By Professor Igor Aleksander

28 October 2013 - 09:57

'It was the trip of a lifetime.' Photo (c) Marco, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'It was the trip of a lifetime.' Photo ©

Marco, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Professor Igor Aleksander, emeritus professor of neural systems engineering in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London, designed the world's first neural pattern recognition system. He writes about how a stint in Milan with the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE) changed the course of his career.

IAESTE is celebrating its 65th birthday. But what is it? The acronym stands for the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience. Founded in 1948 through the enthusiasm of James Newby of my institution, Imperial College, IAESTE began in the climate of an early post-war need to build international co-operation. It helps students travel from the country of their studies to get practical and cultural experience in another country.

In 1948, when just ten countries were involved, a few dozen students set off on these exchanges. Today, some 90 countries are involved, crossing all possible boundaries, with about 4,000 students taking part. What do these students do? Mainly, they take up ‘traineeship’ positions in the companies of the country they visit. Sometimes they join research programmes in these countries’ universities. But above all, they discover new worlds, often for the first time in their lives. They learn new languages, make new friends and learn how other people live.

Why am I writing about this? After all, IAESTE has a splendid and colourful website of its own. I write, because when IAESTE was less than ten years old, I was a trainee, and, for me it was the trip of a lifetime. It’s this personal experience that I want to write about.

My parents emigrated from Yugoslavia to South Africa via Italy in 1948. I finished my schooling in Johannesburg and went to study electrical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, graduating in 1958. In my penultimate year, I attended a lecture by the department head Professor Bozzoli (himself an émigré Italian), who later suggested to me that he had been approached by an exchange organisation (yes, IAESTE) and asked me, because I spoke Italian, whether I would like to be a trainee. It did not take long for me to shout an over-loud yes!

It took five days to fly to Europe in a twin-engined plane, overnighting in mysterious places such as Entebbe on Lake Victoria in Uganda, the Sudan, Mersa Metruh in Egypt, and Malta. On my first day in Milan, working at an American-owned telephone communications firm, I was called ‘ingeniere’ and given a production project, which, if successful, would be used for mobile telecommunications in the African jungle. It was very early days for the use of the transistor (an amplifying component that had just replaced vacuum tubes or valves) and working with these little semiconductor devices could not be more exciting. The thing I designed contained 11 transistors. The mobile phone in my pocket today has billions of the little beasts. So it was the IAESTE that brought me in on the ground floor of a technology that became responsible for our current digital and informational age. Equally wonderful was the pleasure of leading a grown-up life in Milan ... the food, the Scala opera, the friendships. I cannot remember another trip in my life that was more formative.

IAESTE was also responsible for the path that my professional life took. Wanting to repeat my Milan experience, after graduating I worked in the UK in the telecommunications industry. I then taught the subject in many UK universities, ending as head of electrical and electronic engineering at Imperial College, doing research on how information works in human beings (see Aleksander and Morton: ‘Aristotle’s Laptop: The Discovery of our Informational Minds’, World Scientific Press, 2012). I feel honoured and delighted to be able to celebrate the amazing activity that James Newby started 65 years ago.

If you are from the UK and studying science, technology, engineering or applied arts, visit the British Council website and register your interest in an IAESTE placement by 10 December 2013 to take part in a similar experience.

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