My Summer Exchange Program at The University of Pittsburgh (PITT) - 2017

  • By Burcu Ozden
  • 23 February 2018

Hua Jiannan (华健男),  University of Science and Technology of China

Scientific research in the USA

In March 2017, I reached out to Dr. Gurudev Dutt, who is an associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh to express my interest for summer research in his laboratory. Soon, I received an invitation from professor in the following month and had the privilege to be part of his research lab at PITT.

My work in his lab was majorly divided into two parts. One was writing a program to support lab work and the other was performing a general experiment on quantum nanomechanics. The part of writing a program gave me a broader perspective about research and emphasized the importance of using an inbuilt coded program. Generally, already existing programs written by others are not always robust and they may have some potential bugs or they might not even have a detailed explanation of their functions. This consideration is a bit different from non-scientific areas. Also, a plethora of programming languages such as Python, Java, etc., are so popular because there are generally free and easily available online. As for the physical experiments are concerned, I learned some useful techniques such as circuit design, soldering and desoldering. Also, my patience, carefulness and accuracy were exercised during this process.

As my visit was during summers, the group meetings were not as regular as usual although it was very important to attend them to let the professor know the progress of my work in lab. My professor liked conducting short quizzes during the group meetings and he used to even ask few questions. I was actually quite fascinated with the group meetings structure in America as they usually started at 11 am and lasted until 1 pm due to which we had to miss lunch at times. I thus saw a great disparity in scientific research between America and China as researchers in America always have an earlier off-duty time which is before sunset. When they are at work, they completely immerse themselves in it  and  hardly work during off duty and seldom work overtime.



Life in Pittsburgh, USA


Pittsburgh is often referred as the "the Steel City" or “City of Bridges” of the United States and the “steel skeleton” of the buildings and the bridges in downtown are aesthetically exposed. By contrast, the building style of the University of Pittsburgh is quite unique and a visit to the Cathedral of Learning, the tallest building and centerpiece of the University of Pittsburgh is highly recommended.

The school (PITT) is located in the suburb or more often known as the "big countryside" (known as "匹村" in Chinese). The University of Pittsburgh (PITT) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are quite close to each other. As foreign (relative to Chinese) universities usually do not have the obvious campus walls like those in domestic universities, students of these two universities never refer each other as neighbors but there is definitely good communication between them. I lived between the two schools and usually went to the CMU gym at night after finishing my lab work.

When I lived in the domestic (Chinese) dormitory, I didn’t have time and necessity to cook for myself and thus never had a chance to cook a dish of Chinese food. Although things changed during my time in America and I tried hands on cooking as self-cater is always cheaper than eating in the restaurant or ordering takeout. Gratefully, my cooking skills made an obvious progress and for most of the chinese people, american food seemed to have more calories when compared to chinese food and hence one must exercise regularly to keep fit.

I lived very near to PITT and used to walk to the lab which was just about a 10 minutes walk, although commute in Pittsburgh is excellent with tons of buses operating all over the city. Students with school ID cards can ride the buses for free and it was also interesting to see that in many places of America, drivers let the pedestrians pass first as the law requires them to do so.

On the afternoon of August 21, I was fortunate enough to see a solar eclipse for the second time in my life and it was very special to me as it was also my first time in the United States. On that day, my Chinese friends from the west coast to the east coast broadcasted it live on social networking sites. Many American people also took off from their jobs and witnessed that beautiful solar eclipse.

So, here are two incidents which amused me during my stay in USA. The first one happened on the very first day I arrived at Pittsburgh. When strolling across the campus, I was selected by some students (not sure if they were high school, undergraduate or graduate students) to do a random street investigation. So I took part in it but their question to me was quite appalling  and it was “What will happen after you die, according to your religion or cultural background?” Actually, in Chinese culture, it’s impolite to question a person on death and it is considered to be a curse. Although that question made me unhappy, I still answered it. Firstly, I misinterpreted that question as “What will be done to your body after you die” ? But then I realized that I was wrong. What they really asked me was “Will your soul go to heaven or go to hell? Or will there be a god, like the one in ancient Egyptian culture, such as weighing of the heart ceremony and then decide what kind of trial you will eventually undergo?”  I politely answered them saying that I was more of a materialistic person and it was the first cultural conflict I encountered while having a conversation with a foreigner.

The second one happened at the JFK airport, New York when I was traveling back to China. As we know, after passing through customs (immigration counter to leave the country), there is a security check. So, I have put all my carry on luggage onto the conveyor belt of the X-ray inspection machine and then went for personal body check which took a long time. I then realized that my laptop was missing from the conveyor belt and panicked since it was not only expensive but also had lot of important data. If it happened in a domestic railway station, I believe the police will check the monitor, find it and return it to me, no matter how long it would take. Since it was an international airport and especially when thousands of people are taking off to every corner of the world, it might be impossible to get the lost items. I was not allowed to go back to find it by myself as I had passed through customs check. All I could do was ask the customs officers for assistance. They questioned me on my laptop’s brand and color in detail. Thankfully, after 10 minutes, a woman officer brought it to me and said “You know how long you lost it? A long time!”


On 10th August 2017, the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute (PQI) organized a laboratory tour and USTC students who were part of summer research at PITT and CMU were invited. All alumni of USTC, such as graduate students and professors also took part in this tour and gave talks on various topics. Tour was followed by lunch meeting which gave us a valuable opportunity to communicate with some professors in different areas. Laboratory visits have broadened our horizons and gave us a deeper understanding of scientific research at the University of Pittsburgh. The staff at PQI also prepared gifts for us which was very kind of them. Overall, it was quite an enthralling experience and I could adapt myself both personally and professionally and the payoff of this adaptation was quite enormous. I would definitely recommend international experience to everyone which are incredibly worthwhile endeavors that everyone should seek in order to be successful in the rapidly globalizing world of today.

Written by: Hua Jiannan (华健男),  University of Science and Technology of China