I have recently started as a DPhil student at the University of Oxford in the UK. The trip was a bit longer than anticipated, but the experience so far here has been incredible. My wife’s blog details many of the day-to-day experiences we have had in moving, so I will speak more to the research and academic culture here. Although I have to say that walking about five miles a day to commute has been a wonderful experience so far!
There seem to be a plethora of differences that I immediately noticed my first few days here between Oxford and New Mexico Tech. Some of them are particular to UK or European academia, some have to do with the size and prestige of this University, and others seem to be particular quirks of Oxford (and supposedly Cambridge in some regards). I won’t do a complete comparison, but do understand that the things I notice the most are things that are quite different from my original place of study in New Mexico.
Oxford’s College system is quite strange to someone like myself. In fact, it was first (and most aptly) described to me as, “Something like the Houses in Hogwarts,” which it seems were modelled after this College system. I have thus far had little exposure to this system, although I am associated with a College and will likely interact with it some as time goes on.
The Mathematical Institute is now housed in an impressive building with an interesting configuration. The department contains both Pure and Applied Mathematics research groups, with an impressive array of seminars and colloquia. I haven’t attended any of these talks yet (except for my visit in 2013), but I’ve heard they form the bread and butter of research life here. The building itself has two separate wings kind of separating the Pure and Applied sides of the department, although there is a large common room that they share for morning tea, and they do seem to collaborate quite a lot. Within each wing, the building is open in such a way that you can look around and see most of the offices on each floor from a single spot. Most people seem to have their doors open, and the entire structure seems aimed at physically encouraging collaboration (and preventing graduate students and postdocs from hiding!)
Undergraduate students in maths here take only mathematics courses, and the ones I have spoken with so far give me the impression that they come away from it knowing quite a bit. Their coursework includes problem sheets, but the marking on these is all purely formative; once per year for two weeks these students take comprehensive examinations covering all courses they took that year. There are pedagogical discussions to be had here about the faults and merits of the system, but I will leave that for another day. I can say that the system seems to be exceptionally good at training students very quickly to be able to understand graduate and research level mathematics. A list of courses is here, along with notes and other materials. Roughly speaking, prelims and part A courses are done in the first two years (usually inside the College). Part B and C courses are done in the department, and students successfully completing Part C after 4 years come away with an MMath degree, which seems comparable to a taught Master’s in the United States.
There are quite a lot more cultural and academic things I want to comment on, such as how lectures and tutorials (roughly, recitations) work, but I will wait until the term starts and I have experienced them first-hand.
I met with my supervisor, Professor Sarah Waters, briefly on Friday. She showed me my office, as well as quite a bit of the building and a rough idea of how we would proceed with the project. Meeting again with her Monday, we further defined several possible directions to go in for research, as well as what other things I should be doing (e.g. what courses I might take this term). For now, most of my time will be spent reading articles on angiogenesis, tissue engineering, and microfluidics. She suggested that I read some modelling papers, but that I focus on understanding, to a degree, the experimentalists’ perspectives on these topics. Ideally, we will meet with possible collaborators this term, and hopefully have a well-defined problem to work by the end of December.
The two possible areas to explore would be qualitative modelling of in vivo angiogenesis, or more complete (possibly quantitative) modelling of an experimental model, such as a microfluidic cell. The former case is more the kind of thing that I am interested in, but it also involves more complex (and less experimentally testable) biology and mechanics. The latter case is designed to be much simpler, in order to try and elucidate mechanisms, without losing physiological realism as much as is possible in vitro. Ideally, I would have the opportunity to do some work with both systems.
I will likely post an update describing some of this in some detail soon, once I have read up on it a bit more. So far, my overall experience here has been quite incredible. The environment is great, my supervisor seems extraordinarily willing to do everything she can for me yet still let me define and work on my own project, and I am simply happy to be here with the wonderful support of my wife, as well as my family back home. My supervisor was making sure everything was going well and asked me, “Are you happy here?”
I responded, “Of course. I’m studying at Oxford!”