Researching in Belgium with IMEC - by Emily Mamula '15

Every summer Olin students accept jobs all over the country from coast to coast. And every year a few people end up working internationally.

One of the places this has consistently happened in the past few years is IMEC, a research lab with offices in Belgium, China, India, Japan, Taiwan, and the US. The group has a heavy R&D focus, with a lot of work being done in nanotechnology and sustainability. They aim to create a bridge from the university to industrial level by developing the building blocks of technology needed by the large companies.

I recently spoke with Jo De Wachter, the Outreach Coordinator for IMEC's Leuven, Belgium office, who's been an integral part of hiring Oliners to work on various summer research projects. He first heard about Olin in a 2007 NY Times article, which described the hands-on approach and design projects as well as the student-driven research. This approach was appealing enough that Jo scheduled his first visit to campus in 2008, and has flown here from Europe several times since to learn more about what we're up to at Olin.

When asked what appealed to him about Olin student researchers, Jo replied that we are trained to dive in to projects. We don't have to wait for detailed instructions at every turn. We ask questions from the start, have our own input, and take initiative in projects. These are all qualities that he says IMEC, and other places like them, need in their engineering departments.

I also got the chance to talk with James Nee ('15) and Jackie Rose ('13), the two students who have been living and working in Belgium this summer. Here's what they had to say about the experience so far:

What made you decide to work abroad for the summer?

James:   I actually have to say a big thank you to my Dad and Tim Raymond for this decision. I got a callback from Intuit and knew that if I got the job it would pay better than working in Belgium over the summer. Jo was waiting for a response, and I wasn't sure what to do.  But the chance to live in Europe, work on electric cars, and a little wisdom from friends and family put me in the right perspective.

Jackie:   I didn't make a decision to work abroad for the summer; it was more of a decision of which company I wanted to work for, and of the opportunities I had available I liked IMEC the best. I actually didn't want to be abroad again so soon after studying away (I was in New Zealand in the fall) but IMEC sounded so interesting that it was worth it.


What appealed to you about IMEC?

James:  Cars. Being a part of Baja this last year made me realize I love cars and that I need to do something in that field. Couple that with a passion for greener living and you get my job at IMEC.

Jackie:   I really liked the project that I interviewed to work on.  It sounded like it would have a lot to do with human-powered vehicles and sustainability, and I really loved the thought of working solely on that sort of thing for an entire summer.

What surprises have you encountered so far?

James:  The team I'm working with is incredibly dedicated. They are all graduate students, but they treat this as their top priority. It's truly inspiring. Furthermore, the team is run like a startup. The way they market themselves, get sponsors, and throw events is incredibly professional. I hope to pass these ideas on to teams at Olin.

Jackie:  Everyone in Belgium speaks English! I really didn't expect that, but since I can only count to ten in Dutch it's a really good thing.  I was also surprised by how many people use bikes.  On any night, after 8 pm or so, there are very few cars (but hundreds of bikes!) in the city center.  Sometimes you can't find a place to park a bike because there are so many.

What do you like about working at IMEC?

James:  I don't really work at IMEC, but rather in a research park a few kilometers outside of the city. I love the laid back atmosphere, and general fun that we have. Everyone is still a student so we'll have late nights out in the city, or a barbeque. You get to know everyone, especially on the days leading up to the car presentation. My first week here I worked 10-15 hours a day, some nights getting back at 5 AM. No one kept me there but I just loved it so much, the hours flew by.

Jackie:   The IMEC premises are beautiful.  There's a mini-forest between buildings with a covered walkway, and when it's raining it seems like you're in a rainforest.  I also like that there are plenty of other international interns, so making friends was not very difficult.

What projects have you started working on?

James:  I'm working with the team on the car, but when I came everything had been designed and produced. I helped with assembly but not much else. So I started some non-essential work, welding together a push bar, designing a shipping container and backup knuckles, etc. I may also start working on revamping the team website but I don't really know. Bottom line is I am a utility player. I help with anything and everything, except the electrical components. I have a theoretical understanding of the electrical system, but we have outside experts who come in and deal with the details.

Jackie:   The project I'm working on this summer is a low-speed, short-distance concept vehicle called 'Aura' meant for commuting.  It should have the functionality and comfort of a car and also the sustainability and fitness aspects of a bicycle. The nice thing about the project is that it's really open-ended, so the end design will be very much my own.


Formula Group T students with their car. (Back row, second from the right - there's James!)


Sustainability testing the car.


Jackie exploring Brussels (with a giant brussel sprout!). To read more about Jackie's summer adventures, visit her blog.

And what does IMEC hope to see in the future with schools like Olin?

Jo was very excited about the prospect of course integration, working with Olin faculty and students on some of their projects. Like the open-ended design projects we do here, a class might be able to take on a research project that IMEC funds. This would mean that the projects could be worked on year round, rather than just over the summer, allowing for some pretty amazing progress.

Posted in: A Broader World View, Awesome Internships, Olin Employers