A Taste of Exchange

Publication date
Tuesday, 26 Feb 2019

Blake Curtis recently visited Edinburgh, Scotland on the Chemistry Ambassador Program to visit the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University.

There’s nothing more exhilarating than walking through those famed departure gates of Sydney International; being filled with the anticipation for what lies ahead. In January 2019 I had the opportunity to spend 2 weeks abroad as part of the Research School of Chemistry’s Heriot-Watt / University of Edinburgh ambassador program. Myself and 13 other ANU chemistry students were set to meet up in the historic capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh. A place ripped from the story books of Harry Potter and chronically obsessed with complaining about Brexit. After a couple of weeks getting around Germany and Belgium in cheap hostels, the private room, double bed and en-suite of the University of Edinburgh’s on-campus accommodation seemed too good to be true. Each day we would catch bus number 39 out of the city to the Heriot-Watt University campus (as in Watt the unit of power) located on a scenic reclaimed estate. Being one of the northern most cities in the world, Edinburgh is cold. To combat this, the university’s design is completely enclosed, with walkways between all buildings and central heating throughout. This is all good in practice, but it makes getting lost all too easy (as was the case from day one).

We took part in second year chemistry classes covering organic synthesis, molecular spectroscopy and main group chemistry. The academic highlight of my time at Heriot-Watt was going to the advanced seminar given by Dr Ruth Webster. Dr Webster was a visiting academic from the University of Bath who gave a talk to a room on senior professors, academics and 14 bright eyed ANU undergrads covering some of her advances in Iron metal catalysis, which could lead to less reliance on rare earth elements which are both environmentally and economically costly.

After a week of attending classes at Heriot-Watt, it was time to change over to the University of Edinburgh for the next. Day one we were in the lab, doing an experiment that when exposed to moisture will proceed to do absolutely nothing. Considering the rainy and cold climate of Scotland it didn’t look too promising. Yet, with some aid of some industrial heat guns we were all able to complete the experiment in time for lunch. Some of the highlights of the University of Edinburgh included a lab in gas chromatography, a lecture in environmental chemistry and hanging around some of the cool student spaces on campus.

The thing about exchange is that you can only really scratch the surface of all the experiences you really had. For instance, in all the time between classes and days off, our group got to explore some of the wonders of Edinburgh. Going on an underground ghost tour, visiting the Surgeons Museum (which has one of the greatest collections of medical human remains in the world), trying every tripadvisor ‘good coffee’ shop in the city, trekking up the astounding Arthurs Seat climb to find there is no seat and finally getting sweaty on a different type of dance floor during a ceilidh traditional Scottish dance.

Needless to say, this trip was invaluable to me. It gave me a better perspective of what is out there and how important exchange is. Travelling abroad, and having just a taste of the groundbreaking chemistry that lies beyond, has only made me hungrier for more.