A Global Village
Issue 10

International Relations Office

Cultural Connections at Imperial College

Jonathan Leong, Imperial College London & National University of Singapore

In mid-2011, Jonathan embarked on the first ever Imperial College - National University of Singapore (NUS) Joint PhD programme. As part of this programme he conducted research at both institutions, spending a year in the Tribology Laboratory within the Mechanical Engineering Department at Imperial College. Here he gives a first hand account of his experiences in London.

Despite the tinge of apprehension that I felt at the outset, as this was the first time that I spent an extended period of time overseas, the experience was invaluable. From the first day, it was evident that many aspects of work and life were very different in London compared to NUS back in Singapore.

At first I perceived a significant gap in the institutions’ overall educational approach: whilst NUS favoured a more theoretical basis, Imperial College’s ‘hands-on’ approach needed some adjustment. Imperial appeared to focus more on applications, while NUS spent more time on the understanding of scientific basis and theory. In the end, however, these two methods turned out to be complementary and benefitted my scientific research.

In my work on lubrication of Micro-Electrical-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), the theoretical understanding of the workings of friction at the micro- and nano-scale can only be achieved through practical experiments. This ‘hands-on’ approach was also suited to our aim of making MEMS devices more commercially viable.

Imperial College also seems to place a greater weight on considered reflection and academic criticism. Having been used to a culture in Singapore that ranks efficiency and speed above all else, I was challenged to develop this mind-set. It was through my time in London that I learned how to balance both scientific curiosity and a need for practical applicability - something that I have begun to use in my everyday routine. The independent and collaborative contribution and guidance from my supervisors also spurred me on to greater heights!

Cultural Connections
The opportunity to share and learn from each other’s knowledge and experiences was also invaluable. At times though I found myself caught in the middle of two worlds: the new multicultural environment in London, and the old one that I knew back home. However, I soon became accustomed to my new life in the UK: colleagues became friends and in time we began to spend many happy evenings with each other. The exposure to people from many different cultures and nationalities only served to accentuate our differences – yet never once did I feel excluded from a group.

My stay at Clayponds, one of Imperial College’s postgraduate halls, was another great opportunity to mingle and experience new cultures. Living in close proximity to the College, and having well-organised activities throughout the academic year, made me feel like I was no longer in the UK but in an international microcosm.

In this sense, my education at Imperial College was not limited to academic pursuits, but there was something new to return ‘home’ to each day; someone with whom I could (and would) strike up a conversation, and discover a little bit more about the world – sometimes about places that I may never have had the privilege to hear of previously.

As graduation approaches, I cannot help but look back at the delightful year that I spent at Imperial College. These experiences have been unquestionably beneficial, thanks to the company of all my colleagues and friends. It is my hope that others who embark on similar journeys as academic ‘explorers’ will share my experience, and use it the best they can in enriching others’ lives.

The Imperial-NUS Joint PhD Programme, which was established in 2010, allows students to gain research experience in Singapore and the UK. Students spend 50% of their time at each location and benefit from the supervision of academics from two world class institutions. Scholarships are available for outstanding students. For more information regarding this Imperial-NUS Joint PhD Programme please check: 


Jonathan Leong has just completed his PhD in Mechanical Engineering, under the Imperial-NUS Joint PhD Programme, and worked with the members of the Tribology Lab during his time at Imperial College.

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