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Hyukho Kwon

SFU Student Graduate
Science › Mathematics
Co-operative Education

Position Title
Experience Faculty
Experience Details
Introduction + Preparation
Previous Experience

I am a second-year master’s student in mathematics. During my graduate program, I worked as a research assistant in the Computer Algebra Group (CAG) in the Centre for Experimental and Constructive Mathematics (CECM) at Simon Fraser University for more than a year. As a research assistant, I mainly worked on programming in C and Maple with theoretical backgrounds such as probabilistic theory, abstract algebra, and the analysis of algorithms. I also worked as a teaching assistant for a while but I never had any experience in a project related to electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. This Co-op position is to work for data acquisition from engineering experiments. As a result, this made me worried a little bit before I started to work at National Research Council.

Preparation Tips for Future Students

I believe you can obtain helpful information from interviewers who will be your team member in the future.  For example, during the interview with National Research Council Canada Energy, Mining, and Environment (NRC EME), my supervisor at NRC described his current project for half an hour. Although the job description of this Co-op position was posted on SFU myExperience, it was not enough to figure out what you are actually going to do during your Co-op term. From his explanation, I was able to obtain useful information. For instance, I was told this position is mainly about coding in a programming language called LabView which is used for data acquisition in the engineering field. 

Based on this information, I tried to look for lectures or reference books about LabView from the SFU library before I began my Co-op work term. In particular, it was helpful to have access to lectures offered by LinkedIn as SFU students. This is because they do not charge any money for SFU students. Also, the contents of these lectures are very well-structured and easy to understand. It helped me to understand the fundamentals of how to program in LabView. I was able to reduce spending time getting accustomed to this new language I had never used before. Likewise, if you want to prepare for the accepted Co-op position, you will have enough information about what you will do during the interview. Then, based on this information, you may get prepared for the things you never experienced before your Co-op term starts.

During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

On the very first day, I activated my NRC email and synchronized this email with Microsoft Outlook. Also, I learned how to activate accounts for research computers and personal computers. Orientation consists of weekly instruction emails from NRC headquarters and a few online workshops provided by NRC and the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS). Weekly instruction emails listed what I have to do each week such as making a signature in my email, recording my work time, reviewing NRC policies, etc.

 Also, I needed to take some workshops about security, work ethics, and safety issues. I was impressed by taking workshops about security and safety issues. Since NRC is one of the government organizations, security issues always matter not to conflict with the interest of the government of Canada. Not only this, NRC works on many experiments involving lethal chemicals and explosive materials. The workshop of the Hazard Prevention Program(HPP) informed me about how to deal with emergency situations, what to observe and so on. This was very useful for me because I should work on the project handling the machine generating 600 Volts of power. 

Not only this, my supervisor took me on a tour of all equipment staying outside of the office building. He and I went to see all the devices used in the project and a control room. He explained what each piece of equipment is for and how it will be operated in the future. With no knowledge of engineering, it was not easy for me to grasp all the equipment at once. However, it was a great introduction to the project. After this short tour, I had a project team meeting and said hell to other project team members. During this meeting, I was told much more detailed information about data acquisition in this project during the upcoming Co-op term. 

Day to Day

My supervisor told me I could work remotely twice a week so I went to the office three days a week. If necessary I often went to the office five days a week. When I got to the office, I always started by checking my email and Microsoft Teams. I had two biweekly meetings; one was for the project I worked on and the other was for the team I belonged to. I had to report what I had done so far for two weeks and shared the difficulties with others. Other than these meetings, I mainly worked on sample LabView programming based on hypothetical situations or sometimes dealt with software issues coming from LabView. I often worked on things not related to LabView. I installed some equipment such as batteries and a controller on the panel by helping my team member and this made me understand the project more comprehensively. Sometimes I went out with my team members to see how the experiment is prepared in other parts.

Learning and Adaptation

As a mathematics graduate student, every single thing in this project was new to me. During this Co-op term, I spent much time figuring out how the process is going in this project. I asked a lot of questions to my team members who studied mechanical engineering and electrical engineering whenever I saw something I had never seen. They always responded to my question with every detail I should know. Sometimes, they asked me to draw wiring schematics based on their rough sketches of the project. By drawing these diagrams, I was able to improve my understanding of this project.

Since I was not familiar with LabView, I talked to NI technical support several times to get help via emails, calls, or Microsoft Teams meetings. These were great opportunities for me as an international student to improve my communication skills. Moreover, I learned that I have to cc my project team members on every single email whenever I communicate with a third party. This helped me to get feedback on my communication from other team members and share important information with the team. Although it took a time to get used to cc’ing others, this is one of the easiest ways to learn new things from co-workers.

Accomplishments and Challenges

During this Co-op term, I mainly focused on understanding the project and learning LabView and its environment. Unlike other programming languages, LabView uses block diagrams to create a program. It was awkward for me who always coded line by line in C and Maple. In spite of this difficulty, I tried to build up small examples using LabView in the beginning. This made a progress in coding more advanced examples which can be used in the project. 

There was a huge challenge with respect to installing LabView on a research computer and a controller. LabView is not a commonly used programming language in the industry according to one of my team members. That is, it was difficult to get helpful information through Googling. Also, NRC has very strong security protections on every research computer. Due to these factors, our team was not able to install this program at once. For three weeks, we had three to four meetings a week with NI Technical support (NI is the manufacturer of LabView.) in order to install and activate LabView successfully. During the installation, we removed the installed packages and reinstalled them a couple of times each of which took two to three days on average. With ceaseless effort from my team member and me, our team ended up installing LabView on both devices without any problems. After this challenge, it was much easier to install and activate additional NI packages on the research computer.

Reflection & Tips

First of all, it was a great experience working at one of the government organizations in Canada as an international student. In particular, it was interesting to see how research goes through in the public sector. As everything is affected by the government, some processes are not as efficient as the private sector. However, I found all research conducted here is to provide Canadians with a better environment and improve the quality of their lives. Also, I was impressed by the fact that the employees in NRC are proud of what they work for using their passion and skills. 

Additionally, it was great fun to explore new things I never experienced before. As a mathematics student, I always worked with pencil, paper and computer at SFU before this Co-op term. During this Co-op position, I used hammers, drivers, and drills to install a controller and batteries on a panel. I also worked with LabView which is an unusual programming language in the sense that I have to draw block diagrams to build up codes. I was also amazed at the three-phase power experiment. I am not sure I will do this kind of experiment in my future career, but it really broadened my horizons.

Most Valuable Aspects of This Experience

As a graduate student, I know how research goes on in universities but I did not have any knowledge about how research goes outside of academia before this Co-op experience. For me, one of the most valuable aspects of this experience was witnessing the research conducted in the national lab. To be honest, I was a Co-op student so I did not propose or construct anything in this project but I was able to see how research officers at NRC work closely with my eyes. Hence, this Co-op position is precious since I have dreamed of becoming a researcher for a long time.

The other most valuable aspect of this experience is the fact that this Co-op position was an opportunity to explore an area I had never looked at. I studied mathematics and computing science during my undergraduate program. Now, I am a mathematics graduate student. This implies that I had no experience in engineering fields, which made it difficult for me to grasp the current project at once. Everything was new and strange for me as a mathematics student. During this Co-op term, I have learned a lot of new things such as how engineering experiments are conducted, how services and products can be procured and so on. Even though this is not quite related to the field I have studied so far, I have confidence that I can do things other than mathematics through this experience. 

Connection to Academic Studies or Career Goals

This Co-op position is mainly about engineering experiments and a programming language, LabView. This is not directly related to my academic studies as mathematicians use Matlab, Maple, and Mathematica instead. Despite no direct connection with my major, I hope I can work as a researcher in the future. This Co-op position gave me an opportunity to experience as a researcher. It was valuable to see how they build up a project, procure products and services, and deal with the financial aspects of the project. These are beyond the scope of the graduate student level. It seems everything they do is not easy but it makes me more interested in research as a career goal.

Also, I have one more term to work on this project and next term I will work on LabView programming to operate the experiment. There will be other new things to learn in the upcoming term such as Modbus communication. I am thrilled to explore these new things. Maybe, if I can get more interested in programming in the engineering field, I will look for a job related to data acquisition. 

Advice for Future Students

I think the schedule here is very flexible. No one says you should come to the office by 9 am or you cannot go home until 5 pm. Also, you can work remotely twice a week because a hybrid work model is adopted in NRC. No one looks at what you are doing during work time because everyone is busy doing their own work. However, you need to do your work hard even if no one sees how you work. This is because you have to show what you have done for two weeks during every biweekly meeting. Thus, you should be responsible for what you do at work.

Moreover, it is good to be very active to ask for help from co-workers. I made some mistakes because I did not ask a question or help first even though I did not know about some stuff correctly. I thought they would have been bothered if I asked for help but it was wrong  I realized co-workers are not to scare me but to support me. They know I am a student, so they expected me to ask a question when I faced difficulties and questions. Please do not hesitate to approach them to get some help as a Co-op student.

The last thing I want to advise is not to rush. I was so nervous when I needed to use engineering tools to physically set up an experiment environment. I installed the controller on a panel using drivers and drills, made a squared hole in the plastic box, smooth the surface, etc. I always made mistakes when I tried to finish them in a hurry. My co-worker, who supervised me while I was working on these things, said “You don’t have to rush. It is okay to go slow.” This was a very effective way to reduce my mistakes. 


Hyukho Kwon

SFU Student Graduate
Science › Mathematics
Co-operative Education
visibility  208
Apr 15, 2023