A Season in the Life of a PhD Student Abroad

This column appears in observation of International Education Week, which runs from Nov. 18 through the 22nd.

Once they graduate, College of Engineering students fan out in all directions, near and far. Nordin Ćatić went far. He packed up after graduation and moved to Cambridge, England to pursue his master’s degree and then his PhD at one of the world’s storied universities: Cambridge University. That CoE enabled such a trajectory is a story in itself and a tribute to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), through which Ćatić earned his undergraduate degree.

An international student comfortable with the open road, Ćatić was born in Croatia and then grew up in Dubai. He chose CoE for his BS partly on the reputation of its materials department and partly because of the co-op program: “I liked the idea of having a year and a half of work experience and being able to check out the different industries.” At Drexel, he completed two industry co-ops abroad in England, laying the groundwork to return years later.

After graduation, Ćatić earned his MPhil—the equivalent of a master’s degree—at Cambridge. The program allowed him to pursue both materials science and entrepreneurship. He completed his thesis on flexible printed batteries. Ćatić intended to go into industry immediately afterwards, but eventually decided to pursue his doctorate at Cambridge under the advisement of Dr. Sohini Kar-Narayan, a professor in device and energy materials.

Today, Ćatić is a second-year doctoral student working on printing medical diagnostic devices in the field of microfluidics.

“The idea is to only need a microliter of liquid to be able to test for various things. This is especially important in the pharmaceutical industry where it is expensive to synthesize new drugs and run countless numbers of tests,” said Ćatić. “These chips that we make are very, very small so you can do hundreds of tests and get results all at once.”

In this latest “Day in the Life” column—this one has a slight twist to accommodate a PhD student studying abroad—we look at Ćatić’s life by breaking it down according to Cambridge’s academic year: Michaelmas, Lent, and Easter terms. Having used CoE as a springboard to get there, Ćatić explained, “I guess it is not common for a student from Drexel to come to Cambridge. But the year after I finished my master’s, I told a friend who graduated from Drexel about it. And then he, too, came over here and finished his master’s at Cambridge.”

Name: Nordin Ćatić
Year: Second-year PhD candidate, St. John’s College, Cambridge University, England
Field of Study: Materials Science and Metallurgy department
Graduated Drexel College of Engineering: ’17, Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering
Hometown: Zagreb, Croatia
Current Home: “Wherever I see myself spending the next few years.”

Full Michaelmas Term

October to December

“It’s a very different lifestyle, comparing Drexel with Cambridge. So the way the system works in Cambridge, all undergrads live within a college—I’m at St. John’s—inside the grounds, and then all graduates live around the college in graduate accommodation. I’m living in College accommodation but not within the site, but it’s still in the center of the city. I really like it. My house is two houses combined so there’s 13 of us all doing different subjects and from different parts of the world. It’s really a nice community.”

“This time last year I started my PhD. The way it works here, I just had to take two classes and pass those: for example, AFM, a type of microscopy for the first term. When I came to my professor last October, I sat down and said, so, what’s my PhD? I had no idea what I’d be doing. You just kind of apply. I knew I wanted to work with my professor. During my master’s, she taught a course about energy harvesting and her research. I thought I could see myself doing this at a company. Her research is super cool and it just sounded really interesting.”

“The way they currently make these diagnostic devices is through photolithography. That’s where you have a certain liquid and when you shine UV light on it, it hardens or cures. We put ‘masks’ over that liquid with holes and cuts, so that where the light goes through it produces a mold of what you want to make. I print those molds. No one has printed it in the way we have, so everything I’ve been doing is completely new. My whole first term was just to get it to the stage to compare it to the current technology out there, and to see if we could make these mold channels with our printer.”

Full Lent Term

January to March

“Initially, we thought that this would take us quite a while, but it ended up being faster than we thought. We started to figure out what we could do to enhance these devices. You pass fluid from an inlet that you make into channels, and the fluid gets to certain parts where a reaction happens. But the channels aren’t used for anything except to move fluid. We wanted to functionalize those channels, to test things or get sensors in there and check what’s going on with the liquid. I wanted to be able to make this a much smarter device. I wanted to find out, what aspects of improving this device are the most straightforward to do and the most useful for industry?”

Full Easter Term

April to June

“Microfluidics is a huge field today. It’s very much used in the pharmaceutical industry so they can test hundreds of different samples. You can’t really make huge quantities of samples very easily, so you want to be able to do multiple tests at various conditions and then be able to repeat them. So, all of these are being done in very, very small quantities just to get good validation. They’re also used in the medical field to be able to detect allergens and different things like that. So I was working on that.”

“Another difference between life here and at Drexel is that at Drexel, you have your core groups of students within materials and a couple organizations/clubs. But over here you have your college, which hosts parties, events, and swaps to other colleges and countries, and then your department, organizations, and other sports groups. There are so many things you could do if you want to.”

“Something else I did last year: we tried every other Monday to have a dinner where someone in the house cooked a meal based on their home country’s food. I hosted a Croatian/Bosnian dinner with a fancy menu for the house. The main dish was Burek, a pastry that can be filled with cheese, spinach, potatoes, meat, and many other things. And then I just had a lot of different side dishes with three different desserts! So we tried doing that over the year as a fun event for the house.”

“I row for my college. I started that during my PhD. That’s the main sport I do ,which takes up two-to-three hours of my morning seven days a week. I’m also the secretary for the graduate students at College. So I help organize events and make sure we have the amount of people we need to run events and swaps with other colleges. For example, we have 17 people coming from our sister college in Italy at Christmas, and then we’ll go there in the spring. My other big commitment is being the photographer for the Cambridge Union, which is the oldest debating society in the world.”

What’s Next

“I’m applying for a competition where you take a year off of your PhD, and you are fully funded to try and commercialize your work. So hopefully I’ll take a year and start working with companies to see which of the aspects of functionalizing my devices are the most interesting to them, and which could make it better. I would have the opportunity to work on that without the pressures of needing to work on papers. That would still be within Cambridge. So, technically, I’d be a visiting student for that year.”

Takeaway Message

“I would not have gotten into Cambridge straight from high school. Drexel really taught me a work ethic, because we had exams every couple weeks and I had to stay on top of my grades and assignments. That really helped me here. Also, I was a student ambassador at Drexel, and that helped teach me how to converse with different groups.

“By getting involved in the Cambridge Union I have managed to meet the heads of different world organizations as well as secretaries, prime ministers, and presidents of a variety of countries. I also got to meet Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark in Game of Thrones when she came to give a talk at my College! I just don’t know if I would have been that outgoing if I hadn’t done the ambassador work at Drexel, and all the stuff I did for my department. The best way is just to try and get involved in any way you can. You never know who you might meet.”