On top down under

Crossing the world to learn to ask

Australia is an incredible country: kangaroos, koalas, huge and desolate lands, and then the ocean, the surfers,… you need a few months holiday to only get a little bit of the vastity and variety of wonders over there.

I spent six months in Australia but, I’m sorry to say that, I was not on holiday: I went there to do my Master thesis at Flinders University of Adelaide. It was a time filled with joys and difficulties, and it was hard to choose what to tell in this short article. 

My thesis was an experimental research about ligaments’ microstructure, both topic and methods were completely new to me, in fact I had not been in a lab since 2014 when I used to have chemistry lectures. This meant having a great willingness to learn as well as having a huge hindrance: I didn’t know how to get the permits I needed, I didn’t know where to put my hands, where to find materials, how to use devices,… 

I actually needed so many things I could not reach by myself and so I was kind of obliged to ask for help. Taking a bit of courage, which is not usually in my attitude, winning over the  embarrassment, going to anyone who could even remotely help me and ask, being lucky – by the way – that Australians are typically friendly and generous. In most cases, questions were only the first steps for building a new friendship, no matter the age difference. Besides, the more I asked the more I realized how beautiful it was to share and get help instead of trying to do everything on my own, and I would have many examples to tell, concerning uni and outside of uni. However, for reasons of space and time, I only want to share what happened in the Advanced Materials Lab, where I did part of my research. 

Throughout my entire stay, the only people in that lab with me were a few Chinese guys including Xinyi, the lab supervisor, who helped me with the initial bureaucratic process. I quickly grew fond of her, to the point that asking her for help even for the smaller things (“Where do I find this solvent? How does this device work?”) was easier. On the other hand, I honestly didn’t share much with the other guys: a few chats with Simon and a shy “hello, good day” with the others… and yet something unexpected happened during the last week.

When, due to the coronavirus, Australia began to close its borders and airports, I suddenly had to look for a flight to come back home as soon as possible, avoiding the risk of being stuck there for I don’t know how long. I did find the flight and the departure was just a few days away, but finding a protective mask for my 40-hours-travel was not that easy. I talked about it with Xinyi, who immediately tried to help me by giving me advice on how to behave on the plane (which I admit I was a bit worried about) and showing up the next day with an exaggerated number of masks from her and the other guys in the lab for me, for my friend I was going to travel with and for my family in Italy. I couldn’t believe it: not just Xinyi but also all those guys I spent so little time with! “They are worried about you” Xinyi told me.

Thanks to their help as well as other local friends’ help, Daniela and I could leave pretty serene, with a ride to the airport, a suitcase full of gifts and all the necessary personal protective equipment. Above all, I left full of gratitude for everything – actually for everyone – I met in Australia because if I’ll ever have the chance to go back to Adelaide I’ll have someone to go back to, and because – I did need to cross the world to learn this – but I realized that asking is the action that frees me the most, when I’m overwhelmed with my schedules and to-do-lists. And who knows me would understand it’s not that obvious for me since I’m the personification of pride.

Back in Italy, I still had some data to process and my whole thesis to write. It was pretty hard initially, especially because for six months I had been used to having a professor next to my desk to discuss my research, while now he was 16.000 kilometers away and I could only contact him by email. But the method was always the same: when I had doubts, when I needed support or suggestions, all I had to do was to grab the phone and ask, and once again there were friends ready to help.

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