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Hands-On at Otago

A couple of weeks ago, right in the middle of my summer break, I got on a plane to Dunedin to be part of the annual Hands-On at Otago programme. Having researched summer science opportunities earlier in the year, I came across this, and after some research, was really attracted to the concept. Successful applicants from across New Zealand all gather at the University of Otago for 6 days of immersion into the university life. The application process enables applicants to choose 5 of 36 available projects in order of preference, that they will spend the week studying. They are then placed into one of those projects, based on how impressive their applications and CVs are. In addition to this project, applicants are assigned three additional subjects, to broaden our horizons and allow us to experience something out of our forte. These are called snacks. Personally, my project was Nanochemistry, with my snacks being Neuroscience, Medieval Calligraphy and plain Chemistry. Nanochemistry is essentially chemistry on a very small scale, a billionth of a metre, to be precise.

The aim of my project for the week was to change molecules on a nano-scale, or design and synthesise new molecules to do a specific task, through various techniques. The week consisted of three main experiments, making a superhydrophobic substance, preparing a ferrofluid and making silver nanoprisms. As the project was conducted in one of the newest Chemistry labs at the University of Otago, I was able to use some very unique chemicals and a lot of advanced technology, something I wouldn’t get an opportunity to experience at school. For example, I used some very unique chemicals, ranging from dry toluene and dodecyltrichlorosilane when making a superhydrophobic surface, to potassium bromide and sodium borohydride when forming silver nanoparticles. These experiments also involved various fascinating processes, such as filtering through the use of a Büchner flask, which involves the use of what seems to be a conventional flask with a filter above it, but with a short tube near the top which is connected to a vacuum. This vacuum ensures ensures the filtered substance is as dry as possible, by sucking out all the moisture. A second process we used was sonication, which involves placing a solution into a confined area, where sound waves are utilised in order to agitate the particles within, and speed up the rate of reaction.

That’s just a little taste of what my project was about. But Hands-On Otago wasn’t just about academics. We were there to really experience the life of a University student and to be honest, I really felt like one for the week. For one, we stayed at an official residential college. This came with its own new experiences; living, dining, working, playing with a bunch of new people, all of different backgrounds, some of whom I eventually grew to be close friends with. Our communication skills were also tested through the fact that within a couple of days, each floor had to come up with a unique dance of their choice. My floor amazingly composed a minute long piece, which by the sounds of it doesn’t seem long, but trust me, considering the fact that we started two days before the show and practiced right at the end of the day when everyone was ready to go to bed, it was absolutely exhausting, but definitely worth it. I also got an amazing opportunity to use advanced chemicals and equipment, that I wouldn’t have been able to in normal school chemistry. That really broadened my horizons and allowed me to discover new areas of complex Nanochemistry.

Overall, the experience was something very special. From the ups of discovering new things in the labs and zooming around on Lime scooters in town, to the downs of waking up at 6AM every morning and scaling up the infamous Baldwin St (trust me, I’m still having nightmares about it). I feel very lucky to have spent a week doing what I love best, which is studying science, interacting with others, discovering new places and creating bonds.

By far, the greatest benefit of going to Hands-On Otago was the fact that it fueled my passion for science. I initially went into the programme with a vague idea of my projected career path, but I came out with a much stronger plan to pursue my passion in nuclear physics. I feel very fortunate to have a set out career plan at such a young age, and I have the programme to thank for that.

Finally, I’d like to give my greatest thanks to Rotary Henderson and Rutherford College for providing scholarships that enabled me to have this amazing opportunity.

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