02 February 2011

The Japanese taught him focus... and how to enjoy the weekend

Most equate study abroad with academic challenges. But For Casper Steinmann, the chance to study in the Tokyo suburb of Tsukuba offered lessons which proved to be very human.

By Jes Andersen

Japan taught him timeouts

First and foremost, Steinmann's experience at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology taught him what was required in order to begin concentrating. Surprisingly enough, his Japanese colleagues were able to teach him the unlikely importance of time-off in high performance.

"On one of the first days I got the message that I needed to take time off over the weekend. I guess it was mostly for me to have the opportunity to see the country in which I now lived. But I soon realized that I worked better when I had been free," explains Casper, who is currently working on his PhD at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Chemistry.

Softening hard software

Steinmann is a computer chemist specialising in a single piece of software, GAMESS. He uses it for quantum-mechanical treatment of large molecules such as proteins. He has also committed himself to making it easier to work with the program, which today must be configured with input files so complex that only a few highly trained theorists manage to use it.

"Parallel to the software development, I find it interesting to get as many people as possible to use the software, instead of myself being the only one able to," says Casper.

Besøg på japanske turistmål lærte kemistuderende væsentligheden af fridage
Questions easier to yell than mail

Dimitri Federov is also involved in the work on GAMESS and currently working at the Japanese research centre. So it was a natural step for Steinmann to go there and study. Even though Federov is a leader in the field, Casper does not feel that he learned anything professionally in Japan that could not have been learned by staying home.

"I haven't learned any ingenious new formulas or methods. Perhaps I would have had I been more experimentalist. But as a theoretician, developments occur in my own head anyways. The most compelling difference was that I no longer had to wait for a couple of days when I asked Dimitri about something. Now he was sitting on the opposite side of the hall," laughs Steinmann.

Easy going abroad to difficult country

Venturing to the other side of the planet might have presented practical challenges, but the move was painless for Casper. Dimitri knew Casper's supervisor from previous collaboration and striking a deal for the study-abroad arrangement was uncomplicated. And it went just as smoothly upon arrival.
"The Japanese institute has a hotel affiliated with it where foreign researchers can reside and all of the practical things were taken care of for me," explains Casper. As a result, he didn't use any of the resources provided by the University of Copenhagen for study-abroad. Not once did he tap into the up to DKK 50,000 relocation stipend which the Department of Chemistry offers to cover special expenses such as vaccines, visas and settling in.