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Working in the USA for 6 months as a visiting researcher

By Alexandra Tsioulou, on 24 October 2016

I am a third year PhD student in the IRDR and the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL. My research focuses on the use of simulated ground motions in catastrophe risk engineering. Earlier this year, I travelled to the USA to work as a visiting PhD student for 6 months at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. I worked with Prof. Alexandros Taflanidis from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences to develop simulated ground motion models that are compatible with the expected seismic hazard, particularly in the region of the western USA.

Farewell dinner in July with my officemates. I am on the bottom left side.

Dinner with my officemates. I am on the bottom left.

I was part of the High Performance System Analysis and Design lab and was based in a well-equipped office with other PhD students. I had a big desk and two computer screens that was really convenient. The atmosphere in the room was very different to the big open plan office I sit in at UCL, it is very quiet and there is little interaction between the students. However, they take lunch breaks together and I was often invited to join them. On the weekends, we sometimes got together for dinner or drinks and they were very keen to show me what the city has to offer. They were all very friendly and made me part of their group.

The biggest challenge for me was the cold weather and snow; in the winter it can get down to -30° C, although everybody said I was really lucky last year as it only got down to around -10° C! The campus was very beautiful covered in snow but the commute in this cold weather was not very easy.

Grove of trees.

Grove of trees in South Bend.

Another challenge I faced was the poor public transportation system; there were very few buses and they didn’t go everywhere in the city, so I had to rely on a shuttle service to commute in the winter. The commute was short; in London it takes me half hour to get to UCL from home by tube, whereas there it took about 10 minutes by bus. After spring when temperature went up, I could also walk to university through wonderful scenery including a grove of tall trees and a beautiful lake, which took about 40 minutes. I felt very grateful to have those views and connect with nature every day on my way home.

 

St. Mary's Lake.

St. Mary’s Lake

While there, I attended the Probabilistic Mechanics Conference held in Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a three-day conference and there were a lot of interesting sessions. This conference mainly attracts researchers from US universities, but there were a few people from universities outside the US, mainly Europe and Asia. I presented a part of the work I have done at UCL and had the chance to see and catch up with some old friends.

Overall, that was a great experience and I certainly encourage other PhD students to take any opportunities to spend some time abroad as visiting researchers if they have this option. Lastly, I would like to thank IRDR for providing me financial support for this research trip.

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