Mobility seems to have become an integral part of my research career, and I tremendously enjoyed studying and doing research in various locations. A definite highlight was my stay as a Marie Curie Fellow in Pavia, Italy, for 6 months in the winter of 2002. I had the opportunity to undertake this Marie Curie fellowship as part of my doctorate research and got the chance to work with international experts in my field and be part of what I like to call "a scientific world club."
My adventure abroad started in 1995 when I was 21. I was studying architecture at the Ion Mincu Institute in Bucharest, in my home country of Romania, and I decided to apply for a grant under the mobility component of the European Union's Tempus programme. I was successful, and this allowed me to go to the Department of Architecture of the University of Karlsruhe (Technical University) in Germany for a term.
By the time I went back to Romania, I had already decided that I wanted to return to Germany to complete my undergrad studies to the German diploma level, which roughly consists in a combined bachelor and master degree. In Romania, I had to go through a pretty complicated exam accreditation and re-examination procedures as I was preparing my application as a full-time student in Germany. A term later, in April 1997, I was back at Karlsruhe and in June 1999 I was awarded a degree as diploma-engineer in architecture, specialising in urban planning. I do not have a Romanian first degree. However, last year my German diploma was accredited in my home country too.
Even before my graduation, I always preferred the theoretical subjects to practical design projects. So, I decided to stay at the University of Karlsruhe to do a doctorate. In October 2000, I started my Dr.-Ing. (engineering doctorate) at the Faculty of Civil Engineering, Geo- and Environmental Sciences in construction management, which is an interdisciplinary research area between architecture and civil engineering.
How I Discovered the Marie Curie Training Site
Although I was already "abroad", I was really attracted to the idea of working in yet another country as part of my Ph.D. work project. I first came across the Marie Curie Fellowship scheme when I saw an announcement on the Hungarian British Council Web site. After some investigation I found out that the European School for Advanced Studies in Reduction of Seismic Risk ( ROSE School) at the University of Pavia, in northern Italy, had the status of a Marie Curie Training Site in civil engineering, more specifically in the field of structural-earthquake engineering.
A Marie Curie Training Site is a laboratory that has been approved by the European Commission to offer young doctoral researchers short placements abroad for 3 to 12 months. The Training Sites provide doctoral candidates with so-called host-driven fellowship funding for the duration of their stay. But most important, they give them the chance to work with an internationally recognised group in their specialised area of research.
My application schedule was very tight because I saw the announcement for the ROSE fellowships only 3 days before the deadline. Still, I managed to complete it and get the approval of my supervisor in Germany for a stay abroad, on time. Three months later I got word that I had been awarded 6 months of funding to study and research at ROSE. Meanwhile, I had arranged to meet my future adviser at the 12th European Conference in Earthquake Engineering in London.
As for the formalities of my move, I needed a visa for Italy, so I travelled to the Italian Embassy in Frankfurt and received it within a matter of days. Things were substantially slower on Italian soil, where I waited almost 2 months for the residence permit in Pavia--and that was considered fast!
I like to describe the ROSE school as a small scientific world club because it is really international and yet has an intimate feel. Courses are taught and research projects are advised by international experts--who stay a few weeks at the school--in addition to the resident expert research staff. This gives you the feeling that you are really at the centre of your field. Because most people are staying a relatively short time in Pavia, there's also a great social life within the school. Even though our schedule was pretty intense, I managed to explore Italy's rich cultural heritage and went on day trips around northern and central Italy.
Motivation From External Structure
I found it interesting to see how considerably the research training system at the University of Pavia differed from that in Germany. In Pavia, doctoral candidates are treated as students and are expected to undertake extensive coursework and pass numerous examinations to complete their Ph.D. degree. Whereas in Germany, even at the undergrad level, your have to develop your own initiative and doctoral candidates are seen much more as researchers than students. In a certain way, this kind of forced discipline in Italy was good for me, because I had been relying exclusively on self-discipline for some time and I found it motivating to be given some input and structure from the outside.
At ROSE I chose a specific aspect of my doctoral thesis to work on as an independent project. By that I mean that it could have been published as an individual study outside the context of my doctoral thesis. One reason for doing this was that my ROSE adviser was a structural engineer, so I found it more beneficial to focus on the structural aspects of my research project.
With a very defined project I was also hoping to have enough results to present at the ROSE Annual International Seminar--which is an excellent platform for ROSE students and staff to discuss their work. But this didn't come to fruition, because I spent a lot of my time at ROSE taking the advanced training courses. I guess you need a balance. In hindsight, I would have concentrated a little more on the research itself. But I continued and finished this aspect of my doctoral thesis after returning to Germany and kept in touch with my adviser by e-mail. The transition back to working on my thesis in Germany was seamless because I did not need any accreditation or to take any additional exams.
I keep in contact with many of my former colleagues at ROSE and have taken the opportunity to visit them twice, one of these visits following the Fifth National Meeting of Marie Curie Fellows in Italy. I have also benefited greatly from the network of the Marie Curie Fellowship Association (MCFA). From the moment I read its mission and objectives, I wanted to contribute actively to the association. The contacts I've made with MCFA have allowed me to network with many others researchers with similar interests, as well as meet young researchers from other disciplines--something I've always strived to do.
I feel that my Marie Curie mobility experience has been a fantastic chance to work with experts in my field from all over the world, and I expect that this will benefit my future research path. Working in different environments and countries has also been very educational, motivating, and positive for me.