Tuesday, September 9, 2014


I am attempting to describe what I consider to be the most amazing place I've visited in Europe: Luxembourg. We went to the capital city, Luxembourg City. The local languages are German, French, and Luxembourgish. Interestingly, I never heard Luxembourgish during my time there, or did not recognize it. I digress. Luxembourg seems to have heavy French and German influences. Many of the eateries were comparable to one's I've seen in France, and their wares were equally delicious! I took the liberty of eating one of their frozen confectioneries. Trust me, it tasted as good as it looks in the picture. The crunchiness of the nuts, caramel sweetness, and vanilla ice cream contrasted wonderfully. Attempting to try different things, I chose a vegetable sandwich for brunch that looked the least appetizing. To my pleasant surprise, it was actually quite good. In fact, all of the food I ate in Luxembourg was excellent. Following brunch, our group went to the Casemates. I had been insisting upon going there after reading about it online. In my opinion, it was the highlight of my travel experience in Europe. The Casemates are ancient castle ruins in Luxembourg. They are situated at the cliffs in the city. You can actually walk through them and explore. I am not quite sure how I can best describe them. The Casemate's architecture and aged bricks give them a really beautiful look. When appreciated alongside the breathtaking view of the city, the Casemates make for one of the most scenic places in Europe. I don't know what else to say, so the picture's I've taken of the Casemates will have to suffice. At the bottom of the Casemates were gardens with a walkway and a river. They were well tended, and far enough away from the road so that we couldn't hear any cars. The surrounding greenery was just very peaceful, and I very much enjoyed walking around the river and garden. On one of the bridges out looking the river, there were "windows” that slanted inwards. They were clearly made for safely shooting at the enemy, and a reminder of the violence that castles can endure. All in all, Luxembourg was the best place I visited during my time in Europe. I really enjoyed the food, culture, and history. If I ever am so lucky to return to Europe, I'll make sure to go back to Luxembourg City. Final notes: As you go through the photos, you'll see a picture of a lock with a heart on it. These are called "Love Locks". The idea is that love is as lasting and unbreakable as a lock, so you buy one with yours and your significant others' names. Then, you throw away the key and lock it onto a gate. This has actually proved problematic, because in large quantities they look extremely tacky and are difficult to remove from public property. The fad is popular all over Europe. Also popular in Europe are these pianos intended for public use. I played "Yankee Doodle" on one of them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Exploring Saarbrücken

During the first week, we didn't do any long distance traveling.  Instead, we took the liberty to explore Saarbrücken.  One of the first things I noticed in the city was the large windows on all of the buildings.  As it happens, air conditioning is not in common use in Germany.  They have it, but prefer not to use it for cultural and/or energy usage reasons.  Thankfully, their windows usually provide allow for cool breezes to allay the heat of summer.  The city structure is different from Philadelphia in that the roads are not often straight.  Usually there is some sort of turn or curve in every street.  This isn’t too much of a problem though: Saarbrücken is not a large city, as it has a population of about 170,000 in comparison to Philly’s 1.5 million.  Additionally, many people do not drive cars, and ride bikes or take public transportation instead.  This lack of hustle and bustle allows for a quiet in the city not found in Philadelphia.   Cutting through the city is the Saar /River.  Barges are able to use it to transport goods to and from Saarbrücken to/from other cities the river passes by.  Interestingly, the state of Saarland’s parliament house is in Saarbrücken.  We passed by it on our meandering through the city, and it can be seen here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Research, Germany, and Paris!

am writing this on the eve of leaving Europe, specifically Paris, and I think a tear just rolled down my eye. There are no words to describe what a phenomenal experience this has been, and the memories created from this trip will stick with me forever. The five of us Finland students have become SO close, and have been referring to ourselves as a family for weeks now because we have an indescribably amazing group dynamic. Thank you Burim, Jeff, Ashleigh, and Alex, for making this the most unforgettable summer EVER!

I realized the other day that I have been writing a lot about traveling, but I wanted to write and describe a little bit about the research experience that I had....

My project is called Catalytic Oxidation of Volatile Organic Compounds, and the two compounds I worked with are dichloromethane (DCM) and tetrahydrofuran (THF). Both of these VOCs are known to cause human health issues such as headaches, seizures, fatigue, and brain damage, along with environmental issues such as acid rain, poor air quality, and smog.

This is a syringe filled with DCM 500 ppm attached to the tube furnace

Catalytic oxidation is a method of destroying these compounds, and is preferred over thermal oxidation because it is flameless, more efficient, and requires lower temperatures. I used catalytic oxidation for these tests, specifically "light-off" tests, which involve heating the catalyst higher than its operating temperature.

So, for my project, I was testing to understand and develop better methods of abatement (destroying these compounds). I tested different concentrations (500 ppm and 1000 ppm), and then added different combinations of compounds to the catalyst reactor (THF + DCM, THF + water, and THF, DCM, and water). I was also examining whether PT/ AL2O3 is a viable catalyst for oxidation of both of these compounds.


The main reason for traveling to Germany, specifically Saarbrucken, was to present our posters to judges and get feedback so that we can revise the posters for the STAR showcase. We arrived the night of Aug. 12th, and the presentations were on the 14th.

We also got the chance to meet up with the other students studying in Germany along with Dr. Atchinson, 

The hotel that us four Finland students stayed in was extraordinarily amazing, and we each got our own room! This was quite different than when we were traveling and would stay in cramped rooms, or often the same room.

One of the first things we noticed in Germany was the significantly lower living wage than Finland. Whereas in Finland, a pizza would be upwards of 10 euros, in Germany it would be 3 euros, if that much. We also noticed a significant amount of French influence on the city, probably because Saarbrucken is so close to the border of France. it has changed allegiance 8 TIMES in the past two centuries!

Plain and chocolate croissants..mmmmmm....

Another popular food is wurst, which is a thin, long hot dog that comes in a variety of types, Rotwurst, Currywurst, and tons of others.  I particularly enjoyed the Currywurst, which isn't like Indian curry, but is slightly spicy. 

Chopped up currywurst and French fries for 3 euros!

The day of the 13th was spent at the INM (Institute for New Materials) editing our posters and reprinting them to match the INM format. Dr. Atchinson was very helpful in editing and revising the posters for presentations.

We also ate at a crepe place, which are hands-down the best crepes I have ever eaten. I tried a crepe with Tomato, Cheese, and Pesto, and another one that was filled with Nutella, Giotto (like Ferrero Rocher), Kinder Chocolate, and Banana. They make the pancakes right in front of you, and have a good 16 inch diameter or so.

Saarbrucken is full of amazing sights, such as a church right near the bus stop (below)

The picture below is one of my favorites, and it is just after the poster presentations. Everyone worked on such groundbreaking and innovative research, and it was quite a sight to see fellow students present their work from the summer at the INM showcase.

Our work was over! The time for vacation was here! 

One of the first sights in Paris was the Centre Pompidou, and, while, we did not go inside, we got a very good view from the outside. This museum is a Modern art Museum, and the air ducts and all of the pipes are visible from the outside. It is quite massive, but rely an incredible sight from the outside.

From there, we headed to the Notre Dame Cathedral. The wait was about an hour, but it is so exquisite that everyone decided it was worth it.

Inside the cathedral(which took 700 years to build), the ceiling is enourmous. I would highly recommend Notre Dame to anyone traveling to Paris.

The next attraction we decided to visit was the Arc De Triomph. We opted to climb the stairs all the way to the top, and the view at the top was simply stunning. You could see the entire city from up there.

Of course, we also had to visit the Eiffel Tower, and we went at night to be able to see the Tower light up. The tower can be visible from most heights in the city, and is much more intricate than I would have expected. It is really a feat of engineering and the architecture is astounding.

The view at the top, especially at night, is particularly amazing since the city lights up.

It was a very busy day for us,seeing all of these sights, so we decided to take it easy the next day and just visit Versailles. It is a short train ride from Paris (30 mins) and we opted to visit the palace. 

Even though we had visited palaces all throughout Scandanavia, Versailles might have been my favorite. The palace has so much grandeur, in every room there is so much gold. This is the outside of the castle...it was so worth the two hour wait!

Below is the famous Hall of Mirrors!

There is so much gold in the castle, more than any other palace I have ever seen...

We enjoyed so many croissants, crepes, and baguettes in Paris because the food, especially the bread, was so amazing.

This trip would not be possible without Suzanne Rocheleau and Drexel University, and it really was the trip of a lifetime. Truly one of the best summers ever, and I can't believe it is over!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Trip to Berlin

Most people who visit Germany do so with the intention of visiting Berlin. There is a good reason for this - Berlin is very important. By visiting it's easy to see why exactly that is. Berlin is the largest city in Germany, has its own federal state, is the capital of that state, and is the capital of Germany as a whole.

Berlin also has an interesting history which defines its current culture. The post World War division into East and West Berlin left noticeable scars on the architecture and development of the city. The division line, the Berlin Wall, can be seen in parts as a memorial to the history.
Where the wall once stood
Some people use the wall to send a message
Others to make their own art
There is plenty of room on the wall
Aside from the wall, there is plenty else to see in Berlin. There are obvious tourist attractions like the Brandenburg Gate or Castle Charlottenburg (pictured below)
Brandenburg Gate

Castle Charlottenburg
We also tried to see the Olympic stadium which was constructed for the 1936 Olympics, but we arrived at about 6 PM, which was apparently too late and we could not enter.
Olympiastadion exterior

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Great city of OULU!!

Our trip from the Philadelphia to Oulu was long and tiresome. After one layover in Chicago and one 9 hour flight to Helsinki followed by another flight to Oulu we finally arrived. Our adventure in the capital of the northern Scandinavia began at that moment.

Background of the city
  • Founded by King Charles IX of Sweden in 1605.
  • The name Oulu comes from a word in the Sami language, meaning floodwater.
  • Surface area 3,000 km2.
  • 5th largest city in Finland.
  • Population 190,695 with the youngest population of all cities in Europe, with an average age of 34 years – growing by 2,000 inhabitants per year.
  • Oulu is considered one of Europe's "living labs", where residents experiment with new technology (such as NFC tags and ubi-screens) at a community-wide scale
We took the bus from the airport to our apartment in Yliopistokattu (University Street). It was a 30 minutes ride, but not boring at all. We got to experience the great Finnish landscape for the first time. Besides some living compartment, the equivalent of American suburbs, and the roads, all around us was forest, lakes and green fields. The air was fresh and after having been on planes for so long we breathed deep and enjoyed the air(It was a bit cold, but the temperature did not prevent us). The bus went through the city and we were looking all around us at the beauty of it all. Even in the city we could see trees and parks everywhere. As soon as we left the city center and went crossing a bridge we got to experience one of the best sights in the city; the Fountain in the lake. 

Fountain in the lake.
It was a great view and after it the forest followed till we arrived at the university where we met our guide Stephen. The best guide in forever. Stephen told us more about the city and the university. Some facts and information we would not find in the webpage. For instance, each building in Oulu has a "storage room", which has a huge steel door protecting it. It turns out that these "storage rooms" were built after the WWII in case of any sudden military attack and their purpose was to provide shelter for habitants. Another interesting thing had also to do with the Air Raid alarms. The first monday of every month a loud alarm would go off and the purpose of it was testing the system. However, we were here for 2 of these special days and we experienced none. I guess its just a urban legend here in Oulu.


  • Oulu has a subarctic climate that has severe winters, no dry season, with cool, short summers and strong seasonality
  • The average annual temperature is 36.5°F
  •  Average monthly temperatures vary by 48.8°F
  • The lowest temperature recorded in Oulu is -42.7°F from 1966.
  • There is a lot of snow during winter and they never cancel classes.
Oulu is only 107 miles away from the polar circle so the weather here is not very warm at all times. After having left Philly at a soaring 85°F we expected a somehow cooler temperature at around 65°F. Little did we know that we would have to open our luggages and bring sweaters out as soon as we left the airport. June was not my typical mid summer month. Usually by that time I would be at the beach. Temperatures varied around the 50°F and a completely unexpected thing happened on June 16th, our second day here. It SNOWED in Oulu that day. Snow in june!! Can you imagine?! Our expectations of going to the beach and tanning a bit were shattered but the locals came to aid supporting us by saying that this was not usual and August would be better. It had not snowed in June here for 60 years. However, their statements and scientific data were good enough to convince us. 

Weather has indeed improved here. This month temperatures have been around the 80°F besides some days when it rained a bit.

Hail in Rovaniemi.
Polar Circle
Our trip to Rovaniemi past weekend did not survive the muddy weather here either. Rovaniemi, is a small city north of Oulu and at the Arctic Circle. It is known as the capital of Lapland and it the house of Santa Claus!!! Yes, yes Santa Claus. The one(we met four of them there, but I will still refer to him in singular not plural. If young kids are to read this post we advise them to skip this part.) that brings us presents for Christmas. To get back to the weather topic. It hailed that day in Rovaniemi. But not just normal hail, the pieces were big as a nut. 


Dorm from Outside
We all live in the same building but most of live in different apartments. Apartments here vary from 2 - 4 rooms, which are spacious. Each apartment has its own common kitchen and bathrooms. Laundry is done in the building next to urs. It is free of charge but we have to book online. Also there is a sauna in the same building,which we have used whenever we had free time.  
"Storage Room"

Our apartments had everything that we needed starting from furniture, microwave, fridge, oven, utensils, and also good food left as an welcome present from the previous tenants. This took me by surprise. Before leaving my dorm room, I received an email from the housing office stating that my room had to be cleaned completely. Nothing should be let on the room otherwise I would be charged $ 100. Because I was one of the last people to leave my dorm I went to throw out some trash at the trash room. I was startled! There were microwaves, fridges and all kind of things that were barely used. Because students could take those home or resell they were just throwing things out not to get charged I suppose something should be done. Not only could new incoming students could use some of those objects and stop adding to the already expensive education ill, but also the school could use it to promote the sustainability cause.  

View from the roof of our building at 00:00. We are surrounded by Green. 
I got to live in a four room apartment but we were only 3 tenants. I, Moudit and Jean. Moudit was a pre-junior from India who studied Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology. This was his second year in Oulu and he had been working for one month already. Jean was a soon to be Freshmen in Software Engineering for France. He arrived the same week as us and was here for a summer internship funded by the French government. It was a nice thing to have two roommates from two
View from my window. I'll miss this.
different parts of the world. We spent a lot of time sharing ideas, opinions and our views on different topics. It was a great experience to get the input and learn from cultures different from mine. I could easily notice the "laid back" and "live your life" point of view from an European, the thorough and deeply work hard ideas of an Indian and also the somehow mixed opinions of work and live of someone from the Balkans who studies in the States. As an international student I would joke by saying that I was international squared. However, the best culture exchange came when it was cooking time. They do not say "Food brings people together" for no reason. 

Center City 

Park in Center City
The city of Oulu was founded in 1605, but a huge fire destroyed much of it in 1822. After that the architect redesigned the city in the neoclassical style. The whole city is build with small blocks and there not many tall buildings. There are parks everywhere and bicycle routes dominate most of it. Most of the street are cobbled. The main street as in most other European cities has many shops on both sides.

The Bobby
The Market Square (Rotuaari) is at the seafront and a very popular meeting spot. There are cafes, ice cream vendors (A special section dedicated to them) and many other vendors that sells veggies berries foods etc. "The Bobby" is a policemen statue at the Square that overlooks the activity there. Judging by the number of people who take photos there it is the most famous tourist destination here. Something that I have noticed at the Market Square is the Finnish youth. They just gather there, sit next to the sea and bring out their drinks. They talk, laugh, and drink there. It is a good way to spend a summer afternoon. 

Other things in Center city are the: The Oulu Cathedral, the City Hall and the good Pizza they serve all over the city in every pizzeria. Don't forget to try reindeer meat. It is splendid. 

A green and sustainable city

  • Oulu has the greatest per capita amount of bicycle paths in Finland. There are 550 kilometres of bike paths, which averages out at 3.5 metres for each Oulu resident. This year we will build another 20 kilometres.
  • The greenhouse gas emission has dropped by 33% from 2010 to 2013.
  • One of the fastest growing urban areas in Finland.
  • The City of Oulu owns about 17,500 hectares of timberland.
  • Landscape in the Oulu region has a great deal of variety: sea, archipelago, low-lying coastal land, river valleys, agricultural land and extensive marshes.
Bicycle tracks in Oulu. Red is our Dorm
When flying from Helsinki to Oulu the first five minutes we could see cities and man populated areas. After those five minutes until we landed there was only forests and lakes. That is Finland, sustainability here is a big cause. And Oulu as a city puts a lot of efforts into it. There are different conventions in which the city participates to lower the green gas emission. 

At the Park.
This one yawns, rolls, and pitches.
There are parks and forests everywhere. For instance, our university and dorm is located in the middle of a small forest. There is a lake behind our dorms and a botanical garden as well, where we have located the shire. The best thing we have come across and that also brought back our childhood memories was the games at the park. As engineers those games caught our eyes and we spent a lot of time on them. 

Everyone bikes here in Oulu. Maybe it is summer but I have not seen many cars. I think that people here buy bikes because distances of traveling are fairly short, it is cheap, convenient, easy, and healthy. There are bike tracks everywhere in the city and you can reach every location. Sometimes it is faster to take the bike than the public transportation system.

Center city here we come!!
Because centercity is around 5 km away from our dorm and we wanted to try biking around here we all purchased bikes the first week. We bought the bikes online on facebook in a group dedicated to selling or giving away used things (sustainability again). The bikes were cheap and affordable by us with a mean price of 30 euros/bike. However, Coming and going back from center city costs 6.2 euros before 11:00 pm. Plus when we go to center city we go through a beautiful park and also cross by the lake fountain. We have travelled all around with bikes and the good thing is that there places to leave bikes everywhere. 
When talking about sustainability I should of course mention energy. There is a dam next to center city. It was build in 1940 and it is located in a very beautiful park. The dam has also created a artificial lake which people here use for sunbathing. I have to point out that "sunsets" from the dam are marvelous. Besides the dam there are also windmills at the beach. 

But what has caught my eye is the cleanliness of the city. I have not noticed any cleaning staff but neither have I noticed any one throw something in the street. The citizens are so conscious about the environment and its importance. In a conversation with my mentor he was saying that there is no police controlling hunting and fishing. People just do not hunt or fish when it is not the right season. The first time we went to center city we noticed this protest. It was a small group but they were still protesting against nuclear plants in finland. 
Ashleigh with Ducks.

Finnish Food, Culture, and...Saunas?!?!

Finland is such an amazing country with such a rich culture, and I realized the other day that no one has done any blogs specifically about Finnish culture. Culture is an integral part of Finland (and every other country), so I wanted to write a little bit about what makes Finland unique.

First and foremost, Finland is full of saunas. Saunas, saunas, saunas. There are about 2 saunas in the country for every 5 people in Finland (approximately one per household), so as you can see, there are ALOT of saunas. (And they are nude saunas). Most houses in Finland own a sauna, and it is an activity that you partake in with your family, friends, guests. Even some of the apartments in the complex we are staying in have saunas. Often it is single gender rotations, so that women go in the sauna for a few minutes (5-10) and then the men have their turn.

While in the sauna, someone is frequently pouring water over the hot stones to increase the moisture in the air. Normally, someone will go into the sauna about once a week at a minimum because it is relaxing and seen as a necessity. There are even different types of saunas, different levels of comfort, and mothers use to give birth in saunas before health care and nurseries.

There is even a whole Wikipedia page about Finnish saunas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_sauna

There is no other country in the world that has such a deep connection to saunas and have it so intertwined in the culture of the country.

I have been in sauna twice, once with Drexel kids, and once at a barbecue with my advisor (with her son showing me how to set up the sauna). It was a really refreshing experience, and it is also common to enjoy a beer in the sauna. Everyone in the house has their own "placemat" with their name on it to put down on the benches in the sauna. it really was quite a sight.
Picture from Wikipedia: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/Sauna_2.jpg

Salmiakki and Ice Cream

Another food that is very popular in Finland is salmiakki, also known as salty licorice. It is really hard to describe the taste exactly of salmiakki, except with the comparison to rubber tires. Its extremely salty, and is often called an acquired taste, because no on outside of the Nordic area (and Northern Germany) likes it. Even other Europeans don't like it because, well, it tastes like rubber tires! 

Its essentially ammonium chloride and looks like licorice, but a darker black. The Finns can't get enough of salmiakki, and flavor a lot of vodkas and ice creams with salmiakki. 

This brings me to my next idea: ice cream stands are wildly popular in Finland. The two major companies are Pingvinii (owned by Nestle) and Ingman, which is owned by Unilever.  (Unilever owns/ makes TONS of products such as Ben and Jerry's, Dove, Lipton, Klondike, etc.)

There are ice cream stands probably every kilometer or so, and there must be at least a dozen in the city center. All of the beaches have ice cream stands, and there were at least four stands in the small zoo in Helsinki. The ice cream is quite good, too. It is very creamy, and there are significantly more flavors than in the USA. Flavors such as blueberry, peach, strawberry, white chocolate, nougat, and tar (yes, tar–they use some sort of tar syrup).  


Finns have made coffee an integral part of their culture, and will happily pour coffee into the coffee maker themselves, instead of buying coffee. There are coffee shops, but entire university departments will come together and drink coffee. For instance, the Environmental Engineering department, where I intern, has set coffee breaks at 9 AM and 2 PM, where professors and deans alike will drink coffee, schmooze, and relax for at least a half hour. The professors provide coffee for others – the rule is that you can partake in these coffee breaks if you bring in a bag of coffee every once in awhile. I participated in some of these coffee breaks too, and of course, brought coffee in for everybody. 

At many offices, there are free coffee machines for clients to take as much as they please (and we do!) 

After spending many weeks in Finland, I still cannot understand weather here. It can basically rain at any time, even when it is sunny and no clouds, and it hailed ice balls when it was 55 degrees fahrenheit in the Lapland area, Northern Finland. It also snowed in mid June, like the second day we got to Oulu. 

At the beginning of our time in Oulu, it would be 24 hours of constant daylight. They even coined it as the 'midnight sun' because it really is as bright at midnight as noon. As time has progressed, we have been able to see immense changes in the amount of daylight, and it is actually getting dark in the evenings! 

On the Summer Solstice, everything is closed, and the holiday is called Midsummer. Conversely, in the winter, it is pitch black almost all the time, and there is often only a few hours of daylight. 

To cope with the heavy snowfall and constant darkness, they have set up the university to be entirely connected. No one has to go outdoors to go to other buildings, and corridors connect the entire university. It is hard to fathom not every having to go outside during college, but they manage it quite well and the building is brilliantly designed.


Overall, we really like Finnish culture, but it took some getting used to. We are going to miss it very much, and we leave in just over a week!