David Collinson from Auckland is using his 2015 Fulbright Science and Innovation Graduate Award to complete a PhD in Mechanical Engineering specialising in nanomechanics and nanomaterials at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. David graduated with a BE (Hons) from the University of Canterbury in 2014.
Tell us about what you are specialising in for your PhD.
My research focuses on the fundamental understanding of how materials behave when nanometre-sized (1 billionth of a meter!) particles are added. Nanoparticles can greatly improve the strength of some materials and give them various special properties. To understand how this works we can examine the materials at tiny length scales using specialised equipment to see the nanoparticles and how they interact with the surrounding material. By understanding this interaction, we can make significant progress in creating the next generation of materials.
How did you come to be interested in your field of study? What inspired you to pursue it and what do you enjoy about it?
My inspiration came during my final year of undergrad at the University of Canterbury. The final year projects that we do was an insight into research, and during the project I realised how much I enjoyed the process of discovery and learning something new. It’s exciting to think that you are doing work that have never been done before. Particularly, I am inspired by how scientists and engineers can create and make discoveries in the foreign, unseen of nanotechnology.
Why did you choose Northwestern?
When figuring out which university I wanted to attend, Northwestern University stood out to me for several reasons. Firstly was the excellent research and faculty in the Mechanical Engineering Department. My research interest lies in Nanomaterials and Nanocomposites and Northwestern has a large history in this field. When I contacted Northwestern, I found the faculty and staff I dealt with to be very supportive and helpful which was a big reassurance for me. In addition, the location of Northwestern really appealed to me. It’s situated in a town called Evanston just outside of Chicago so I was looking forward to being able to experience the American college town while having a metropolis next door to explore.
Had you been to Illinois before going on your Fulbright? If not, what were your first impressions?
I hadn’t been to Illinois before going on my Fulbright exchange, and my first impression was that it is flat, very flat. But beyond that, I have found people in the Midwest to be warm and welcoming so Evanston has been a very enjoyable place to spend my first year in the USA. Chicago has also been amazing to explore and its size is so far beyond any city in New Zealand.
How did your undergraduate study in NZ prepare you for postgraduate in the US?
I have found that undergraduate study has prepared me well for postgraduate study at Northwestern. Engineering degrees in New Zealand have a lot more emphasis on taking engineering courses than degrees in the US so I felt that I had a broad, strong foundation to begin my studies at Northwestern University.
What was the most challenging thing about your studies in the US?
As my postgraduate study continues, I take less and less coursework and focus more on research. I have found that research requires a different mindset to coursework so I have had to make some adjustments. Your due dates and goals generally are stretched out compared to classes but you have to work just as hard to meet them which takes a lot of self-motivation.
What was the most enjoyable thing about your studies in the US?
I have really enjoyed to opportunity to collaborate and work with a diverse range of people at Northwestern. For my research I work closely not just with people from my own group, but also students who specialise in robotics research and other areas of materials science.
Outside the classroom, what do you like about living in Illinois and what was your biggest learning curve so far?
Definitely having Chicago right on my doorstep to explore during my downtime. It’s very easy to get into Chicago and explore the diverse range of food and cultures. Chicago seems endless to me and there is always more to do. My biggest learning curve was learning to deal with the winters here. Winter in Chicago starts in November and it generally doesn’t get warm until April/May. Temperatures can get as low as -15C and struggle to get above 0C for several months! The buildings here are constructed with this in mind, but being outside in -15C with wind chill on top of that is certainly an experience.
What did you miss the most about home during your exchange?
Friends and family are a big thing. The vibrancy and range of New Zealand scenery is also something I didn’t fully appreciate until I came to the US. In New Zealand it’s so easy to go from city to beach to mountains etc, but here the distances are so much longer and it there is a lot more travel required to see any change in scenery.
Please share some memorable moments of experiencing American life on your Fulbright exchange.
I think the most defining experience of American life I had was the Thanksgiving dinner I had with an American family local to Chicago. The Fulbright association in Chicago has set up a program for families to volunteer to host a Fulbright exchange student. The family I went to had a lot of extended family at their place as well and put on a veritable feast with three turkeys, stuffing, biscuits, cranberry sauce, and various salads among other things. To complete the cultural exchange, I made a Pavlova to bring along for dessert. Afterwards everyone sat down to watch an American football match (Green Bay Packers vs Chicago Bears). They were very warm and welcoming and I enjoyed my first American thanksgiving immensely.
Have you connected with many other New Zealanders while you have been the US?
There are only a few Kiwi Fulbrighters in Chicago, but I have met several other Kiwis outside of the Fulbright program while at Northwestern, one of which I worked with on a research project. At my Fulbright enrichment seminar in Pittsburgh I was able to catch up with a couple of other Kiwis and we were able to discuss our experiences with living in the US. One particular thing that we all found during our time so far in the US was how sometimes our accents are pretty difficult for locals to understand.
Have you connected with many other Fulbrighters while you have been in the US?
I have had a lot of opportunity to connect with other Fulbrighters. I was able to meet Fulbrighters from all around the world at my Gateway seminar in Washington D.C. and the Enrichment Seminar I attended in Pittsburgh. I got to meet and make friends with so many different people and it was always interesting to hear their story and learn about what they were up to in the US. The Chicago Fulbright chapter is also pretty active, and they put on regular events for Fulbrighters in Chicago to meet and catch up.
International education is important because we are able to expose ourselves to a broader range of views and opinions from people with diverse backgrounds that we would never otherwise get to meet.
The Fulbright Science & Innovation Graduate Awards are for promising New Zealand graduate students to undertake postgraduate study or research at US institutions in fields targeted to support growth and innovation in New Zealand. Applications close 1 August annually.