EngScis Abroad

ESROP – Global, 2017

This past summer the Division of Engineering Science sent 24 ambitious EngSci students abroad to conduct summer research at our partner institutions. With projects as diverse as their locations, these placements allowed our students to continue their development as engineers while working alongside leading academics in a global context.

On behalf of the students, thank you to our dedicated alumni for their time and feedback that helped to make these placements a success.

Read some of their stories:

National University of Singapore
Kevin Zhang
Hanna Zhang
Cindy Ding

University of Cambridge
Dominic Hong

King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi
Philip Lu

Osaka University
Sean Liu

Max Planck Institute, University of Hamburg
Liu-Yi (Jamie) Wu

Technical University of Darmstadt
Momin Daanish

Kevin Zhang, 2T0 – National University of Singapore

My project this summer at the National University of Singapore was to learn about the techniques of molecular dynamics simulations to analyse the behaviour of magnesium as a structural material. Focusing on the physical mechanics of magnesium at the atomic scale, including how magnesium deforms under loading and the effect of hydrostatic pressure on such deformation mechanisms, this research looks to connect theory with physical experimental data through simulations.

Collaborating with my supervisor and the rest of the research group, my work culminated in the production of a paper outlining my simulation methods, optimal computational settings, and a description of my results to be shared internally and possibly towards a future publication.

Kevin Zhang (centre) along with Joanna Zhou (2T0), Cindy Ding (2T0), Dylan Vogel (2T0), and Daniel Esser (2T0).

Taking part in an international placement allowed me to experience the local culture of another country while enjoying the benefits of a research project. Through this opportunity I was able to develop relationships and exchange views with locals, develop new learning habits, and appreciate the differences in our culture and understanding.

As my first long-term research project, the learning experience – both academically and personally – was extraordinary. As an undergraduate it can be difficult to see how we can fit into a professional research environment, or even question our ability to contribute to the advancement of science. After my summer project I have now come to understand that scientific research is truly about passion and initiative. This experience not only advanced my knowledge in general physics, materials science, and programming, it also provided insight into the true spirit of scientific research along with its challenges.

At the end of his placement Kevin, along with four of his fellow EngScis, spent some time travelling Japan.

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Hanna Zhang, 2T0 – National University of Singapore

This summer I spent three months at the National University of Singapore studying soft actuators. Muscles tissue powers all our movements and allow us to exert controlled amounts of force in response to nerve stimulation. My project’s lab works to study the artificial equivalent of muscle tissue to advance soft robot technology, a class of robots and sensors that are lightweight, affordable, and easily customized unlike current metal counterparts. The fundamental mechanism to power soft actuators is relatively simple: Using dielectric elastomers, such as silicone and acrylic, that deform when subjected to high-voltage fields, you can mimic muscle movement. When a voltage is applied, charges accumulate on both sides and attract, squeezing the polymer insulator, which responds by expanding in area. When the voltage is removed, the stress is removed, and the polymer will return to its original position.

Hanna’s dielectric elastomer actuator experimental setup.

My focus this summer was to add to a MATLAB simulation that modelled the voltage response of a polymer given its material parameters to determine the best material to use and what voltage range to operate it in for maximal force and displacement. Completing this, I moved onto material characterization and testing the actuation of a new silicone that the lab was interested in studying as a potential candidate for use in applications. This project demonstrated how different areas of engineering connect, and in the process my fascination with the use of soft robotics in medical applications grew. I gained a lot of wisdom about the research process, mainly in understanding the slow-moving pace and attention to detail required, and how to work through those difficulties. I was able to rediscover an interest in robotics and the research and development side of tools/instrumentation. I realized that robotics with a biomedical focus is an area I want to pursue.

Hanna at the Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum, Singapore.

This trip was enormously beneficial in countless other areas of my life aside from pure academics. With my fellow EngScis on the exchange, lab mates, and new Singaporean friends I’ve formed lifelong friendships I value deeply and will cherish forever. The perspective on international research, the world at large, people, and my life that I’ve gained from this trip is invaluable and I will cherish this experience forever. I’ve been able to grow up a lot this summer, but I’ve also learned to stay grounded in who I am. I’m more driven, gritty, and unrelenting than I was before in pursuing my dreams and aspirations.

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Cindy Ding, 2T0, National University of Singapore

This summer I participated in a research exchange at the National University of Singapore developing a numerical simulation modelling the rate of dehydration of okara, a soybean residue that accumulates in Singapore due to local soymilk and tofu industries.

Each day over 3 tonnes of okara is discarded as waste, which is costly for companies and damaging to the environment. Since okara is high in protein and fibre it can provide an alternative food source, such as substituting flour in baking and cooking. My contribution included conducting a literature review on new energy efficient drying technology, creating a numerical simulation on the rate of drying okara, and writing a report summarizing my mathematical model, factors affecting drying curves, and investigation results.

Once the governing equations of my numerical simulation were developed, a finite difference scheme was used to solve the system of partial differential equations in MATLAB. The resulting drying curve was created by plotting moisture content against time for input values of temperature, relative humidity, air velocity, and air pressure. The program was able to correct for non-constant drying parameters such as changing the temperature or pressure halfway through the process. Verifying the relationship between the drying parameters and the drying curve, the simulation will be used in the future to optimize the drying conditions of okara.

Cindy (R) snorkeling with Hanna in Batam, Indonesia. Photo taken by Kevin Zhang, 2T0.

Outside of the lab, my classmates and I were able to explore both the cultural and tourist highlights of Singapore. Singapore is a country with a diverse mix of people, enabling us to experience the culture, learn the religions, and enjoy the authentic food of Southeast Asia. On weekends we would travel to Malaysia and Indonesia, exploring kilometres of night markets in Malacca and snorkeling with the coral reefs in Batam. The experience of living in Singapore for three months was an incredible learning opportunity, while travelling to neighboring countries only enhanced our experience. Overall, the research at NUS and our travels of Asia made the summer truly unforgettable.

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Dominic Hong, Aerospace 1T7+PEY – University of Cambridge

Over the last fews months at the University of Cambridge I have been working on the use of porous hydrogel beads to determine the resulting matrix structural formations after introducing porous stress forces. As a topic of importance within the field of fluid mechanics, with its coupling of porosity with fluid flow (colloquially called “poroelasticity”), my work involved using lasers to determine porous bead locations and find resulting displacements once force has been applied. Conducting the suite of experiments associated with the topic of poroelasticity has given me quite a good insight into the mapping techniques used in other projects like PIV (particle image velocimetry) and laser-induced fluoresce as well.

Dominic in the lab, with fluorescent hydrogel beads, compressor, and laser in the background.

Working with some of the best researchers in the world was truly a stunning and humbling experience, allowing me to learn the wisdom of very high level, cutting-edge research. As I delved deeper into the realm of fluid mechanics I was exposed to more mathematics than I had expected, making me realize the value of the mathematical background and theory based approach in the Engineering Science program.

Being in the heart of Europe, Britain was a place where people all over Europe would come to make their lives, and Cambridge was no exception. I found that learning how to socialize with people of fundamentally different backgrounds helped in my communication skills, while travelling allowed me to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the immensely varied cultures in Europe. Fortunately for me, I was able to travel to 12 different European countries during my stay in Europe, and through each consecutive visit, I was able to better appreciate the value of being able to comprehend the backgrounds of others.

Dominic visiting Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.

Staying at the University of Cambridge will be a milestone, and perhaps even a cornerstone in my life, and the lessons I’ve learned here will certainly carry over in my future progressions. I could not imagine another experience which could have taught me so much in such little time, but this one certainty has left an important mark on my life that I will always remember.

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Philip Lu, Robotics 1T9 – King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi

Under the guidance of Prof. Jonathan H. Chan (EngSci 8T4, Chem), and working with two fellow EngScis, I spent this summer at KMUTT’s Data Science and Engineering Laboratory (D-Lab) exploring data mining and machine learning applications in the fields of bioinformatics and gesture recognition. My main project was improving automatic facial expression recognition (FER) algorithms, in particular those using deep learning, to build on research by Dr. Chan and the D-Lab to develop gesture recognition systems to help elderly people in daily home activities.

I became interested in improving the actual algorithm behind the FER system, and, with Dr. Chan’s support, proposed a novel regularization method to improve the cross-dataset performance of convolutional neural networks (CNNs), a state-of-the-art method for recognizing facial expressions in images. This would prevent “overfitting”, which causes the model to make poor predictions on new, previously unseen images – bad news if you are designing a system to perform real-time emotion recognition.

Collaborating with my two EngSci colleagues and gaining advice from D-Lab members along the way, we completed a full paper that has been accepted for IES2017, the international conference on Intelligent and Evolutionary Systems.

Philip presenting the gene co-expression visualization poster at VINCI 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand.

I also worked on a second project with Dr. Chan and an EngSci colleague, where we visualized gene co-expression networks to identify potential genes linked to lung cancer. We analyzed gene microarray data using R and I presented our research poster at VINCI 2017, an international visualization conference.

During my stay I fell in love with Thai culture. It brought many pleasures, including the diverse, delicious, and often numbing spicy food, the sensory explosion of the outdoor local markets, the serene Buddhist temples, and the sheer kindness of my D-Lab colleagues. It revived old passions – playing pick-up soccer on campus led to my joining the university football team – and sparked new skills, like beginning to speak Thai over the course of my internship. Learning Thai let me achieve more intimate interactions with the Thai people and inspired me with a newfound resolve to learn languages. Living and working abroad has educated and humbled me beyond my expectations. Though we may sometimes ponder the vastness and diversity of the world, it is not until we experience it first-hand that we fully appreciate it.

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Sean Liu, Robotics 1T7+PEY, Osaka University

As an upcoming 4th year Robotics Option major, I seized the chance to spend a summer abroad in Japan working in Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, one of the leading humanoid/android technology research laboratories in the world. This experience, academically and personally, proved to be fulfilling beyond expectations.

During my stay I was tasked with creating a chatbot prototype that would be compatible with one of the lab’s humanoid robots, making use of both verbal and visual information and feedback. After 8-9 weeks of system development, and generating results through a case study with my system to verify my research direction and proof-of-concept, my project culminated in a final demonstration to the rest of the 50-member lab.

Sean, second from left, with lab members.

Having the summer to learn another subset of the diverse robotics research fields provided me with the opportunity explore new fields that I may want to pursue for my career and through further education. What I found unique about this specific field is the amount of non-engineering considerations that are integral to the overall process. Since humanoid robotics and android technology deal extensively with human-robotics interactions (HRI), human psychology and sociology are incredibly relevant to the development of applicable technology. Such intricacy allows for the advancement of humanoid/android technology to branch with diversity, thereby landing it amongst the top of what I may pursue in the coming years.

Sean with Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro.

The prospect of working abroad, particularly in a non-English speaking country, rendered an amazing challenge that I had looked forward to prior to the start of my research term. Throughout this summer, I put an immense amount of effort into getting to know as many people as I could in such a short span of time, and I believe I succeeded in doing what I set out for, which was to gain an incredible number of invaluable friends and connections from around the globe. Before this experience, I was nervous beyond imagination, but I think I am now more prepared than ever to tackle the world head-on. It has probably been the most fulfilling experience of my life, and I cannot stress how much I have developed not just as a student and an engineer, but as a person.

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Liu-Yi (Jamie) Wu, Biomedical Systems 1T7+PEY, Max Planck Institute, University of Hamburg

This summer I worked at the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter, University of Hamburg in Germany. The goal of my project was to study the kinetics of biochemical reactions through the tracking of fluorescence signal quenching during rapid reagent mixing. My contribution was in the implementation and characterization of the experimental apparatus, which involved the setup of optical elements, preparing biochemical reagents, running experiments with liquid injectors and analyzing the collected data.

This experience above all gave me exposure to research in biophysics with a mix of basic science (understanding why/how things are) and instrumentation development (making research-enabling tools), which is a discipline that I had always wanted to explore. It was particularly educational for me as I had only worked in translational science (developing treatments for clinical use, such as stem cell engineering) prior to this summer.  I now have a more holistic understanding of the scope of academic research and the challenges as well as opportunities that underlie these different fields, which will greatly benefit me as I consider my options for graduate schools and my future career aspirations.

Jamie climbing the Alps in Mürren, Switzerland.

On the weekends, my friends and I would often travel to other cities in Europe, during which I rediscovered the pleasure in drawing. Each place I visited I would sit down near one of the attractions and make a quick sketch. Having such an opportunity to work as a student-researcher really allowed me to explore my interests, strength and weaknesses, and further develop my confidence and humility as an aspiring scientist.

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Momin Daanish, Aerospace 1T8+PEY, Technical University of Darmstadt

My exchange at the Technical University of Darmstadt was a great success – both personally and professionally. It was truly one of the best ways to spend an undergrad summer, and I wouldn’t exchange it for anything.

I worked with a design team at the department of Fluid Mechanics and Aerodynamics to calibrate a multi-hole pressure probe for unsteady airflow conditions. Although various instruments exist that can measure unsteady flow properties, most are expensive, fragile or require frequent calibration. Thus, calibrating multi-hole probes to overcome these issues was of interest to the department, so that they could be used for in-flight or wind tunnel measurements.

The project was roughly divided into three phases: (1) mechanical modifications of the calibration bench, (2) data collection, and (3) data processing and analysis. Working mainly on the latter two, I gained experience with hardware and software integration as we interfaced our electronic sensors and actuators with industry-standard data acquisition software (LabView), as well as independent component-specific software.

Momin visiting Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany.

During the analysis phase, I got a chance to dive into the theory behind unsteady calibrations. Unsteady flows have significant acceleration, and so inertial effects must be accounted for. After collecting data to characterize the wind tunnel and pressure probe’s properties, we used hot-wires for reference measurements and evaluated the performance of the multi-hole probes in predicting flow conditions for steady and unsteady cases. Based on a literature review of the topic, we wrote scripts in MATLAB to perform these tasks. Our results were summarized in a comprehensive 60-page report that we anticipate will be quite useful for taking this project further.

Living in Germany was an experience of a lifetime. I will always cherish the lazy afternoons spent picnicking in local parks, the excursions to castles upon hills or townships along riverbanks, and the weekend trips to cities in Germany and beyond. Using Darmstadt as a home base, I was able to visit six countries in Western Europe, falling in love with the different cities. The highlight of my travels has to be biking in the Swiss Alps. I will never forget the thrill of hurtling down winding trails as I marveled, awestruck, at the mountain valleys stretching out below.

Momin biking in the Swiss Alps.

This exchange has certainly been the highlight of my undergrad. Besides the invaluable experience of living abroad, it was incredibly useful in defining my academic and career goals, and will certainly act as a stepping stone for future pursuits.

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