It’s been a while since my last blog (4 months!), which is indicative of either a science student’s first year workload, my laziness, or most likely both. I thought it’d be nice to get back into the writing vibe though, and talk a bit about what my overall first semester of uni has been like.
The first thing that strikes a lot of people about university is the sudden realisation they’re not such a special cookie. Luckily for me, I went to a science camp last year which gave me that experience, so I knew what to expect in those regards. Regardless, it’s still worth mentioning, since being the class nerd/smart science kid in high school is a tough frame of mind to shake off so suddenly. Most of my friends and classmates whom with I study with are in the Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours) Science (PhB Science) degree – a science research degree which is super competitive and slightly kinda sorta elitist…or at least has the stereotype of being so. In reality, everyone in PhB is super awesome, and share similar interests, which is essentially intense curiosity in science! That being said, the level a lot of my peers are at in academics and the sort make for quite a real sense of pressure and intensity. I think that really just arises from the fact that there are so many people in first year courses, some of which are inevitably way smarter than everyone. That being said, I’ve made quite a number of really good friends in PhB and throughout my courses in general, which has made uni far more enjoyable and manageable. Luckily, a bunch of people from the National Youth Science Forum which I attended last year also came to ANU, which thankfully made the initial transition less daunting.
What did however strike me off guard about uni was how everything feels so scaled up – larger, grander and wholly more important. From the campus itself, the calibre of academic work around you to the sheer expectations and responsibilities of tertiary studies. No longer am I confined to a high school class of ~50 people, but rather, I’m one of many thousands of students at the mercy of the dizzying whirpool which is university. Not only is the jump from high school to university quite a big one in academics, but also socially and perhaps psychologically. Courses are bigger, harder and more intense, and I have to reiterate – so many people!
The other crazy thing that still baffles me about university life is just how much stuff there is to do and see! Particularly for a science geek like myself and the rest of the PhB squad, it’s awesome how almost every other week there’s a public lecture or science-y related event on campus. From the announcement of gravitational waves from the LIGO group at ANU , to watching our Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt give his thesis presentation in 3 minutes, a science fan at ANU can never go bored. Earlier in the term there was even a talk on the Paris Climate Agreement in which several international ambassadors flew over to discuss the progress in big public event held in one of the main lecture halls on campus. Who says Canberra has to be boring?
It’s worth discussing how the academic side of things were first semester however, since that’s what I’m here for at the end of the day. As usual, I didn’t make it easy for myself, and went out of my way to choose the hardest subjects possible for a first year, first semester science student; Physics, Advanced Maths,Intro to Programming and a research project. I’m aiming to write another post discussing these subjects in more detail and some interesting stories/moments (and a totally separate one about the research), but I’ll give you a quick summary about the overall experience.
It was really damn hard.
Not that I’m complaining of course, the challenge is half the reason I chose those subjects. Whilst I didn’t have any specific expectations in terms of workload, but by the end of the first week, it began to dawn on me that shit was about to get real.
Physics was probably my favourite subject, in no small part thanks to our lecturer Paul Francis, who made everything from kinematics to electromagnetism really engaging to learn with ever so wacky examples. On the other end of the scale, MATH1115 covered Real Analysis and Linear Algebra, which are pretty much the fundamentals of mathematics (by extension, science as a whole!). It was quite a jump to go from high school maths to rigorous proofs in which actual numbers were few and far between. COMP1130, however, was a close second for most difficult subject since the coding language we learnt, Haskell, is just ridiculously weird. The assignments for 1130 were pretty intense too, requiring countless hours of staring at a computer screen in a daze of utter confusion and frustration.
As for my research project though, I’ll likely write another post entirely about that since that was quite the arduous journey in and of itself. Essentially I investigated the use spectral line broadening to diagnose temperature and density of a hydrogen plasma with spectroscopy techniques. I got to participate in an actual plasma experiment which was quite definitely a highlight of mine. For the most part though, it was reading journal articles, looking up words on Wikipedia, puzzling for hours as to what I needed to even do for my computer simulation, and generally just existing in a state of perpetual confusion. But it was good fun, and I learnt a heck of a lot which has made me immensely excited to do more research in the field of plasma physics.
Though headache inducing proofs, confusing comp assignments and baffling research stretched me to work harder than I previously thought possible, the pay-off at the end made it worth while in hindsight. For me, personally, it’s that moment when everything clicks – when your code compiles, when you finally understand a proof or when you finish writing the last paragraph of your research report – that’s the moment I chase with almost delirious motivation.
I think it’s been a fairly good start to university this semester. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m rather looking forward to dragging myself through even harder subjects next semester including yet more hardcore maths, physics and yet another plasma physics research project.