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Following in Mandelbrot's footsteps

In 2013, École Polytechnique and Caltech established a Master’s education exchange program. Ryan McMullen and Richard Kennedy, who arrived from Caltech at École Polytechnique through this program, share their experience.

École Polytechnique, or l'X, and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) signed an agreement to establish a Master’s double degree program in March 2013. This program allows selected students from both institutions to follow an intensive joint program and obtain both a Master's degree in Mechanics from École Polytechnique (specialty in Fluid or Solid Mechanics) and a Master's degree in Aeronautics or Space Engineering from Caltech. The program spans two academic years; students spend a year at each institution. The agreement, the first of its kind signed by Caltech, resulted from the fruitful relationship between the two institutions, which have been exchanging students as well as visiting professors and scientists for many years.

Ryan McMullen and Richard Kennedy both come from GALCIT - Caltech's department of aerospace in the division of engineering and applied sciences. They heard about l'X by word of mouth early on when they joined Caltech, and were happy to learn that they were both admitted for a Master's program in fluid mechanics at École Polytechnique. "When I applied for this program, I realized that many famous French scientists, whom we learn about in maths and physics, such as Lagrange, Poincaré or Gay-Lussac, came from École Polytechnique!" says Ryan.

They were told that the Master's program at École Polytechnique would bring further theoretical complements to what they learn in Caltech. Richard comments: "That made us both laugh, because our PhD program in Caltech is already known for being heavily theoretical! But it is true that the courses here rely more on mathematics than what we're used to in Caltech." Another difference that strikes both Ryan and Richard is the length of the lectures, lasting up to 4 hours at l'X when they rarely exceed an hour and a half in the USA. "Our lectures are shorter in Caltech but we have homework to do all the time. Here, our grades are determined by the final exam." Having just started their second term, the students are already thinking about the research internship they will do during the second half of their year abroad. "There are several options. Lab tours are organized by the Master's program: we visited labs at ESPCI ParisTech, at UPMC, at ENSTA ParisTech and of course at l'X!"

Ryan McMullen and Richard Kennedy, © École Polytechnique Collections, J. Barande

Apart from academics, the two American students, accomodated at Cité Universitaire, enjoy Paris' cultural life, as well as its gastronomy - from bread to wine. According to them, Paris is also a central hub for travelling: they have already taken trips to Belgium and Germany, where they went hiking in the Black Forest, and Richard also visited Amsterdam during Christmas break. The students thus make the most of their experience, both on and off campus. To conclude his account, Richard adds: "And you know who else went both to École Polytechnique and GALCIT? Mandelbrot!" For keen scientists, following in Benoît Mandelbrot's footsteps is surely an experience worth living.