Europe was my campus
The winter semester proved to be the most eventful of my program as I spent it abroad at the University of Strasbourg in France. As I followed the equivalent courses in the faculty of chemistry, I was exposed to an altogether different approach to pedagogy in an institution renowned for its research. I appreciated one lab course in particular in which, once my partner and I had completed all the mandatory steps in a synthesis, we were left by our professor to experiment with new reactions based solely on the knowledge we had gained over the course of the assignment. This liberty, unlike the rigid classroom structure to which I was accustomed, instilled in us the curiosity and creativity which guides true research later on in academia.
My education was by no means limited to the lecture hall, however. I joined the Strasbourg University Orchestra for the duration of the semester and participated in the Festival of European Student Orchestras in Belgium. As it was my first time in Europe, I connected with relatives in Switzerland and Austria I had either never before met or not seen in a long time. With two relatives, I visited the hometown of my grandparents on the Austria-Hungary border, meeting family who spoke only German and Croatian.
Among other excursions, I spent a week hiking in the Lake District of northern England with a Canadian friend. As we wandered through the hills and past Roman ruins, discussing everything from particle physics to our respective futures, we reflected on the fact that the greater part of one’s education occurs in the least expected of places. The photo is from this trip, as I considered the whole of Western Europe my learning environment for the semester.
Altogether, I visited 10 countries, profiting from their small size, high density of culture and the efficient rail systems in order to see the most of the Old World I could in between courses. I also discovered a love of the German language and took an additional language course to supplement the words and expressions I picked up on my travels.
Following the challenge of a professor in my department in the fall, I registered and then spent the winter training for the Ottawa Marathon in May. The goal provided an impetus to explore the cities I visited in Europe by running through them, in the early morning before the other tourists were up and about.
For the summer, I have returned to Québec to undertake a research internship in polymer chemistry, for which I was awarded another NSERC undergraduate research grant. The lab develops photoactive molecules, materials which can be used in solar cells to transform light into an electric current. The work is particularly edifying as its final purpose is both practical and environmentally motivated, and its value does not end on a theoretical level in the fume hood.