My journey to Belfast did not begin as smoothly as I would have liked. Sitting on the tarmac for over two hours before takeoff and a broken entertainment screen that was stuck playing Toy Story 3 in Spanish on the 8 hour flight were only the appetizer for the madness of Heathrow. Apparently something about me screams “extra security checks needed.” That, coupled with a maze of terminals and gates that could keep the Minotaur imprisoned, led to me reenacting a scene from the movies – running down the terminal, bags in hand, as they made the final boarding call. And of course, once I managed to board, we sat some more! Well, everyone else sat; I slept.
There has been plenty more mayhem, including a good bit of wandering and exploring, and it’s all been a wonderful adventure. When I was hunting down Carphone Warehouse with the other Mitchell in Belfast, Marian Royston, to find cellphones, we must have stopped to ask directions from people five times. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we eventually made our way to the shopping center. Together and apart, Marian and I have covered much of the city – we’ve taken in plays at the Lyric (and are planning to see Cats sometime this week at the Opera House), been to St. George’s Market multiple times, sampled all kinds of delicious food and drink at a number of cafes, and wandered down streets and side streets. Thank goodness for Google Maps, it is always a great comfort to have a backup plan in case I wander too far in Belfast, Dublin, or all the other places I have been (and plan to go).
But in the midst of such a different culture and all the fun of exploring new cities and making new friends, a few things have remained constant. The first has been my love for Alabama football. Although I now detest late night starts (thanks time difference), I have yet to miss a game, whether via text, in a pub, SkySports, or internet stream. Thankfully, sport still seems to be a universal topic of discussion. I’ve been involved in many a conversation regarding European vs. American vs. Gaelic football, have preached the gospel of the SEC and the Tide, and am making plans to attend a Belfast Giants ice hockey match. Additionally, I cannot wait until February and March, when Queens Belfast will host the Ashbourne, Sigerson, Fitzgibbon, & O’Connor Cups – an incredible festival of Gaelic games that will definitely be the highlight of the season!
Another unchanging factor in my life is the dearth of females in the field of engineering. As the only woman in both the mechanical and aerospace masters programs, I find myself both missing my close female friends from undergraduate and trying to make the extra effort to reach out to the males in my program (once again, thank you sports!) It has also reminded me of how STEM education and encouragement, or the lack thereof, is a common problem in many western countries, including Northern Ireland. Now that my schedule seems to have taken on some level of consistency, I plan to explore how another culture and education system are attempting to deal with this issue.
The final thing is rather obvious – engineering itself is constant to some extent. Oh sure, the units are different, and I still get a bit freaked out when someone says it’s 6 degrees outside; even in Celsius that’s very, very cold for a Texan like me! But a Mach number is still the same Mach number on this side of the Atlantic, and that is, oddly enough, incredibly comforting. But the other side of engineering that crosses cultures and borders is the fervor we can feel for our areas of expertise.
The Irish are a very passionate people, and the engineers here are no exception. From the conversations I’ve had in my classes and at meetings, the average working aerospace or mechanical engineer over here could probably tell you far more about the Apollo or Shuttle programs than an everyday American. And don’t even get them started on why the Concorde should still be flying. But even with the large aerospace sector already present, they are not content to rest on their laurels – Northern Ireland in particular is forging ahead in its attempts to play a major role in the space exploration of the future. The excitement and enthusiasm for future engineering and technology is palpable in the circles in which I have wandered, and an incredible reminder of the universal curiosity of the human spirit.
I can’t wait to experience more craziness, to explore more of the map of Belfast, of Northern Ireland and Ireland, and of Europe, and to delve into both my research and the engineering in this city and country. Onward to the next Alabama football game, Lyric Theater play, and EasyJet sale!