My time at Queen’s University of Belfast

Posted on: November 15, 2015, by :

Commentary, Learning :
Agriculture, PhD, Queen's University of Belfast, z88

I was contacted by Dr. Gerry Power, an old friend and the man responsible for keeping tab on alumni relations at Queen’s University, my alma mater to contribute to “My Time at Queen’s” a few months back. MT@Qub is in fact a series of visits down memory lane by former students, ‘old and young’.

It took me a few hours to write and edit the original version which is quite long and detailed. An abridged version was published in The Graduate (page 37) in Oct 2015.

Here is the original contribution.

Until I met Clarence Ko (Civil Engineering, Class of 1984) in that fateful day in Dublin around late September 1982, I had not heard of Queen’s University of Belfast (QUB). In fact it was a coincidence that I ended up at Queen’s as I could not afford the high tuition fees of the universities in England and resorted to Plan B: study in University College Dublin. Clarence persuaded me to follow him on a visit to Belfast to try my luck at QUB. I have no regrets and am greatly indebted to Clarence’s kind gesture. As an “Accidental Queen’s Man”, I often wonder why I stayed as a student of QUB for almost 3 times longer than most people and perhaps ending up being one of the few living individuals who have earned three degrees from Queen’s.  I graduated with a Bachelor of Agriculture degree from Queen’s in 1985, followed by a M.Sc in Biotechnology in 1987 and finally a PhD in plant tissue culture in 1990.

Life as an undergraduate in agriculture was tough for me as I had never been near a cow or a sheep until I read agriculture at QUB. My classmates were mainly from farming background and they had an upper hand when it came to understanding what our lecturers were teaching us. I had to content with the many different accents of my classmates but the generosity of some of them helped me cope and I blended in. There were only 3 foreign students (all were Malaysians) in the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science during my time. Lim Wui Phen (B. Agr, Class of 1984) was my senior and free tutor. I also inherited a lot of books and notes from Lim. Having to be on field trips almost every week visiting different farms gave me a better insight to life in rural Northern Ireland than most Malaysian students would have and these were the occasions that I got to learn at first hand what was covered in class.

In 1983 I was elected as the President of Malaysian Students’ Society of Northern Ireland (MSSNI) more as a compromise candidate (there were two groups  of Malaysians which could not agree on most things and as the ‘outsider’ not allied to either, I won!). I learned about the meaning of democracy truly when we were courted by candidates vying our votes for the post of QUB Student Union President. The low turnout at the Student Union AGM meant that Malaysian students, even if we had only 10 persons attending would be the kingmakers!

As a student who did not come from a farm, I needed to gain some farming experience in order to graduate. I spent the summer of 1984 working at the experimental farm of Agriculture Research Institute of Northern Ireland, Hillsborough. I was the general farm hand and it was the first time I played the role of a sheep dog! Marshalling sheep, as I found out was a very skillful and physically demanding activity, especially for the “sheep dog”. It was during this time that I took the first driving lesson: on a farm tractor!

Organising the annual Merdeka Ball for MSSNI in 1984 took a toll on my studies. I received a sharp warning from my director of studies that if I did not work hard for the final year, I would have problems graduating. That made me worked on a tight regime of studies during my final year. But despite this, all of us living in the self-catered house (I forgot the name, it was the biggest house with the rugby team captain as the sub-warden) took time off studying for our  final examinations in late April to watch Dennis Taylor defeat Steve Davis at World Snooker championship in 1985.

My postgraduate years at Queen’s were very “quiet” as the laboratory work was a lot more taxing than the undergraduate years. Yet I still found time to attend most of the MSSNI’s functions and as one of the “oldest” Malaysians, I was appointed the Chairman for MSSNI’s AGM twice. I came closest to the “troubles” on the eve of my Master’s graduation. After collecting my graduation gown, I took a lift back to the laboratory at Newforge Lane from Sean D’Arcy (PhD, 1987). We were on Sean’s Morris Minor driving on Malone Road when we were diverted by the police. As we were turning onto a side road, a car bomb went off in the next street. Neither Sean and I nor his beloved Morris Minor suffered any damages, but it was shocking nevertheless to be so close to a car bomb!

I think because of my years being a student at Queen’s (and my faculty), the selection committee awarded me the McGeough Bond Studentship / Harold Barbour Scholarship in 1987 for my doctoral studies thinking that I was a “local” student. In the end, my overseas student tuition fees almost bankrupted the trust funds! I had a “guardian angel”, Ms Audrey Griffiths who was the Faculty’s Secretary coming to my rescue when the Dean had an idea of cutting my stipend to pay for the additional tuition fees!

I found a great casual job during the final part of my doctoral studies: I was manning the security desk of one of Queen’s examination halls and earned a good sum during the 1990 May – June examination session. On top of that, I wrote about 70% of the first draft of my PhD thesis while sitting at the security desk helping to invigilate examinations! I could not afford a laptop computer then but bought a Sinclair Z88 computer instead. The now spoilt Z88 is still lying somewhere in my house.

Z88 – an idea of PDA/tablet computer that was 25 years ahead of its time!

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