LIFE AS AN AS­PIR­ING CANTABRIGIAN EN­GI­NEER

New Straits Times - - Higher Ed - NUR FARHANI IR­FAN NOR AZMI

“I ITHINK, at a child‘s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy god­mother to en­dow it with the most use­ful gift, that gift should be cu­rios­ity.“

I first heard this in­spir­ing quote by Eleanor Roo­sevelt from my com­rade-in-arms or, more for­mally, the pres­i­dent of Young Malaysian En­gi­neers UK, a so­ci­ety that I am a mem­ber of. This quote res­onates with me be­cause cu­rios­ity is one of my great­est traits, fu­elling my drive to achieve suc­cess. So be­fore delv­ing into the ex­pe­ri­ence of study­ing en­gi­neer­ing at Cam­bridge Univer­sity, I would like to tell you how this ca­reer path found me.

I dis­tinctly re­mem­ber the feel­ing of amaze­ment as I mixed triglyc­erides with sodium hy­drox­ide in chem­istry class five years ago, feel­ing the oily tex­ture change to the slip­pery dis­po­si­tion of soap. This ex­per­i­ment fas­ci­nated me end­lessly; how can two prod­ucts re­act with one an­other to pro­duce an­other wholly dif­fer­ent one? My fas­ci­na­tion re­mains, re­sult­ing in my de­ter­mi­na­tion to pur­sue a sci­ence-re­lated ca­reer.

I al­ways knew I had a pas­sion for sci­ence in gen­eral, but a re­search project un­der­taken when I was 16 made me aware of my pro­found love for its ap­pli­ca­tion. In 2012, my friend and I de­cided to con­duct a re­search project to ad­dress the in­creas­ingly ap­palling den­tal health in de­vel­op­ing na­tions. Our project, ti­tled Mimu­sops elengi L. as a Cure for Den­tal Caries, won a gold award at a na­tional in­no­va­tion com­pe­ti­tion. The ex­tract, which con­tained a chem­i­cal com­pound from tan­nin, is from an ever­green tree found to be a nat­u­ral sub­sti­tute for tooth­paste. The project was a wake-up call for me, I re­alised the de­sire to use my sci­en­tific knowl­edge to in­no­vate for so­ci­etal needs. I set out to carve a fu­ture path in the field of chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing.

Cam­bridge has a unique sys­tem where prospec­tive en­gi­neers learn Gen­eral En­gi­neer­ing for two years, and then spe­cialise in the third and fourth years. For as­pir­ing chem­i­cal en­gi­neers at Cam­bridge, how­ever, there are two dif­fer­ent path­ways in the first year, which is ei­ther via the Nat­u­ral Sciences or En­gi­neer­ing route.

These routes pro­vide equally good prepa­ra­tion for the chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing course un­der­taken in sub­se­quent years. The En­gi­neer­ing route gives stu­dents an ex­cel­lent back­ground in gen­eral en­gi­neer­ing and suits those who are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in ap­ply­ing sci­ence to solve prob­lems. The Nat­u­ral Sciences route gives stu­dents an ex­cel­lent broad sci­en­tific back­ground and suits those who en­joy un­der­stand­ing how things work at a fun­da­men­tal level. I chose the En­gi­neer­ing route as I feel that I am bet­ter suited for a more hands-on ap­proach to Chem­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing.

Al­most two terms have passed and I still find it hard to be­lieve that I am at Cam­bridge. Ev­ery day, I ride my sec­ond-hand bi­cy­cle to the En­gi­neer­ing De­part­ment for the 9am lec­tures, some­times rep­ri­mand­ing my­self if I for­get to wear my gloves as it is ex­tremely cold! I pre­fer to walk to the de­part­ment and en­joy watch­ing peo­ple rush­ing to their re­spec­tive de­part­ments and feel­ing my feet step­ping on the un­even, cob­bled streets.

Upon en­ter­ing the massive lecture room, I can­not help but feel over­whelmed as there are so many in­tel­li­gent peo­ple around. Most of the time I find the lec­tures quite baf­fling, but I quickly make up for it by watch­ing Khan Academy videos on YouTube and vis­it­ing web­sites for fur­ther ex­pla­na­tions.

In ad­di­tion to lec­tures, we have lab work and projects, which in­clude Com­put­ing, Struc­tural De­sign Project, In­te­grated Elec­tri­cal Projects and ex­per­i­ments. These projects give an op­por­tu­nity to fully ap­ply what we learn in lec­tures. For a com­put­ing novice like me, I have to ad­mit that the projects are dif­fi­cult. Even so, I con­stantly re­mind my­self that Imam Syafie said that “if you can­not en­dure the pain of learn­ing, then you must bear the pangs of ig­no­rance“. To bal­ance the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of the en­gi­neer­ing sub­jects, I en­rolled in free be­gin­ner Span­ish classes of­fered by the de­part­ment. I en­joy these classes.

On Wed­nes­days, stu­dents usu­ally groan among them­selves as this is the day that we get a new batch of ex­am­ple pa­pers. Be­fore each sub­ject su­per­vi­sion, we have to com­plete the ex­am­ple pa­pers and do more re­search on the sub­ject, as we will be asked to demon­strate our un­der­stand­ing of the sub­ject to our su­per­vi­sor. Sounds fright­en­ing? Def­i­nitely.

At my first su­per­vi­sion, I was de­cid­edly ner­vous as it felt like an in­ter­view — only the su­per­vi­sor, my lab part­ner and I were in the room. Nonethe­less, I learnt to pre­pare as much as I can and give it my best shot.

Study­ing in Cam­bridge taught me that most of the time, you are not go­ing to be the smartest per­son in the room. Un­der­grad­u­ate life is far from fun and games, it is hard work and con­stant stress. Even so, just try and do your best. You can sur­vive, and you will sur­vive. Af­ter all, if it was easy, it would not be called life, right?

The writer is a first-year chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent at St John‘s Col­lege, Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, UK. A Yayasan Khaz­anah scholar, she was a for­mer stu­dent of Kolej Yayasan UEM and Seko­lah Seri Pu­teri, Cy­ber­jaya. Email her at ed­u­ca­tion@nst.com.my

At a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy god­mother to en­dow it with the most use­ful gift, that gift should be cu­rios­ity.” ELEANOR ROO­SEVELT, WIFE OF US PRES­I­DENT FRANKLIN D. ROO­SEVELT

Cam­bridge has a unique sys­tem where prospec­tive en­gi­neers learn Gen­eral En­gi­neer­ing for two years, and then spe­cialise in the third and fourth years.

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