The part about spending three years in Europe, that is. The Dr. part feels way too normal, in the sense that nothing at all has changed and life continues as before. Just because I have a special “title” now, doesn’t mean anything is different. At least that’s what it feels like. Maybe the moments of epiphany haven’t arrived yet. Maybe it’s still too fresh and the reality hasn’t sunk in. Maybe…

But yes, just a little update, I defended my PhD thesis on Tuesday, December 10, 2013 in Bordeaux, France. Special mention goes to my dad who arrived in Bordeaux from Toronto, three days earlier! I’ve been waiting for this day pretty much since day one of my arrival in Europe, and it has happened. Way too fast. Let’s try to rewind and see how the day went down. There are way too many pictures and I only chose the super representative ones (and that already makes 25 in this post!) Thanks to my dear friend and sister in Christ, Peiguang Wei, for being my dedicated photographer (and make-up artist as well as hairdresser) for the entire day! Click here for the full album.

Now, let’s roll. (Follow my “Wait, what do you mean I’m doing a PhD?” journey by reading part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The defense began with a 45-minute presentation of the work I’ve done within the past three years, on the thesis topic of “Biological Multi-Functionalization and Surface Nanopatterning of Biomaterials”. Don’t worry if it sounds like jibberish to you. Sometimes after three years I still don’t understand it and think it IS jibberish. The presentation is followed by a questioning period by a jury comittee that lasts typically an hour an a half. Oh boy. It was gonna be a tough battle, but a glorious one.

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Wait, what do you mean I’m doing a PhD…Part 3

It’s been a year since I wrote part 2 of the PhD series, which means…I am graduating soon? Soon means I am defending my thesis in December, which is just another 6 months away. Uh oh. WHAT. IS. GOING. ON.

As I enter the critical thesis-writing stage of my PhD, I often get asked, “How’s your thesis coming along?” Well, fellow non-academia friends, let’s go through some grad school etiquette, shall we?

Thank you, Jorge Cham, for putting it in an understandable, acceptable manner. In short, do not ever ask a PhD student the two taboo questions (or questions remotely similar to them). These questions may induce unnecessary stress, irreversible brain damage (either to the PhD student, or to you, when the student goes berserk and attacks you), loss of appetite, or (in extremely rare cases) increased motivation.

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Two years and a bit – so what?

I was contemplating whether I should write the 2-year reflection post first or the Toronto vacation post, and decided to go with the former. There was so much circling in my mind as I was preparing to write this, all these mixed thoughts and feelings flying in from every direction. Yet…it’s harder and taking longer to write than I had expected. How do you organize two years worth of experience into one post?

Two years of being away from any family. Two years of wanderlust. Two years of getting lost over and over again and waking up in epiphanies in the midst of my academic journey that’s supposedly going to lead me somewhere. Two years of calling a land once foreign to me, “home”.

Well, let’s take a look at some quick figures.

Total number of months since starting PhD (as of end of September, 2012): 24
Number of months in Bordeaux: 11.5 (48%)
Number of months in Louvain-la-Neuve: 10 (42%)
Number of months in Canada: 2 (8%)
Number of months in China: 0.5 (2%)

At two years, I am more than halfway through with this PhD program, which was the reason why I stepped onto European soil in the first place. France and Belgium – I’ve grown to love both of my host countries day by day. Doing science in such exotic lands has never even crossed my mind say, five years ago. Of course, this European adventure brought me so much more than just academic advancement. After all, what would I have gained if I stayed only in Bordeaux and Louvain-la-Neuve – odd combination, now that I think about it – without expanding my reach beyond the horizon of possibilities?

School and work

Being in a co-tutelle, I am involved in a collaboration between two labs in two cities, meaning I hop between the labs fairly often. In terms of time spent, the Bordeaux-LLN ratio is much closer to 50-50 than originally planned, which surprises me even today. At the beginning, I was anticipating something like spending 80% of my time in Bordeaux and 20% in Louvain-la-Neuve, but in reality, I’ve spent almost an equal amount of time so far in my labs in both cities. People ask me if I ever get tired of switching cities every few months, running around, packing and unpacking and repacking over and over again. To be quite honest, yes, I get tired, but strangely, I enjoy this mobility, even if it means having to look for housing in Louvain-la-Neuve in advance every single time (so far, 5 different places).

I’ve seen some of the best sunsets in Louvain-la-Neuve, one along Rue Charlemagne as I was walking home from work. Yes, even a little place like LLN has its charm.

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Wait, what do you mean I’m doing a PhD…Part 2

So, I should probably start this entry with the situation that I’m in right now…or rather, a PhD student’s daily 5-minute meditation in the morning.

Good ol’ Phd Comics…the story of my life!

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Basque Country part 1: 2nd IDS-FunMat training school in Anglet

IDS-FunMat (International Doctoral School in Functional Materials) training week is perhaps the only time of the year when I look forward to a Monday. It is an annual training week in my PhD program where all the PhD candidates meet at one place to undergo lectures, workshops, and discussions. Of course that means a lot of interaction and socializing, and what better place to do it than right beside the Atlantic Ocean? The destination this year…Anglet!

When I told friends that I was going to Anglet, no one knew where that was. Then I said Biarritz…still doesn’t sound familiar until I popped out the name Bayonne. Turns out the three places are actually one big community, kinda like Bordeaux and Pessac and Mérignac, I suppose.

Last year, the first training school took place in Portugal. Yes, it was also by the Atlantic, but one can never get too much of the ocean. I met my colleagues – or classmates – for the first time last year and had a blast getting to know everyone, coming from all over the world ranging from the Philippines, Mexico, Nepal, Canada (yes there was another Canadian aside from me!) etc. This year, in addition to my class, there was the new class of 2011 that has joined the program. The nationalities were as diverse as before, if not more diverse – Turkey, Singapore, Ukraine, Italy…you name it! Double the people, double the fun!

The people – I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with everyone in the IDS-FunMat program, and I was so excited to see the people in my class, some of which whom I haven’t seen since Portugal last year! It’s a marvelous thing, bonding with people. Nature nourishes us, but human interaction keeps us alive.

Seems like Mariel from the Philippines (left) and Daniel from Australia (right) are having an intense scientific discussion on the beach! From photovoltaics to biomaterials to solar cells, PhD candidates from all areas of functional materials met during this training week to discuss our progress, problems, and prospects.

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