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Living Through Lockdown in Europe
On October 31, the French government imposed a 6-week national lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. Considering the rapidly-increasing case count, the strict measures were absolutely necessary. However, since I was living alone in Paris at the time, this meant I would have to spend the next six weeks quarantined in my 12 x 12 foot apartment with no human interaction besides the cashier at the grocery store.
I was trying to mentally prepare myself for the isolation— and I was even considering returning to the US— when I received a call from a family friend who lives in Belgium. Having heard I was in Europe and realizing I would be quarantining alone, he offered to let me live with his family during the lockdown. So, 3 hours later, I had packed up my apartment in Paris and caught the last train for Brussels before the lockdown began.
My friends live in a renovated 150-year-old barn in the Belgian countryside about an hour from Brussels. While they live on a small plot of unfarmed land, their house is surrounded by independent farmers, and I frequently see tractors plowing crops outside my window.
I have found that the Belgian countryside is the ideal setting to spend a lockdown— farmland stretches for miles, and the rural culture provides little opportunity to catch the virus: for instance, instead of going to a crowded grocery store, we bike to a nearby farm for meat and eggs, and we buy bread from a bakery in a tiny local bakery which is almost always empty. I have especially enjoyed taking advantage of the outdoors during my time here, as the landscape is incredibly beautiful!
Additionally, while the house is far more isolated than my apartment in Paris, my French has improved during this time more than it ever would have had I remained in Paris, even if there hadn’t been a lockdown. The children in the family I am staying with speak only French, so I am constantly immersed in the language as I communicate with them.
Though this certainly wasn’t how I imagined my trip to Europe, it has been an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience, and I am so grateful that my friends have allowed me to stay with them during this time!
Moving to Paris
As an avid traveller and a French student of seven years, I have always dreamed of studying abroad in Paris. Though I knew that travelling during the coronavirus would make for a very different trip than I had imagined, I was nonetheless excited to take advantage of my free time this year and travel to France.
The first hurdle was to acquire permission to enter France. Under current conditions, all travel from the US to France is restricted except for French citizens and international students– luckily, I had plans to study in Paris, so I was eligible to apply for a student visa. After numerous interviews and months of securing plans for my stay, I was finally able to acquire my visa, which would allow me to stay in France while attending a 3-month course at Sorbonne University. In a year when seemingly all my plans had been modified or cancelled, I was exhilarated that my trip to Paris was at last coming to fruition.
I arrived in Paris 2 weeks before the start of my course at Sorbonne, so I had plenty of time to explore the city. I was surprised to find that in many ways, Paris is just as beautiful as depicted in books and movies. The quaint cobblestone streets are lined with identical, brightly-lit trees, and the distinctive 19th century architecture is sprinkled with thousands of neighborhood brasseries and bakeries. Even my apartment is the picture of a traditional Parisian “chambre de bonne”: a cozy room with a tiny bathroom, a kitchenette, a bed, shelves, and a table all crammed onto less than 15 square meters of creaky wooden floorboards.
In the first few days after my arrival, I set out to discover my immediate neighborhood. Central Paris is divided into 20 “arrondissements,” or neighborhoods, each of which possesses its own unique character. My apartment is in the northern corner of the 14th arrondissement, which is home of the Catacombs and Gare Montparnasse. I spent several days walking through the streets, exploring the local shops, parks, and patisseries until I developed the essential knowledge I would need to live alone in Paris– such as how to navigate the metro station, where to go if I felt unsafe at night, and which bakeries sold the best baguettes.
Once I felt comfortable navigating my immediate surroundings, I decided to explore the city’s most popular destinations. Due to the coronavirus, I was virtually the only tourist at each location, so it felt as if I had private access; the courtyard in front of the Eiffel tower was empty, there was no line to enter the Louvre or see the Mona Lisa, and I was the only visitor at the Pantheon. As a result, I had extra time to visit places that otherwise I would have missed. In fact, perhaps my favorite destination of all was a science museum on the edge of the city called the Cité des Sciences, which I only had visited because I was in the area and had spare time.
I feel so lucky to have been able to spend the month studying in Paris, and can’t wait to continue exploring the city!
The Importance of Spontaneity
This month, in continuing with my gap year’s unintentional theme of spontaneity, I decided to take a last-minute trip to Colorado. My grandparents live in a beautiful log cabin deep in the mountains, and I thought that visiting them would be the perfect way to start off my travels this year!
Though I had hoped the mountains would offer a reprieve from the sweltering Texas heat, when I arrived at my grandparents’ cabin, it was nearly 100 degrees. Additionally, due to nearby wildfires in Colorado and California, the sky was so smoky that I could barely see objects 400 yards away and my eyes stung when I walked outside. Suddenly, the week of outdoor activities I had planned was looking less and less appealing.
Considering the grim weather upon my arrival, I was quite surprised to wake up the next day and see that the ground was covered in a thick blanket of snow! The weather had taken a rapid shift– so much so, in fact, that while the previous day brought record high temperatures to the region, twelve hours later the snowstorm delivered record-breaking cold temperatures. Though a frightening sign of our unstable global climate, we welcomed the snow as it helped quell the nearby wildfires and cleared the smoke from our horizon.
With clear skies and cooler weather, we were eager to spend the day outside. As a native Texan, I have had limited exposure to snow and was excited when my grandparents suggested we go snowshoeing! After bundling up in winter clothes and strapping into our snowshoes, we headed off into the forest. I was astonished at how easily the snowshoes floated across the top layer of snow; I had expected it to feel like I was walking in flippers, but instead it felt almost identical to hiking. Unlike hiking, though, it offered an entirely new, beautiful snow-covered perspective of the landscape!
Perhaps the most significant aspect of our snowshoeing expedition was my learning to properly build a snowman. I had thought the only way to create a snowball was by scooping up a handful of snow and packing it together. I was astonished when my grandpa started rolling a ball of snow around on the ground and it stuck together to form a massive sphere! Our final product was a life-sized snowman, complete with a hat and glasses.
By the next day, the snow had melted enough to take a regular hike. We took a trail that is traditionally so crowded that my grandparents avoid it at all costs, yet with the recent snow and icy trail conditions, it was nearly empty. Though we had to wear ice-spikes to avoid slipping on the steep snow-packed slopes, the beautiful scenery was well worth the effort!
My grandparents have several geologist friends, one of which has his own quartz, biotite, and amazonite mine in his backyard. So the next day, he supplied us with pick-axes and gave us full reign to hack away at his mine and extract specimens to take home. Having taken a geology class in high school, it was exhilarating to be able to put my knowledge to use. I was astonished to find deep green, perfectly-formed crystals of amazonite concealed just feet below the inconspicuous surface!
After several more days of hiking and exploring, we decided to conclude my trip by climbing to the top of a “fourteener” mountain. To be deemed a “fourteener,” which is the highest classification of mountain in Colorado, a mountain must reach more than 14,000 feet above sea level. There are 58 “fourteeners” in Colorado, and my Grandpa has climbed them all– an incredibly impressive feat!
On the day of the climb, we woke up extremely early, arriving at the trailhead just after sunrise so that we could reach the mountaintop before the afternoon storms. The trail begins just below the tree line, so the majority of the climb takes place over barren granite, with no vegetation in sight. The scenery on the trail is therefore usually quite uninteresting, but with the recent snowfall, the mountainside was a beautiful glistening white beneath the sun. The trail began as a steep rocky slope with large boulders, and completing the 3,000 vertical foot climb felt like an impossible task. However, as we continued to place one foot in front of the next, our goal slowly drew closer. Whenever I began to feel tired, I would remind myself that my grandparents were climbing the same trail alongside me, and they are both 75 years old (albeit incredibly fit and active 75-year-olds)!
After hours of steep upward hiking, we finally reached the peak. Up to this point, our view of the surrounding mountain range had been blocked by the mountainside on which we were climbing. However, upon reaching the top, we were met with a breathtaking view of snow-covered mountains in every direction. The sky was so clear that we were able to identify Pike’s Peak, over 100 miles away! Though the climb was slow and arduous, it was undoubtedly worth the beautiful views and sense of achievement we received. I can’t wait to climb my next fourteener!
I am constantly inspired that my grandparents are able to lead such interesting and active lives. It is a blessing to have them in my life and to be able to share in their love of nature and the outdoors!
My Summer Internship – Building a Photolithography Machine
This summer, I interned at an Austin-based scientific computing company called Enthought. While Covid-19 forced many people to cancel their plans, I am extraordinarily lucky in that my father works for Enthought, and I was able to participate in the internship from home.
The goal of my internship this summer was to provide a better understanding of physics and engineering through both a classroom and hands-on setting. The final aim was to create a maskless photolithography machine, but before we could begin, I needed a much better handle on physics and coding. We also needed a proper workspace (for some reason my mom refused to let us use the welding torch and hazardous chemicals in our living room…) so we set out to transform our garage into a laboratory. For the first month of the internship, I spent half of my workday in “class” with my dad, learning to code and studying electromagnetics and optics. For the rest of the day, I got my first taste of mechanical engineering as we designed and built tables for our new laboratory. After several weeks of cutting, drilling, and welding and hours of pulling metal shavings from my hair, we finished four tables, one of which is pictured.
Once I was adequately educated and our lab was completely built, I could begin researching and designing the maskless photolithography machine. Photolithography is a process used in microfabrication to etch a pattern onto a substrate, generally a silicon wafer. The wafer is coated with a substance called photoresist, which degrades when exposed to UV light. A patterned “mask” is placed over the substrate to block UV light, leaving only the unmasked areas to be exposed and degraded. Then, the wafer is coated in a solvent that dissolves the degraded areas but leaves the rest of the photoresist intact. This process enables manufacturers to etch extremely small patterns onto silicon wafers. However, masks are extremely expensive and cannot be altered, so they aren’t an ideal solution. In my internship, I investigated a newer idea called “maskless photolithography,” which uses a projector to shine a pattern directly onto the substrate, eliminating the need for a mask.
To give an idea of what the project was like, I have documented the main three challenges— though there were certainly more— that I faced when building the machine.
The first hurdle was to coat the substrate with photoresist (while prototyping, I used a microscope slide as my substrate instead of a silicon wafer because it is cheaper). In order to perform photolithography, the substrate must have an extremely even coating of photoresist. To achieve this, I found I must first rigorously clean the microscope slide using various chemicals and baking it on a hot plate. Then, I would place the slide on a spin-coater and apply the photoresist liquid to its center. As the slide spun, centrifugal force would push the photoresist outward so that it formed an even layer on the slide’s surface. In the picture provided, I am completing the spin-coating process. Note the light in the room is orange— I placed a filter on the lightbulb that blocks all light under 450nm so that the photoresist is not degraded as I am spin-coating. (IMAGE #2) The resulting photoresist coat isn’t completely perfect, especially near the edges of the slide, but it is plenty accurate for our project. In fact, we were able to use data from a spectrometer to discover the photoresist coating was a constant 7 microns thick in the center of the slide, which was exactly our goal!
The next step was to design an adjustable mount for the projector. Since photolithography is used for making extremely tiny objects such as computer chips, the projected image needs to be extremely small with an accuracy of several microns— which is a fraction of the width of a human hair. In order to condense the projector’s image to this size, I mounted the projector above a microscope so that it shines through the microscope’s lenses and produces a tiny image through the objective lens. After much trial and error, we created a mount that can adjust the projector’s position in the x,y, and z directions, as well as two rotating axes which allow us to adjust the projector’s angle. For context, I have provided an image of my initial design for the mount accompanied by my notes for improvement. I have also included an image of the final product we created.
Lastly, I adjusted the lens path of the projector and microscope in order to focus and center the image through the microscope’s objective lens. The projector’s initial image was far too large to fit into the small microscope lens, so I 3D printed a device to hold a series of condenser lenses in order to reduce the image. However, each lens attenuates the UV light, which activates the photoresist, so I adjusted my final design to use only a single condenser lense which I positioned in an adjustable 3D printed mount. After making a few additional adjustments to the projector— such as removing the color wheel and UV filter, I was ready to test my machine.
As with every science experiment, the first attempt was largely a failure. Though the projector and lens mounts were completely adjustable, I still couldn’t seem to position the projector so that the image was both centered and focused beneath the objective lens. After designing several new iterations of a 3d-printed mount for the condenser lens— ultimately deciding to mount it to the microscope rather than the projector— I have nearly attained success. I am hopeful that several more iterations in the last few weeks of my internship will prove successful and the project will be complete.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my internship this summer, and feel so lucky to have been able to participate in it!
Learning to Take Risks
Hi! I’m Lizzy from Austin, Texas. I can’t believe I’m already one month into my gap year—I have loved every moment and am so excited to see what the rest of the year will bring!
Despite my enthusiasm, I hadn’t seriously considered taking a gap year until about 6 months ago. I love the stability and organization of an academic schedule, so taking such a risk would have been out of character. Even though I dreamed of taking time off school and travelling the world, I never thought I would be brave enough to follow through with it.
So, what changed? At first, my structure-craving mindset remained stubborn as ever. I was bent on choosing the most practical option– and taking a year off school never seemed practical, no matter how much I thought I might enjoy it. As schools began closing in March and my meticulous plans for freshman year melted away, so did my fear of taking a gap year. I was faced with uncertainty no matter what I chose to do, so I abandoned hopes of practicality and stability and chose what I had truly wanted to do all along. At the time, taking a gap year felt like a huge risk, but I have it immensely so far and am incredibly pleased with my choice.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of taking a gap year so far is the freedom it has granted me. Throughout middle and high school, I would plan obsessively, scheduling every hour of every day– including weekends– with tasks to complete for school and extracurriculars. Now, for the first time in 7 years, I am not tethered to such a schedule. I am finally free to explore the things I felt too busy to do during high school, and I am beginning to learn the merits of letting go of structure: had I forgone a gap year and adhered to the college schedule, I would be fretting endlessly over class registration and roommate pairings right now. Instead, I fill my days with my favorite activities, like cooking elaborate dinners for my family, water skiing on Lake Austin, and going on hikes with friends.
In fact, despite taking time off school, I have found even more joy in my nerdy, academic passions than ever before. I’ve spent countless hours studying math, physics, and chemistry on my own, and I’ve joined a logic puzzle-solving club in Austin. In my internship, I have delved into optics and engineering, working outside paid hours to complete my project. Along with a few friends, I’ve challenged myself to learn the names and mythology of the major stars and constellations in the night sky. When we camped at Enchanted Rock, a massive granite dome in rural west Texas, we even brought along a telescope (which admittedly looked a bit strange in the rugged wilderness, as pictured below)! As we located Jupiter’s red bands, Saturn’s rings, and the moon’s craters through the telescope lens, I realized that learning voluntarily in the company of friends and nature is a far greater joy than I ever experienced from mandatory school assignments.
Inevitably some of my old stability-seeking habits will return come fall of 2021 and I am once again facing the regiment of a school schedule. However, I am hoping I will carry with me what I have already begun to learn from my gap year: that taking risks and letting go of structure can be both fun and rewarding.