I found the unique academic environment I was looking for

By Peter Ballentine

I was in my junior year of high school when I first got the opportunity to work in a laboratory alongside Ph.D students at Duke University. I started in the summer with electrical and computer engineering, and I ended up working there through the rest of high school.

Our research was on printed sensors that could detect tire tread depth and stretchable electronic devices made from liquid metals. The project was halfway to completion when I joined, but my contribution led to me being listed as a co-author of an academic paper published by the American Chemical Society.

We found that devices made from printed carbon nanotubes and liquid metal performed as well as other devices made from printed carbon nanotubes. This bode well for the future of stretchable electronics.

Around this time, I was trying to decide where I was going to attend university. I applied to 13 colleges, and I’d received multiple offers from top universities across the United States. Duke Kunshan was the only international university I applied to attend, and in the end it was the only one that offered the unique academic environment I’d been looking for.

I wanted a university where I could continue doing research and learn unique skills that would help me going forward in life.

I toured every university I was interested in, including attending DKU’s International Admitted Student Experience weekend. In the U.S., every university seemed relatively the same. The same thing would happen on every tour: The potential students wouldn’t talk with each other, the tour guide would boast about standardized test scores, and we’d be introduced to some contrived tradition that didn’t mean anything to us.

The only university that truly stuck out was DKU. From the get-go, DKU was different. When I arrived at the airport to be picked up, multiple potential students ‘ many there without their parents ‘ introduced themselves to me. Already this was immensely different from any other college tour, and I loved it.

This lack of constraint from the limits of the typical university model was only made clearer throughout the rest of the weekend and into the start of the semester. Not only was there an instant camaraderie among students, all of whom were being thrown into a new environment, but there was also a connection between the faculty and the students.

Everyone wanted to see the university succeed, and everyone wanted to work together to make that happen.

Peter Ballentine with classmates and Zach Fredman, assistant professor of history

I got to participate in focus groups with deans and other students in which we gave our feedback on everything from the school culture to the curriculum. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to help change the school in a big way, and this was happening my freshman year! At no other university would this be possible.

Because of how new the university was, there were issues to sort out. One of the most significant examples was the natural sciences curriculum, which went through changes during the first year. The general course was Integrated Sciences, which lasted seven weeks and covered physics, chemistry and biology. Multiple challenges came with the course, such as the students’ varying experience in each subject and a lack of time to absorb the material before the next day.

After we passed on this feedback and our suggestions on improvements, the curriculum was changed to better facilitate pacing issues and people’s level of experience. It’s only been in effect for one semester but the initial feedback is better.

DKU is generally a busy place. Anyone can be involved in founding clubs, working a campus job, providing feedback, etc. But even with all of this, a four-day week makes it so I have more than enough time to pursue personal endeavors, work on projects outside DKU, visit Suzhou or Shanghai, or even just take a break.

In my spare time, I, along with my co-authors at Duke, went on to finalize another academic paper on a printed sensors project I worked on. We created an array of printed sensors that could each track the tread depth of a tire and create a sort of map of the tire and how worn it was at different points.

I was much more involved in this paper, and I was credited as second author instead of just contributing to the research. This meant I was heavily involved in the writing and editing process, and I spent a significant amount of time on it.

It’s a long process, and the paper was still under review when I got back from DKU in the summer and started working in the Duke lab again. About a month after I returned, it finally got published online, a full year after I started working on a draft. Now I’m working on creating inks for our device printer and creating an all-carbon transistor.

While I absolutely love lab work, I’m just as excited to return to DKU for my sophomore year ‘ to experience the crazy, wonderful, stimulating and sometimes daunting world at DKU.

Peter Ballentine, from the United States, is a member of the undergraduate Class of 2022.

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