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Published: 2019-06-24

Gaining new experience through a doctoral student exchange in South Korea

NEWS Halfway into her time at the Industrial Doctoral School, Helena Nydahl finds herself in Ansan, a suburb of Seoul on the coast of the Yellow Sea. She is spending six months here on an exchange at Hanyang University, where she is studying energy-efficient buildings from a lifecycle perspective. Living and working in South Korea presents both many challenges and fun experiences. She does not regret her decision to study here for a second.

Text: Ingrid Söderbergh

Why South Korea?

“In terms of my research, there are several reasons why it’s interesting to work in Korea. In both Sweden and Korea, we need to build buildings that can withstand freezing temperatures during the winter and warm temperatures during the summer. The buildings must be heated during the winter, and sometimes we also need cooling during the summer. From an energy and design perspective, this presents a challenge. However, it’s quite clear that we are solving these challenges in different ways, and that’s interesting to study.

At Hanyang University’s ERICA Campus, Professor Sungho Tae has established the Sustainable Building Research Centre. At the research centre, extensive research is underway in the field of the lifecycle analysis of buildings, which is my research area. The research centre has been active since 2005. This type of dedicated research centre for the lifecycle analysis of buildings doesn’t exist at Umeå University.

South Korea also feels like an exciting country to visit and in which to spend an extended period of time. The culture is very different than in Sweden.”

How did you get this opportunity?

“It all started with the publications I read about the lifecycle analysis of buildings. To be honest, Sweden and Norway are leaders in this field of research, but I wanted to travel a little further than Stockholm for six months. I personally contacted Professor Sungho Tae and was invited to come and work here as part of the research centre.”

How is the exchange organised?

“I organised the entire exchange myself, from contacting Professor Sungho Tae to applying for funding (I received an Åforsk travel scholarship), as well as all practical matters. Together with my supervisors and project funders, AB Bostaden and the Industrial Doctoral School, I created a detailed plan for the work that I will conduct during my time in Korea. Among other things, I plan to write a draft of a study comparing Swedish and Korean architecture from a lifecycle perspective. Professor Sungho Tae and his team are organising various study visits and meetings with researchers while I’m here in Korea. I’ve been very well received.”  

How did you feel when you were at Arlanda Airport, about to head off on your trip?

“When I was at Arlanda I felt calm and expectant. It felt great that it was finally time to leave, and that I was on my way. The weeks before my departure were a bit more panic-filled. A lot of puzzle pieces had to fall into place before I left – an apartment to sublet, visas to complete, a midway seminar to be held, and bags to be packed. So when I was at Arlanda I could finally exhale and really process that ‘here I go’ feeling.”

What was your first impression of South Korea?

“It was cold! It was about -10 °C when I arrived in Korea in February – not that cold for a Norrlander, but it ‘s the kind of cold that creeps in and settles in your bone marrow. The next impression was that almost nobody speaks English and I don't speak Korean, so just ordering food at a restaurant was a challenge. But that also makes things a little more exciting. I've eaten lots of good food – very spicy, but good. And this time of year, it’s sunny almost every day in Korea; there are very few days of precipitation.” 

Tell us about an event that made an impression.

“My colleagues took me out for food after work one day. We ate Korean BBQ, because I wanted to try it. When we arrived at the restaurant, they ordered lots of food and I ate and ate, it was super yummy. Once I was full and satisfied, they told me that now it was time to order more food, so we ate even more. Now I was really full! Then it was time to continue our evening – to go grab a beer at some pub, I thought. But I was wrong. We went on to the next restaurant, where they ordered even more food and drinks. Now I was absolutely bursting. Then it was time to move on to a third restaurant where we ate even more food. I was full for several days after that. But it was worth it, because all the food was delicious, and I had the opportunity to try things that I’d never eaten before.”

Where do you live?

“I live in an apartment in a building with corridor rooms for students. It’s a two-room apartment with a small kitchen consisting of a hob for preparing meals, as well as a private bathroom. We have what we need. It’s not like living in a student corridor in Sweden – it’s extremely quiet, no parties or mess. 

What’s it like to work in South Korea, if you compare it to a Swedish university?

“The research centre where I work does some consultancy assignments; it’s like a combination of a research institute and a consultancy firm. This certainly imposes some demands on Professor Sungho Tae, but if I compare my situation with that of the Korean doctoral students, I can focus more on my research. The doctoral students at the research centre work primarily with consultancy assignments during working hours, and conduct their research in their spare time. They work extremely hard and impose extremely high demands on themselves. It almost feels a bit unhealthy. I feel that it partially impedes their capacity to innovate and their ability to develop into free-thinking researchers. Conducting one’s doctoral studies at a Swedish university provides one with all the prerequisites for a high-quality PhD education.”

What do you do in your free time?

“I cook with lots of vegetables on the hob at home, exercise, read books and play games. My partner came with me. He’s working remotely for his WSP office in Umeå. On weekends we try to travel around Korea, to experience the country while we’re here.”

Are you enjoying yourself?

“I’m really enjoying it. I have very nice colleagues who take care of both me and my partner. I get to experience new things every day – even if it's just a new lunch restaurant. I also love to live as minimally as we are here; we have what we need, and not much more. It gives me a feeling of calm, and it feels like you have more time for other things when you aren’t surrounded by lots of ‘musts’.” I’m going to try to bring that home to Sweden when we return.

I miss my family in Sweden, especially my grandmothers. Sometimes I miss our apartment, with all the amenities we have there. I never thought I would say this, but I miss my oven, and especially roasted potatoes.”

Would you advise other doctoral students to travel abroad as you have done, and if so, why?

“Absolutely. I think that as soon as you leave Sweden and meet doctoral students at universities in other countries, you realise how good Swedish doctoral education programmes are, and I think that insight can become a driving force. It’s also an opportunity to build your international network. But the most important thing is the challenge – because it will be a challenge, but challenges make you grow, and you’ll learn unexpected things that you can use later in life. I also think it’s an opportunity to try to stand on your own two feet as a researcher, because you don’t have your supervisors nearby, even if they are just an email or a Skype call away.”

What do you think about the Industrial Doctoral School as a concept?

“I think it’s a solution-oriented concept that provides added value for both companies and doctoral students. It’s exciting to work on a research project that aims to develop and improve the daily work of my business partner. As a doctoral student at the Industrial Doctoral School, I’m surrounded by many competent people with whom I can spitball ideas and who support me in my doctoral education. At IDS, I have my ‘normal’ academic supervisors, a business supervisor and a director, coworkers and doctoral student colleagues.

Research Blog:

Read more about Helena Nydahl's experiences at the University Research Blog

Further reading:

Read more about the Industrial Doctoral School for Research and Innovation

Read more about the Sustainable Building Research Center at Hanyang University’s ERICA Campus


Quick Facts about Helena:

Lives in: Normally in Umeå, but currently making a ‘guest appearance’ in Ansan in South Korea
Academic background: MSc in Energy and Environmental Engineering from Karlstad University
Hobbies: Exercising and cooking
On the bedside table: Änglavakter by Kristina Ohlsson
Unexpected talent: has an international body language
Passionate about: Female role models
Enjoys travelling to: Tunvågen, my oasis in Jämtland
Me in three words: Opportunities. Driven. Positive.
Korea in three words: Cherry trees. Food. High-rises.


Text: Ingrid Söderbergh