I was 17 years old when I first heard the word UCLan. I was told by an Astrophysicist, friend of my father, that British universities were quite good. Moreover, since the language of Science is nowadays English I said to myself “why not trying?”.
The truth was that I had no clue what to expect nor I really knew where Preston was.
I then left Paris to go to Preston and for four years people kept asking me: “why did you come to Preston?” I have only found an answer to this question at the end of this special experience, after my fourth year.
For those who do not know it, France is a very elitist country. Only those who excel can stay in the system, otherwise you get kicked out. In the UK this is totally different: England is the country that gives an opportunity to everyone and allows people to improve and discover what they are good at.
My uncle used to say “students are like a bunch of grapes: some grapes mature more quickly than others, but at the end of the day all of them are good to make wine”.
To some extent I was a slow grape, which eventually matured.
Professors at UCLan were all very kind and gentle with all the students. They would always ask whether we were happy or not about the course and they would also be ready to discuss about our personal issues if needed. This was a total change for me.
My first interest was actually astrophysics, even though I decided to follow the course of Physics instead of the one in Astrophysics, that was also offered by the university. I actually believed (and still believe) that a general preparation would have been better, rather than to specialize since the start.
During the first year I had to face the cultural and language barrier, as well as learning how to live alone abroad for the first time in my life. In the end it wasn’t as hard as many people say it is.
Nevertheless it took me some time to adapt and to learn how to express myself clearly at a university level. I still remember my very first uni exam, which was about mechanics, as there was an exercise which involved lots of calculations about forces due to objects in motion on a vessel. The problem was that I was not familiar with all the terminology used to describe the different parts of a ship and unfortunately it had a bad impact on the mark I obtained in the end. Luckily my second exam, which was on electromagnetism, was a lot better, as I managed to get the second best mark in the class.
When I got the exam back, I remember Prof. A. V. Zvelindovsky complimenting me for the solution I gave in one of the exercises, which involved the application of Kirchhoff’s law. Apparently it wasn’t an easy one. I think that this was a key moment of my uni life: I felt somehow an admiration for this professor who appreciated the outcome of my work.
During my second year I did a small project with Dr. Daniel Brown. The rest of the students did an experimental project, while I had the chance to do a theoretical one, which involved lots of hand written calculations and finally the numerical solution of a differential equation, which was used as a simple model to describe the Earth climate. I wrote this program in C, which back then seemed so difficult, using a Runge-Kutta method of fourth order. I could then see how the heat of the planet might change in order to freeze or unfreeze completely our beloved Earth, changing simply a few input parameters.
This was the moment where I understood that theoretical and computational physics were my fields of interest. I used to hate all the lab sessions.
It was along my third year that I started building some interest in Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies in general. We were supposed to write a small dissertation in a group, choosing from a list of topics. Depending on the topic, a lecturer would have helped us to conduct our work. However, since I really wanted to work with Prof. A. V. Zvelindovsky, I remember pushing all the people in my group to suggest to Dr. B. Hassal a new topic which would have involved Nanoscience, a field in which Prof. A. V. Zvelindovsky is an expert. At the end of that year I asked Prof. A. V. Zvelindovsky if I could do my final year project with him, but unfortunately he replied that he wouldn’t be able to supervise me as he was going to take a sabbatical year. Nevertheless he said that he could follow my work if I accepted to work with Dr. M. Pinna, which I then did.
The most amazing experience I had in Physics was during my fourth year. In the first semester I discovered theoretical fluid dynamics thanks to Prof. A. V. Zvelindovsky. He taught me how to solve complex theoretical problems using a very mathematical approach. We were using the well-known book written by Landau and Lifshitz on Fuid Mechanics. I felt like I was living again: I always wanted to study Physics because of the elegance that nature has. Sometimes, along the previous year, I felt that elegance was a bit forgotten, as we were focusing on the main results in order to produce the desired experiments, without actually thinking about how we got such results and what we can do with them. The Russian approach of Landau is totally different. I would then carry out pertinent results, in accordance with the experimental ones, with the simple use of a pen, a paper and beautiful mathematical tools. This became my apparatus, which I believe it is the most beautiful one.
Dr. M. Pinna had prepared a project to work on, during the second semester, which involved the use of GROMACS, which is a molecular dynamics package designed for biomolecular systems. However, for some reason, Prof. A. V. Zvelindovsky thought that I could do more than that, and decided that I could carry on the work that Dr. M. Pinna had started during his PhD. I then had to modify the original code that he wrote, in order to carry out simulations of a diblock copolymer with colloidal particles with two different distinct sizes. By doing this, I also had the opportunity to work on this project with Prof. I. Pagonabarraga, in the Universitat de Barcelona. Apart from the fact that I had the chance to work on an extremely interesting topic, as a real researcher, this experience helped me to develop a lot of skills, which are fundamental for whoever is interested in doing research, as well as building more self-confidence. On top of that, I learnt a lot from Dr. M. Pinna and built a very strong bond with him and Prof. A. V. Zvelindovsky, who became something more than merely professors to my eyes.
Therefore they helped me to realise that my initial interest has changed. I have much clearer ideas about my future and I am now doing a MSc in Applied Mathematics at the University of Bath, hoping to do a PhD in Theoretical Physics next year. Overall UCLan was certainly an amazing experience, which made me meet wonderful people, helped me to grow a lot and become an adult person capable to handle this exciting yet complicated world we live in.