A PhD Journey in the Land of Leprechauns
by Dr. Hooi-Ling Lee
Ireland or Èire is surrounded to the north and west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the northeast by the North Channel. The Irish Sea links to the Atlantic Ocean through St George’s Channel to the east and the Celtic Sea to the southwest. The country is famous for its landscape which consists of rugged cliffs, hills and mountains. Rainfall is quite prevalent throughout the year although it is less during summers than winters. Irish people are warm and friendly. Republic of Ireland is also well-known for the Celtic cultures and Irish folklore that include stories of angels, fairies and leprechauns†. Here is a narration of my journey as a PhD researcher in the Land of Leprechauns.
In October 2008, I received great news which was a turning point in my life. I had been accepted by my PhD supervisor to do my graduate study with a full scholarship under his recent Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)1 grant. The PhD study would be conducted in Dublin City University (DCU, Ollscoil Chathair Bhaile Átha Cliath)2, Dublin. I had always harboured a dream to further my study abroad after having accomplished my Master in Science and undergraduate study in a local university. The dream became more intense after my research attachment in Nancy, France for four months in 2007.
I have always been an interdisciplinary researcher. I am an applied chemistry graduate but I did my Master in Science by research in the Technological Pharmaceutical field. After that, I worked as a researcher for almost four years specialising in nanomaterial synthesis before embarking on my PhD journey. This time, I was accepted as a PhD candidate in the School of Physical Sciences, which was not really my original plan, especially since the word Physics scares me. What’s more, the research would focus more on fundamental investigation than on application.
The fact that I would be doing a totally new research in a foreign country for at least three years gave me mixed feelings. I felt excited because I would be living in a foreign country for some time and I would get to travel extensively in Europe. The feeling of uncertainty also gradually crept in, as I was not sure whether I could handle this study responsibility effectively given that I was not a physicist but a chemist. Eventually, after thinking it over, I accepted the offer. As of today as I write this article, it has been exactly four years since the day I landed in Dublin Airport.
It was near the Christmas season. My supervisor picked me up at the airport and helped me to register my PhD candidature officially on the same day I arrived in Dublin. I also had my first Christmas dinner with my lab colleagues and some other colleagues from the other Surface Science group in DCU on the same night. After the long haul flight, I felt jetlagged. I had a very good sleep in the Bed and Breakfast (B&B) hotel for the next three nights before settling down at the university postgraduate residence that would become my home for the next three and a half years.
During the first three months, I had to apply for the GINB registration card3. This is ‘residence card’ that allows a non-EU citizen to stay in Ireland for a year. This card has to be renewed every year with a fee and the applicants have to show that they have sufficient income to stay in Ireland. In this case, my supervisor provided me with a support letter that indicated the amount of stipend that I would receive per annum and also my status as a postgraduate student. Being Malaysians, we are very fortunate that we do not require a visa while studying in Ireland. However, as non-EU residents, we have to purchase medical or hospitalisation insurance during our stay in Ireland. Seeking medical care will cost a person about €50-60 (RM200-240). This fee does not include medications which we have to purchase at the pharmacy with doctor’s prescriptions.
During my first year, I struggled to understand the real physics of my research. Coming from an applied background, I was adjusting myself to become a fundamental researcher. At the same time, I had a conflict of identity. Was I a chemist or a physicist? I settled down as a ‘chemist cum physicist’ during my course as a PhD student there. Due to my background, it took me a year to slowly learn how to handle the ultra-high vacuum chamber (UHV) that is equipped with X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM) and low energy electron diffraction (LEED) technique. Being a petite gal, I had problems transferring the samples in the UHV chamber. Given that I am vertically challenged, my height required me to climb up the chamber and also to use a stool or a chair in order to do so. The UHV chamber is made of stainless steel and it looks very gigantic. But the actual fact is this chamber is very vulnerable because we have to maintain the chamber pressure within 10-10 mbar. Whenever there was a sudden power cut during night time due to the weather, we would be very anxious on whether the pressure was recoverable or would we need another bake to recover the pressure? Such scenarios made us very hands-on because we had maintained the chamber and instruments ourselves. The spare parts are very expensive and hence, the maintenance cost is high too.
In my first year, I had a chance to go to the Institute for Storage Rings Facilities (ISA)4 in Aarhus University, Denmark. That was my first beamtime. That one year had just passed in a blink without much to show of my own project!
In my second year, I was able to work better on my research work. I had another trip to ISA, Aarhus. With the results acquired, I got to attend my first international conference in Groningen, The Netherlands. From that conference, I met my future collaborators from IM2NP5, Marseille, France. Together, we applied for and successfully acquired an Ulysses Travelling Grant1 for our collaboration. During the same year, I had a new opportunity to visit MAX Lab6, University of Lund, Sweden to run synchrotron work there. With the results obtained in my second year, I passed my transfer report. The transfer report is essential to give a PhD student a direction of his/her work. One has to submit a mini thesis which consists of the current results with the plan for future work. After the submission, the candidate is required to give an oral presentation in front of a selected internal examiner. An interview to test our basic knowledge in the project would be carried out by an internal examiner. Personally, I find this approach prepared me to face questions that would arise during my viva later on. Moreover, I had started to write one third of my final thesis from the mini thesis that I had written for the transfer report.
When I was in my third year, life became extremely hectic. A resolution was made to finish my experimental work by end of the year. I travelled to IM2NP5, Marseille, France for a month for a ollaborative work which employed ultraviolet photoelectron spectroscopy (UPS). To my delight, I was very productive there. We were thinking that it would be useful to have density functional theory (DFT) calculations for the UPS results that we had just obtained. Irish luck was on our side. I attended the same conference that I did in 2010 in Wrocław Poland and this time, we met a chemist cum theorist from CIRIMAT7, Toulouse, France who was interested to collaborate with us on this project. As of the time of writing, the calculations are still on-going and the early results appear to be promising. At the end of 2011, I managed to complete my experimental work.
My life in the beginning of 2012 revolved around writing up my thesis, during days and nights. I made sure I always had enough sleep and exercise. I was very fortunate to have a postdoctoral research associate who helped me tremendously to proofread my thesis chapters, gave me constructive feedbacks, and spent time on fruitful discussions with me. After four months of intense writing together with to and fro corrections between my supervisor and me, I finally submitted my thesis in early April. In late May, I successfully defended my thesis. It was a huge relief when the external examiner congratulated me for passing my viva. To be frank, I enjoyed my viva very much because we had very good discussions throughout the session.
Looking back now, life has been very kind to me. I had one of the most understanding and patient supervisor. Without him, I do not think I will ever come to this stage. Throughout my stay abroad, I have matured in my thinking and expanded my social as well as my professional networks. Most important of all, I learned to appreciate the importance of fundamental research. In addition, I DID travel extensively during my stay in Europe. Well, what’s more to ask for?
Slán go foil, Èire. Tá súil agam go fheicim tú arís lá amháin (Goodbye for now, Ireland. I hope I see you again one day).
I wish to thank my very good friend, Ms. Lee Su Ann for all assistance rendered to me while I was in Dublin until now. I also want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my PhD supervisor and all my friends in Ireland for giving me such a memorable moment in my life.
[†] Leprechaun: a mischievous elf of Irish folklore usually believed to reveal the hiding place of treasure if caught.
About the Author:
Dr. Hooi-Ling Lee is an Interview Correspondent for Scientific Malaysian. She is currently a senior lecturer in the School of Chemical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia. She holds a PhD (Surface Science) degree from Dublin City University, Ireland. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Find out more about Dr. Hooi-Ling Lee by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/hooiling-lee/