There was little doubt in my mind as to what I wanted to do on completing my mechanical engineering degree. I've always been interested in automotive combustion systems. They exhibit so many complex phenomena that there is a wide range of research problems associated with them, including increased global awareness of the environment and the worldwide introduction of stringent combustion emissions regulations. Those issues combined with my interests to provide the challenge of developing an original computation scheme for real-time combustion and emission-control strategies.
In Ireland my work followed a strictly theoretical line, using fundamental studies as the platforms for my research. I carried out analysis of thermodynamic models and made good progress developing novel computation methods. However, I felt constrained in my work and thought that my project would benefit from time spent abroad, in a centre dedicated to automotive research.
Finding a fellowship
I began to investigate the possibilities of a transfer abroad. I knew that I was interested, but I wasn't sure what to expect and didn't know if I would come across any openings in other universities. However, my search quickly led to an Internet advertisement placed by CMT-Motores Térmicos, part of the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia in Spain. They were looking for somebody in my area of research and offering the position through the Marie Curie Training Site scheme.
Such a move offers many obvious advantages: State-of-the-art facilities would allow me to carry out high-level engine testing, exposure to different research methods would enhance my own research skills, new challenges would emerge, and I welcomed the idea of working as part of a well-known research group and interacting with members of a team.
Fortunately my supervisor, Dr. David J. Timoney, was fully supportive of the idea and recognised the added advantages that participation in a Marie Curie Training Site would give me for career advancement in the future. So, I applied to become a fellow.
In my case the application process was very rapid. Within 5 months of sending the first e-mail, I received confirmation that I had been accepted to the scheme and was to begin 3 months later, in September 2002. I was thrilled!
At this point I had just completed the first year of my 4-year PhD programme. In hindsight I would recommend that people wait until they are a little further into their research before they apply for a fellowship. This allows for a better grounding in the subject and hence allows the fellow to gain maximum benefit from the scheme from the outset. As it was, I spent my initial month or so getting up to speed on the approaches of CMT, as I was unfamiliar with them. The overall length of my PhD programme in Ireland has not lengthened as a result of my time in Spain--if anything my exposure to state-of-the-art equipment meant that I could carry out some experimental work more quickly than I would have been able to in my home university.
The fellowship did complicate my research funding. I funded myself for the first year of research, by working as a research demonstrator in the university laboratories. However, in September 2002 I was due to receive state funding under the National Development Plan. This had to be changed, since the fellowship comes with its own funding. For reasons of bureaucracy, it was impossible to postpone my Irish funding for a full 12 months, so instead it was postponed by 6 months. This has had no long-term effect in that the amount of money that I will receive is the same--but it will be given to me over a period of time 6 months shorter than originally planned.
Moving to Spain
Although the prospect of moving to Spain with no knowledge of the language was somewhat daunting, setting myself up in Valencia was not too difficult. Matters of bureaucracy always take time, and so I spent a week in the city some months before my fellowship began. This proved invaluable, as I found a place to live and submitted all documentation required to obtain my residency permit. Thus, upon my return everything that I needed was waiting for me, and so I could set up a bank account. This too was easily done--due to the fact that my English-speaking Valencian colleague accompanied me to the bank and explained exactly what it was I wanted! From that day on, every time I went to the bank the tellers commented on the improvements in my Spanish!
Of course I will not pretend that it was solely for reasons of advancement of my PhD project that the prospect of a move to Spain captured my interest. The Marie Curie Training Site offers a unique opportunity for total immersion in another culture, and along with that comes the development of many new skills--both professional and personal. Travelling there alone both thrilled and frightened me, but I never could have imagined the adventure that was awaiting me.
In my 'new university'
New challenges presented themselves immediately in all aspects of my life in Spain. I was instantly incorporated into the research life of the centre and thrust into a world of new experimental techniques and procedures. So much so that in my first week I was involved in high-level engine testing in the labs!
A new support network was suddenly opened up to me, stemming from the large group of investigators all concentrated on the same area of research as I was. I gained exposure to new experimental practices and to various means of high-volume data analysis. It also opened up new research paths to me, highlighting directions that I had not previously considered. New goals and objectives were continuously presented to me and were all within reach, as the resources to embark on different paths were in place. I think that the experience raised the bar on what I expect to achieve with my project. My dissertation will surely be a more comprehensive and well-rounded piece of work as a result.
Another interesting feature of my stay in CMT was that it exposed me to industry-directed research and gave me an opportunity to link it to the fundamental research, which I was carrying out in Dublin. I learnt invaluable tools in how to integrate the two, which, I am sure, will not only stand me in good stead in years to come, but benefited my project immensely also. I developed a generic model for emissions prediction based on thermodynamic principles (fundamental research), but using empirical constants so as to ensure its valid application to different engines (applied research). This was not originally envisaged in my PhD plan and yet has added greatly to my research.
Of course it was not all academic. Spanish people are like their climate--warm and sunny. I was enveloped immediately and from my first day was never short of invites, to dinners, drinks, cinema outings ... whatever was happening! Weekends were filled with trips to other cities and into the countryside. I even found myself drawn into the Spanish love of football, finding myself at more than one match! I made some great friends and learnt so much from them.
Studying for 12 months in another country teaches you a host of different lessons--from learning a new language to learning about yourself. In this sense, not just in the academic opportunities it offers, the Marie Curie Fellowship is unparalleled. I feel that I have developed and become a more self-confident, more open-minded, and more able person as a result of my time in Spain.
My project is also far richer. It now has a wider scope--one that was not previously available. I can apply newly learnt techniques to the analyses I perform. I have developed new skills as a researcher. In addition I am still working in collaboration with the researchers in Spain ensuring a tie between our two universities, which I am sure will continue for years to come. I am sure that this will increase the chances of further exchanges of students between Dublin and Valencia, leading to an ever-increasing mobility of researchers.
The Marie Curie Fellowship offered me a fantastic experience--both in the advancement of my research and also by giving me a wealth of wonderful memories. Anyone who is thinking about it should not hesitate, you'll learn more than you could ever imagine!