Stanford experience by Joakim Kattelus

My Stanford experience was not anything I had been planning or looking forward to for long. It was a few days before New Year’s Eve. I was in my second year of Chemical Engineering studies and was already actively looking for summer jobs when I happened to find my first mention of the Stanford IHP program in an informational email sent to CHEM students. I was intrigued, but I was also very late to the party, the application had been open for months and now the deadline for application was in only two weeks or so! So now followed a mad scramble where I quickly wrote up an application letter, filled in a form and contacted a lecturer I’d had a few courses with for a recommendation.

Despite this hurried start, everything fell into place and I was invited to an interview. Fortunately, the interview was not the stressful experience I had been expecting. We were interviewed in groups, so I already got to meet some of the other candidates. All the others at my interview session were from other Aalto schools, so I did not compete with them for my spot. The atmosphere was collaborative, not as competitive as I had feared. After the interview, I was not very confident that I had made a good impression. But time later, the good news followed: I was going to Stanford!

Campus life

My first impression of the Stanford campus was that I had walked into some kind of movie. The buildings were built in a classical style, resembling Greek temples. The grass was green and perfectly cut. And all this was framed by the California sun. The whole place felt unreal.

After arriving at the campus, we were led to our dorm, Branner hall, where most of the international students were going to be staying. There I met my roommate, as well as the other students. Living in a dorm with all the other IHP students was an interesting experience. On one hand, you met a lot of people from different cultures and could always go to the lounge to pretend to study while actually hanging out and chatting with people. There were a lot of great people in the IHP-program. I became friends with many of the other Nordic students, but also with people from all over the world: France, South Africa, Dubai, Greece, Pakistan, Australia… However, living like this also had a downside: it sometimes felt hard to find personal space or peace and quiet. My room was right next to the courtyard, so I could always hear the people partying and having fun at the balcony outside while I was trying to study.

Life at Stanford settled quickly into a comfortable routine. I woke up, went to breakfast, then to class. In the afternoon, I did homework, but I also had time to go for a run, play cards with my friends or play videogames in the dorm. In general, I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of free time. It really felt like I had time to enjoy the summer, and not just study all the time. With my friends, I went to Yosemite National Park over the weekend, visited the beach, went to San Francisco and played volleyball at campus. There were also lot of weekend activities offered as part of the International Honours Program, such as visits to museums or amusement parks.

As for academics, the difference to Aalto University was not as big as I had expected. The total course workload was about the same, with some courses being more time-consuming than others. The students were good, there were some very smart and competent people in all my classes. However, not everyone at Stanford or in the International Honours program was a genius with a perfect GPA. Every student was motivated, however, and that was enough. The biggest difference academically was in the professors and TA:s for the courses. They all were experts in their fields, very competent and motivated. Consequently, each class I took was on the same level as the very best classes I had taken at Aalto.

Below is a not-so-brief explanation of all three of my classes: why I took them and what I got out of them.

Applied Electrochemistry at the Micro- and Nanoscale

Whenever someone asked, I called this class “the Battery Course”. It was all about modern lithium ion batteries, both about the theory and principles by which their work and the current developments in the field. The professor called this an introductory course that barely scratched the surface, but it still felt robust to me. It definitely went further into battery chemistry than we had gone in my Chemical engineering undergraduate degree.

It is worth noting that the professor was an electrical engineer, with a lot of experience in the battery industry. While battery function is all about chemistry, this course was not intended for only chemists. The first weeks were repetition of basic chemical thermodynamics concepts that I was already familiar with, after this we very quickly moved on to new topics such as activation losses and mass transfer limitations. Surprisingly, instead of a final exam we did a final project with Quantum Mechanical calculations on the Stanford data cluster, which I had not expected reading the course description.

No prior information on these topics or battery chemistry was needed, I definitely recommend this course for anyone interested in energy storage or batteries, not just CHEM students. This was the course with the lightest workload I had at Stanford, but I still feel I learned a lot of things I can hopefully apply in my upcoming bachelor’s thesis.

As a final note, for some strange reason this course was found under “Mechanical Engineering” in the course list, not under “Chemistry”. So were courses like “Basics of molecular modelling” and “Combustion chemistry”. CHEM students looking for more advanced courses in your own field, remember to also look here! The courses listed under “Chemistry” were very basic. (Heh…)

Data Mining and Analysis

Someone once described this course to me as “really advanced curve-fitting”. This description is kind of accurate, the course was about using models from simple linear functions to more advanced machine learning algorithms like random forests and boosting to model, classify and make predictions from data.

Of the three courses I took, this one was the most challenging, but perhaps also the one I got the most out of. At some point while working with the course final project, I realised I really liked data mining and machine learning, to such a degree that I’ll probably try to make this subject into a second Minor of sorts. Data science and Machine learning are very useful tools in a variety of fields. While this was an introductory course, I still feel I got a lot of knowledge I can hopefully apply in the future.

There was also a more in-depth course called Machine Learning offered, that was about many of the same subjects. However, I got the impression that course was more difficult, mathematical and theoretical, while Data Mining and Analysis was more focused on applications. (There was a lot of programming in R or Python.) I’m glad I took the slightly easier, more practical course, since I still had plenty of coursework to do at Stanford.

Public speaking-Romancing the Room

This course came highly recommended by previous IHP-participants and I now completely understand why. The lecturer, Jim Wagstaffe, was an amazingly good lecturer and speaker, as can perhaps be expected for a public speaking class. Professor Wagstaffe is a practicing lawyer with a lot of high-stakes cases under his belt, which did bring a lot of credibility to what he was saying. Somehow, he almost managed to make our weekly lectures qualify as entertainment: despite the odd lecture hours (19-22 in the evening!) staying focused was anything but a struggle!

The course was about public speaking, with weekly lectures that included speeches by each student as well as some smaller workshops with oral exercises. The focus was on “Romancing the room”, that is, capturing and keeping your audience’s attention and making them like you and your message. During the course, we students had to give many kinds of speeches: personal stories, demonstrative speeches, persuasive speeches… No prior training or experience in public was required, at the start, some students were very shy and nervous, while some had more experience speaking in public. I feel everyone improved a lot. Personally, I feel I learned to manage my nervousness much better, got the importance of good eye contact drilled in me and learned a few tricks about speech writing.

Instead of a final exam, this course had a final dinner, where each student had to have a speech of a given type. Some did welcome or introductory speeches, some did toasts, some did roasts and some even did obituaries. I did a point-counterpoint entertainment speech with another student on whether stairs or elevators are better. The final dinner and the whole class in general was a really fun experience, due to the sense of community and all the great speeches we had. I still vividly remember several of the speeches: the one about the grandmother who turned away a young, lovesick John F. Kennedy, the one about how to make free money by arbitrage betting and the one about a terrifying first snowboarding lesson.

Final thoughts

In summary, studying at Stanford for the summer of 2019 was certainly an unforgettable experience. I learned a lot, both inside and outside the classroom. There were many new friends made and new experiences had, I had an amazing summer at Stanford.

However, at Stanford I also feel I discovered something about Aalto. Namely, that even compared to Stanford, my home University is a very good place to study. The material being taught is the same, the teaching methods are pretty much the same. The big difference was in the resources that come with being a top US university, right next to Silicon Valley. Many of the professors had some serious connections to the tech companies in the Valley, and this of course showed. But still, while the courses at Stanford were comparable to the very best courses I had at Aalto they were not necessarily better. And it might be that I am biased, but after the initial amazement I can honestly say I like the Otaniemi campus more than the one at Stanford. Otaniemi is right next to the student village, it is smaller and cosier with better study spaces, in my opinion.

One thing I noticed both Stanford and Aalto do well is by encouraging student collaboration. At both Stanford and Aalto, I’ve never felt I was competing with the others in class. However, it may be that the Stanford Summer Session is different in this regard. I have heard that especially post-graduate studies at Stanford can be very competitive. On the other hand, something Aalto could improve is the use of projects as a teaching tool. I have had project work at Aalto, but sometimes they felt like an afterthought or too narrow in scope. In contrast, the projects in Statistical learning and Applied Electrochemistry felt like good opportunities to apply the material that had been taught in the course.

And finally, I would like to comment on the perhaps most important difference between Aalto and Stanford: the price. Studying at Aalto is (almost) free, studying at Stanford is definitely not. Even just the summer program costs thousands of dollars. I had a stipend from Aalto University that paid the bills, but most other summers session students were paying for it themselves. This fact occasionally made me feel a bit guilty, but I also feel like this summer really made me appreciate the free education we have in Finland. Stanford was amazing, but so is Aalto. I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to study at both.

If you have any questions about applying or studying at Stanford, feel free to reach out to me at joakim.kattelus@aalto.fi. If you are hesitating about applying for the Summer Session, do it! The experience is very much worth it.

Best,
Joakim