Ethereal Chemist's Adventures

This is the story of my three months in China, and now my year abroad studying at the University of Helsinki!

Cottages, saunas and literature reviews

Alright, one of the major things about being here is that, while I obviously want to make the most of every opportunity I can, the time window in which I can do this is relatively limited, because while life goes on during winter here, most attractions aren’t open and… let’s face it, when it’s minus ten out, the idea of going out to do something isn’t the most appealing where everywhere is snug and warm inside. And it really is. Insulation and proper heating are a big deal here, which they have to be, funnily enough.

In the interests of making sure I share in every possible cultural experience and get a real taste of what it can be like, I was away last weekend in Nuuksio, in Espoo (one of the two cities which are next to Helsinki - the other one is Vantaa where I went adventuring to with my American friend when she needed to pick up a package). The HYK (the chemistry student organisation) had its freshman cottage weekend.

Most Finnish families have a cottage they go to during the summer, where they can return to nature and be surrounded by forests and lakes (which admittedly describes most of the country), so the chance to go to a cottage seemed too good to pass up, quite apart from the fact that it was a great way to experience a proper wood burning sauna.

Even if I wasn’t quite ready for the mixed sauna (or to throw myself in the lake, though that was more an issue with timing than actual reluctance: we were always using the sauna at night, and running down a set of steep, slippery steps to throw myself into an unknown lake in the dark didn’t seem like the best idea in the world) I did go to the girls’ sauna time both nights, and it was really relaxing. There’s a sauna in the complex I live in, and I’m fairly sure it’s at the bottom of my staircase, so not only do I know how to recharge myself when it’s below zero outside, I also don’t have to go outside when it’s time to go home again!

It was a great weekend. There were about fifteen to twenty people there and listening to the others playing drinking games was a hilarious way to pass the time. We also indulged in a bit of community singing, though I suspect that Disney songs and the Pokemon theme tune are fairly recent additions to the usual things people sing together. Maybe it’s a generational thing.

Work on my project is proceeding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say proceeding well, necessarily, but it’s going. I’m planning to see whether there’s been any more information from my home university yet, but I’m not holding my breath because inefficiency seems to be the watch word as far as that is concerned.

I did have quite a special moment last night when I started work on my literature review (since the original structure of this year supposedly had us handing in our literature by Christmas. Apparently for the home students it’s now due as a draft in spring term, and the final work with the project. This might not apply to abroad students, but it’s likely to, and either way, just having some confirmation would be nice), and so I hunted down a couple of references for what I was talking about.

The first reference in my literature review is only two pages long, and although it is not the oldest paper I’ve referenced, it is the second oldest. It is from an issue of Nature in 1953, and is in fact Watson and Crick’s Nobel prize winning paper on the structure of DNA. That was a very special moment. I got shivers down my spine.

Anyway, I have lots of other things to get done today too, like writing an academic CV for my PhD applications, and so for now I will love you and leave you.

Take care!

Update on my project/lab activity

Alright, so, here goes.

The week after I arrived I met with my project supervisor, and with the man whose lab I’m actually working in to discuss my project. I’m working on finding a solution to a problem with DNA sequencing. That makes it sound a lot more dramatic than it actually is, there is nothing particularly wrong with the DNA sequencing methods currently in use, I’m just trying to refine one of their weaknesses.

DNA/RNA consist of four/five bases (thymine in DNA is replaced by uracil in RNA, the only difference is whether or not there is a methyl substituent present), and sometimes these bases have modifications. These are little epigenetic tags which affect how the sequence is read when the genes are being transcribed/translated into protein. Cytosine, one of the four/five bases, comes in two modified forms: methyl cytosine and hydroxymethyl cytosine, however, currenty sequencing technology can’t tell the difference between modified and unmodified cytosine directly (the enzyme doesn’t read that part, it just reads the base pairing). There are techniques which allow the differentiation of modified and unmodified cytosine, but there isn’t a way to tell the difference between the two modifications, so that’s… sort of what I’m working on, in a nutshell. There is a way to do it, but it destroys the DNA strand, so I’m trying to find a better way of doing it that doesn’t destroy the information.

I’m in the lab… well, in the first week it was all five days, since then I’ve asked if I can have one day off a week to do my other school stuff/explore before the weather gets bad. I haven’t done much exploring yet, but now that I have that day, and am painfully aware of time’s winged (I haven’t got the code for the accented e handy, I’m sorry) chariot drawing near behind me, I’m going to make concrete plans to actually go do some things.

As far as that goes, this coming weekend I’m doig a traditioal Finnish thing, which is spending a weekend at a cottage out in the forest. It’s organised by the HYK which is the chemistry students’ society. I’m a little nervous, but I’m sure it will be great. I plan to take lots of pictures, and I’ll write about it here when I get back too.

In the lab I am mostly… well at the moment I’m working on one synthetic method, so I’ve run that twice, and it involves lots of column chromatographic purification, which is quite time consuming. I’m also learning how to run NMR myself, which is… a terrifying prospect. I’ve only been once so far, but I have nine months to work on this project, so I suspect I’ll be doign it a lot in future. I’m not sure what to do about that really, because in Helsinki, projects like this usually take 5 months, and Helsinki expects you to do 27 hours of work per credit, whereas York expects you to do 10, and so the comparative length of time I am supposed to spend working on this is very different. I suppose I’ll just carry on until I have something, and then maybe see what happens. It does include the writing up time, though, so maybe by about March I’ll have done enough hours in the lab to just spend the rest of the time trying to write up my results.

I have made a couple of friends, like I said, but there was a girl working in the lab the first week I was there with whom I clicked with a vengeance. It was decidedly creepy. Every single thing we talked about seemed to bring up something more we had in common. Naturally we’re now also best friends. And since she is a native Finnish person, that is actually fantastically helpful from my point of view.

I have had three Finnish classes so far, it should have been four but I was not well last Thursday and so I didn’t go. It’s… definitely hard going, but I’ll keep persevering, I’m sure I’ll learn at least some, and anything I can string together will be more Finnish than I spoke before I came, so, progress!

Tomorrow the online course which I signed up for with the University of Hong Kong starts, and I’m obviously very excited for that, if wondering if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. However, it’s not for credit, so I’m sure that will be fine in the end too.

I’m sure there’s more you’d like to know, and more I could say, but it’s just past eleven pm and I am more or less brain dead, so, here is the promised update on what I’m doing.

Love you all x

I am so sorry!

Yes, I am still in Finland, and yes, I am still alive. I did promise I was going to update this regularly, but, I’m not going to lie, things have been very busy, and I’ve spent most of my time spinning around playing catch up, so I have not been as dedicated to this as I should have been. Or, indeed, dedicated at all, apparently. There are a couple of projects that have fallen by the wayside with the excitement of the move and the transition, and unfortunately, this was one of them. I will try to pick it up again now.

Unlike when I was in China this is not going to be a case of updates every day, because I don’t have the time, or the energy, or the inclination to share with you the nitty gritty about what I do in the lab everyday. Basically, at the moment I am spending my days in the lab. I have Finnish lessons twice a week, and guidance tutoring, which is mainly for trips and stuff, getting to know Finnish culture, once a week. I do get one day off from the lab a week, but it’s unpredictable, because organic chemistry is unpredictable. This is why my lunchbreak is never certain. But I am taking one! And I’m eating breakfast! I’m doing well, I swear!

I have made a couple of really good friends, and I anticipate the year being a really great experience. I promise I will update in the next few days with more about my project, what I’ve been up to, and the people I’ve met. Albeit possibly not in much detail. Sorry again for the radio silence!

Arrival Journal! (aka what life is like in Helsinki ;))

So, eventually I finally arrived in Helsinki, and although I didn’t see much of it on the drive from the ferry to collect the key and then onto the accomodation since more attention was being paid to following the directions than the scenery, I have since had the chance to explore it a little bit, and I have to say it’s a really beautiful city. It’s not too big, so it’s quite easy to navigate, and the public transport is fantastic. What makes that even better is that, with a student discount, I basically get unlimited travel on trains, buses, trams, the ferry to Suomenlinna, and the Metro for 20 euros a month. Considering that I’ll be needing the bus to commute from where I live to campus every day, as well as into the city, that’s incredibly good value!

It’s rather depressing to admit, but the first thing I made sure was set up when I moved into my accomodation was my laptop and my internet connection. And then I did a load of washing. But I needed clean clothes from the trip anyway, so it at least made everything smell nice and meant that I learned where the laundry was and how to operate it very early on.

On my first full day in Helsinki I went to go buy a Finnish phone handset, and I ended up making friends with a nice young Finnish woman who was kind enough to help me navigate the three shopping centres which are all interconnected underground to save going outside in the winter. We probably would have parted forever and she would have spent the rest of the day with the warm glow of having done a good deed, except that I met her again in the station the next day when I was getting my travel card. Twice in two days is more fate than accident, so at least I have a contact who can answer my stupid questions about Helsinki like a very patient native.

In the evening some of the international chemistry students met at a bar to get to know each other, and we had a couple of drinks and then went out for some cheap pizza. It was a good night, and a really nice group of people. It was also a much gentler way to meet them than it would have been if we had all had first contact on campus at 9 am the next morning. 9 am is just as early for students here as it is there, especially factoring in travel time.

The Kumpula campus, which is where all the scientists are, is really nice, and the chemistry building is lovely. The labs look great and I’m looking forward to getting to work in them. It’s also about a twenty minute bus ride from the accomodation, and the bus leaves from right outside, so it’s really convenient. After the faculty and departmental orientation talks, and the acquisition of the all important hug cards (it’s exactly what it says on the tin, you present it to someone for a hug), we grabbed lunch and headed into town to the city centre campus for the welcome fair.

I do just want to pause to say something about the food: with the government subsidy, and the subsidy for membership of the student union, I can get lunch for 2,60 euros. By lunch I mean as much salad as you want (or can fit on your plate), as much carbohydrate as you want (or can fit on your plate, and this here means rice or potatoes, sometimes noodles), and a portion of food (like chicken nuggets or something), bread, Finnish pancake is 1 euro extra, or free from the bread table if they have some they need to use up, and water. It’s fantastic.

The welcome fair is a great opportunity to find things out and get paperwork done, if you’ve had a chance to print everything, otherwise it’s an exercise in patience, particularly when they only have two people distributing IT account information for the whole crowd. On the plus side, mutual complaining is a great way to make friends, and being British, I’m naturally good at queuing, so I made friends with a very nice Dutch girl who is doing her master’s in chemistry here too.

Thus far things don’t feel too different. To be honest, the weather is much the same - it’s been raining for a lot of the past week, and it rains more or less like it does at home! The public transport is, if anything, better, and things seem very well organised. There’s a real independent spirit here, but for all I’ve heard about Finnish people being reserved (until you make the first move), everyone I have spoken to, and everyone I have seen other people speak to, is more than happy to help you if you get confused or lost. I’m sure the temperature will drop soon (apparently the Finnish for November translates approximately to “moon of death” but that’s fine because it gives me an excuse to stay in and Nano instead), but for the moment it’s really nice, and the atmosphere is incredibly friendly.

A++ would recommend.

(If you guys want more detail about what it’s like where I’m living, or any of the exploring I’ve done/experiences I’ve had, please just ask :))

Copenhagen, Stockholm, and the ferry to Helsinki

Alright, so, in order to save time, I have decided to condense the whole of the rest of the trip into one blog entry. This is mainly because the journey itself was quite busy and stressful, there wasn’t always easy access to internet, and in Stockholm Steve (my computer) started acting up. That is now fixed, as in, properly fixed, thank goodness, but still.

We had two nights in Copenhagen, in what was a very small hotel room for three people. It was alright for just those two nights, but there wasn’t a huge sense of privacy involved. The bathroom was in kind of like a pod, and the shower was a bit like being in one of the transportation/teleportation units you see in some scifi films. The first night was at the end of the trip from Odense, via Roskilde. We ate in a Danish chain restaurant, where we actually ended up eating the second night as well, called Jensen’s Bofhus. It was, unsurprisingly, primarily steak, but it was one of the nicest steaks I’ve ever had, and yes, we went back the second night. They also had really nice sauces, the house wine was good, and the desserts all looked great but they had a kind of bottomless ice cream thing like pizza hut. Interestingly, complimentary tap water does not seem to be a thing in Denmark - good to know, I think?

On the full day that we had in Copenhagen we wandered around a bit in the morning and went to Nyhavn, where we took a canal tour. It was really interesting, and a very good way to see a lot of the city. Copenhagen has really good public toilets, by the way, which are free (unlike Stockholm and Helsinki).

We ate lunch in the market hall - thin pizzas, and some delicious cinnamon buns which we ate afterwards in the botanical gardens (also free, and very nice) and then walked back to our hotel, which was quite close to the Tivoli gardens.

The day after we drove all the way over the bridge to Malmo and up through to Stockholm. It was a very long drive. Dinner was very nice that night though, if expensive. We ate in a proper Scandinavian fish restaurant and tried a sampler of the main dishes as a starter. The smoked salmon was fantastic, unsurprisingly, the herring was very nice, and the prawns were delicious. There was also a sort of cheese quiche which I really liked! I had meatballs after that, though, and they were very different from Ikea style meatballs, but equally nice.

There were also meatballs on the breakfast buffet, interestingly enough.

In Stockholm we spent a lot of time wandering aronud the old town, down by the harbour. We went into the treasury museum of the Swedish economy, near the Royal Palace, because it had a free toilet, and was a free museum. It wasn’t the kind of place we would necessarily have chosen to go to, but I actually heartily recommend it. It was very interesting, and had a really good display on entrepreneurs. Also I can now officially say that I understand why in old money there were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, and I’ve seen the largest coins in the world.

We walked out to one of the islands and around it, admiring the fortress, the Swedish Tivoli, and the museums which were all over the place, and then went to get some coffee and cake, which was also very nice.

The next morning, before the ferry to Helsinki, we did the shorter canal tour and bought a moose (and a lamp), as you do. I have to say the hotel in Stockholm was very nice, it had a bear in every room! Oh, and water is complimentary in Sweden too.

The ferry itself was… unexpected. That’s a good word for it, I think. For a crossing that was 111 euros for three people and a cabin, there were about 7 different restaurants on board, designer goods everywhere, and a tax free superstore. In which we bought wine for me to drink here in Finland. It was a much smoother crossing than the North sea, too, I would like to say that. We ate in the Italian restaurant on board, and while it wasn’t cheap by any means, it was very good food.

It was a really interesting way to spend a week, and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to do it. I have some great photos from the trip out through the Swedish archipelago which I will upload at some point soon. And now, on to Helsinki!


So last night we checked into the hotel in Copenhagen, and we ended up having dinner in a very nice restaurant (which we returned to tonight). It’s actually a chain, I looked it up, they have 33 restaurants in Denmark, 8 in Sweden, one in Germany (in Lubeck) and one in Norway. It’s called Jensen’s Bofhus (I can’t do the special characters on here) and it’s one of the nicest steaks I’ve ever had, without question. Nice house wine, too! And reasonably priced. So there, that’s the food.

Anyway, today we went out in the morning and walked down to Nyhavn to do a canal tour. It was absolutely fascinating (we used the Netto company) and about half the price of the alternative tour for the same route. We got some great views of a lot of thigns, including the back of the Little Mermaid statue, and the guide was really informative, and coped well with commentating in Danish, English and German! It’s no mean feat to switch between three languages so smoothly.

After that we went to the market hall, which is where we had a very nice lunch, actually. Incredibly thin crust pizzas, and some cinnabuns to take away. I wish I had taken a pciture of that cinnabun because I honestly don’t think a better one could actually exist, but I might be biased. We ate those in the botanical gardens - free entry by the way! - and they were wonderful, even if I was attacked by a very persistent wasp.

The last thing we did in Copenhagen, on our whistlestop tour, was Rosenborg castle, which was absolutely fantastic. It was a beautiful 17th century castle and palace, with a fascinating history, which has been a museum since the 19th century. One of the floors was closed, but it didn’t detract from everything else, and they also have an exhibition of the crown jewels and state regalia.

There is not a thing I did today which I wouldn’t recommend, so, do them! If you get to Copenhagen, do them.

That’s me out for now, I’m afraid!

Tomorrow we’re off to Stockholm, via the Oresund bridge and Malmo, so hopefully no eco-terrorists this time!

Roskilde and Viking Ships

Alright, sorry I didn’t blog last night, time got away from me and it was late and I was tired and blah blah blah… excuses, excuses.

Anyway, yesterday we drove from Odense to Copenhagen, and stopped at Roskilde.

We didn’t actually go into Roskilde proper, but we did go to the Viking Ship Museum, and seriously, I recommend it. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The finds are spectacular, and well presented, the experimental archaeology is fascinating and… well, it works, too! The exhibitions are interesting and you learn a lot about the Vikings as well as getting a sense of European and even global history.

For example, the three main Viking nations are Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The Swedes went down the Russian river systems and reached as far south as Constantinople where, because they were on average 10cm taller than the southern Europeans, and because they stank from all the travelling, crammed into a longboat, they were recruited into the emperor’s bodyguard and also employed as tax collectors, which was, funnily enough, much easier work than all the raiding.

Vikings, particularly Norwegians and Danes raided the monasteries on the North coast of the Frankish empire, and occasionally got as far south as Paris, looting, raiding and generally burning it to the ground every four to five years or so until the emperor got tired and ceded them lands in return for coastal defence, which is the origin of Normandy - Norman = North Man.

Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, served as a bodyguard in Constantinople, and was sent to Sicily to fight the Normans, and then later invaded Britain, where he was defeated by Harold Godwinson, who lost to William the Conqueror from Normandy about ten days later, which I feel is nicely cyclical.

There was interesting information about the intrinsic differences between trading and war ships too, like the structure - keels for example. Trading ships have much more of a keel than warships because you need the stability in a trading ship so you don’t lose your cargo, but in a warship you don’t have much of a keel because you want to be able to run the ship right up on the beach and leap out to attack.

I could go on and on, but actually, I think that should cover it! If you’re interested, please do check out the website, and look for the video of the voyage of the seadragon, because they reconstructed the largest of the ships that were sunk in the blockade, a thirty metre warship, and then sailed it to Ireland (since dendrochronological analysis showed tht it had been built in Ireland), and then sailed it all the way around the British Isles and back again. I don’t know if that’s on the web anywhere, but if it is, do check it out.

Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

Esbjerg and Odense

Harwich and the ferry