(File pix) Cambridge has a unique system where prospective engineers learn General Engineering for two years, and then specialise in the third and fourth year.

“I THINK, at a child‘s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.“

I first heard this inspiring quote by Eleanor Roosevelt from my comrade-in-arms or, more formally, the president of Young Malaysian Engineers UK, a society that I am a member of.

This quote resonates with me because curiosity is one of my greatest traits, fuelling my drive to achieve success. So before delving into the experience of studying engineering at Cambridge University, I would like to tell you how this career path found me.

I distinctly remember the feeling of amazement as I mixed triglycerides with sodium hydroxide in chemistry class five years ago, feeling the oily texture change to the slippery disposition of soap. This experiment fascinated me endlessly; how can two products react with one another to produce another wholly different one? My fascination remains, resulting in my determination to pursue a science-related career.

I always knew I had a passion for science in general, but a research project undertaken when I was 16 made me aware of my profound love for its application. In 2012, my friend and I decided to conduct a research project to address the increasingly appalling dental health in developing nations. Our project, titled Mimusops elengi L. as a Cure for Dental Caries, won a gold award at a national innovation competition.

The extract, which contained a chemical compound from tannin, is from an evergreen tree found to be a natural substitute for toothpaste.

The project was a wake-up call for me, I realised the desire to use my scientific knowledge to innovate for societal needs. I set out to carve a future path in the field of chemical engineering.

Cambridge has a unique system where prospective engineers learn General Engineering for two years, and then specialise in the third and fourth years. For aspiring chemical engineers at Cambridge, however, there are two different pathways in the first year, which is either via the Natural Sciences or Engineering route.

These routes provide equally good preparation for the chemical engineering course undertaken in subsequent years. The Engineering route gives students an excellent background in general engineering and suits those who are particularly interested in applying science to solve problems. The Natural Sciences route gives students an excellent broad scientific background and suits those who enjoy understanding how things work at a fundamental level. I chose the Engineering route as I feel that I am better suited for a more hands-on approach to Chemical Engineering.

Almost two terms have passed and I still find it hard to believe that I am at Cambridge.

Every day, I ride my second-hand bicycle to the Engineering Department for the 9am lectures, sometimes reprimanding myself if I forget to wear my gloves as it is extremely cold! I prefer to walk to the department and enjoy watching people rushing to their respective departments and feeling my feet stepping on the uneven, cobbled streets.

Upon entering the massive lecture room, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed as there are so many intelligent people around. Most of the time I find the lectures quite baffling, but I quickly make up for it by watching Khan Academy videos on YouTube and visiting websites for further explanations.

In addition to lectures, we have lab work and projects, which include Computing, Structural Design Project, Integrated Electrical Projects and experiments. These projects give an opportunity to fully apply what we learn in lectures. For a computing novice like me, I have to admit that the projects are difficult.

Even so, I constantly remind myself that Imam Syafie said that “if you cannot endure the pain of learning, then you must bear the pangs of ignorance“. To balance the technicalities of the engineering subjects, I enrolled in free beginner Spanish classes offered by the department. I enjoy these classes.

On Wednesdays, students usually groan among themselves as this is the day that we get a new batch of example papers. Before each subject supervision, we have to complete the example papers and do more research on the subject, as we will be asked to demonstrate our understanding of the subject to our supervisor.

Sounds frightening? Definitely. At my first supervision, I was decidedly nervous as it felt like an interview — only the supervisor, my lab partner and I were in the room.

Nonetheless, I learnt to prepare as much as I can and give it my best shot.

Studying in Cambridge taught me that most of the time, you are not going to be the smartest person in the room. Undergraduate life is far from fun and games, it is hard work and constant stress. Even so, just try and do your best. You can survive, and you will survive. After all, if it was easy, it would not be called life, right?

Nur Farhani Irfan Nor Azmi is a first-year chemical engineering student at St John‘s College, University of Cambridge, UK. A Yayasan Khazanah scholar, she was a former student of Kolej Yayasan UEM and Sekolah Seri Puteri, Cyberjaya. Email her at education@nst.com.my

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