Monday, December 10, 2007

Research Scholarship 2007 - Selected Final Reports

Suman Kalyan Mandal, Texas A&M University, PhD Student, Computer Sciences:

I received ThinkSwiss Research Fellowship for undergoing research internship in EPFL, Switzerland for Summer 2007. My stay and work in Switzerland was a great mix of new experiences and learning. Visiting this exotic location in the world for work was a quite different experience.

Apart from being one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world, Switzerland has always reserved its own place in the world of Science and Technology. As a direct consequence, visiting Switzerland was more fulfilling than any other educational trip I can think of. Be it the soul opening nature or the charming culture, everything merged together to create an absolute harmony. I traveled a lot during my stay hence got to gulp different flavors of Swiss culture as well as cuisine.

Along with unmatched enjoyment, I learned a lot about many things during my trip. Even if I leave alone the learning in the research work I have done, I am still left with a lot. I learnt ways to interact with different people. I learnt a new language. I learnt to survive in a completely different socio cultural setting. To me, being able to adapt oneself in different situation is the most important skill in one’s life.
And I gained a lot in that. This trip to Switzerland added a new medallion in my fleet.
Also needless to mention, I learnt some very important lessons about being a researcher while working with my group at EPFL. I am thankful to Chris and Dr. Martinoli for their valuable advice and support.

Personally I believe, having the chance to spend a long time doing research in Switzerland with world class faculty and students in an excellent institute was a wonderful opportunity. Such trips help a lot in enriching a student’s knowledge and experiences in education and as a better human being.

Katy Thakar, Vanderbilt University, B.A. Pschology and Mathematics:

During my research stay in Switzerland, I worked with Dr. Peter Brugger at the Neurology Clinic at the University Hospital in Zurich where I conducted a study of visuospatial perspective-taking in healthy participants and individuals with brain lesions in the parietal lobe. The experience was tremendously valuable from a research and clinical perspective and was a unique cultural learning opportunity.

Research Mentality

It is difficult for me to directly compare the U.S. and Swiss research groups that I have worked in. In Switzerland, I was working on an independent research project in a hospital setting, whereas in the U.S., I am part of a larger university research lab. By working with Dr. Brugger and visiting Dr. Olaf Blanke’s lab at the EPFL, it seemed to me their research groups were more likely to investigate more abstract and rare phenomenon—such as out-of-body experiences and cognitive explanations of paranormal experiences. There also seemed to be more collaboration between researchers. More importantly, I think there was more interplay between research and clinical practices. I think in the U.S., there seems to be more of a distinction between clinical practice and clinical research. Having exposure to a different system highlighted the value of clinical insight in formation and analysis of research questions.

The only major disadvantage that I found in conducting a clinical research study was that there was no systematized way to recruit participants. In the U.S., especially in University and hospital settings, there are much more streamlined and organized procedures for participant recruitment—including large online databases of people in the community that are willing to be contacted for research studies.

Cultural Experiences

While staying in Zurich, I lived in an apartment with six other University and ETH students. I also shared an office with three practicum students working at the hospital. Not only did that help me integrate into Swiss life, but it was interesting to find out how the educational systems differ between the U.S. and Switzerland. It seems like, for the Psychology field at least, undergraduates are given much more opportunity to gain clinical and research experience. In the U.S., only graduate psychology students are permitted to work at a practicum site, and undergraduates do not have to write a thesis for their Bachelor’s degree. I think this is a huge improvement over the American system, which leaves Psychology students with a notion of psychological theory, but no real practical or research experience.

I was also able to travel around the country—to Lausanne, Montreux, Geneva, Interlaken, and Bern. I found it to be a beautiful country, and I could spend the whole day staring out of a train window. There were many artistic and musical events that I took advantage of—from the art galleries, to a Street Art Graffiti showdown, to the Montraux Jazz Festival.

I certainly plan on returning to Switzerland, at least for holiday and would definitely consider conducting summer research in future years. One major limitation for me, in psychology research, was not being able to speak Swiss German. For the most part, I was working with University undergraduates who were able to speak a good deal of English. The language barrier presented more of a problem when working with brain damaged patients. I would encourage future applicants in psychology research to consider the language, what population they will be working with, and understanding the limitations that will have on running a study independently.

The opportunity that the ThinkSwiss reseach scholarship has provided me has been incredibly valuable. Not only did I enjoy my time in Switzerland immensely, but I gained knowledge and collected data that will surely further my graduate career and beyond and hopefully add to the growing knowledge about the brain and its role in social processes.

Matthew Todd Farrell, MIT, M.S. Computer Technology:

Living and working in Switzerland had several advantages, similarities and drawbacks as compared to the laboratory environment in the US. Most of the specific experiences are taken from my own work while in a laboratory at EPFL. This makes relating accurate generalities difficult. However, I think that parts of my experiences would be similar to other students studying in Switzerland.

Before arriving in Switzerland my academic career was on a hiatus. I was in-between internships in a year off from MIT. Given this relative freedom to work I thought it would be important to extend my network into the international arena. It had been suggested to me by an acquaintance that there was a Swiss Consulate in Cambridge, MA that dealt specifically with both science and education. I credit this consulate with providing me the assistance necessary to find a laboratory to intern with at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne ( EPFL ).

The Media and Design Laboratory took me on as a research intern following my meeting with the Swiss Consulate in Cambridge. The leader of the group, Professor Jeffrey Huang, gave me a very positive impression of his laboratory at EPFL. During our conversation he told me about both his work during his time at Harvard, including the Swiss House, and the work he is pursuing now at EPFL. I found the Media and Design Lab to have difficulty finding its focus. That is, figuring out what its mission should be. To some extent the lab was adopting aspects of labs at MIT who did similar research in design influenced technology research.

Some of the similarities between the Media and Design Lab, and its counterparts in the US have much to do with how they go about getting funding and choosing research topics. At the EPFL lab funding at the time was concerned with companies proposing mutual research as opposed to the lab coming up with an invention that was patentable. In a sense they were interested in the intellectual capabilities of the lab to create value rather than than taking value from a specific device.

There were researchers in architecture, computer engineering, and robotics. The diversity of the group provided to each separate project its own unique view. My own project was an implementation of an interactive wall. The concept was introduced by my collaborator Mark Meagher as part of his thesis research into sustainable office space design. His plan included the building of an “IO Wall” ( Input Output Wall ) that monitored the activity of a person in the vicinity of the wall using a variety of sensors. For example, data collected about the range people keep from a set of shelving has possible importance when you start considering architectural design. If certain parts of the shelves are used more, or less knowing that would influence how you place magazines on that shelf, as an example.

The technical implementation of this idea gave me the opportunity to gain experience with the hardware involved in sensor networks, as well as, the software design aspects. My work in the lab touched on other work going on at EPFL in the informatics department. The most fruitful of these collaborations was with the GSN group developing middle-ware for sensor networks. I was able to use this in my own project. My own collaborators in the Media and Design lab were first and fore-most architects. This made communicating some of the subtleties of sensor network software difficult. However, I was very please with how much interest there was despite the gap in knowledge.

Later in the Spring, the editor of Tracés visited the Media and Design lab to devote an article to our newest work. This particular Tracés was a magazine intended for architects and despite that some of my work made it into its pages.The lab had only been around a short amount of time, and to do date had only one successful project to its name, “Banking of the Future”. However, there a large number of projects currently under way in the lab.

Some of the other labs had a mix of research that seemed to be more focused on highly applied research and not as much on theoretical computer science. For example, the larger and better funded groups all worked primarily with sensor networks. If I had stayed longer in Switzerland I would have liked to have collaborated more with other groups doing this type of research. With this I could have taken advantage of the large amount of research already being done in the area of wireless sensing. In summary I am pleased with my research experience as there is a tangible result produced in a forth-coming conference paper by myself and my collaborators.

Other ThinkSwiss Fellowship students were spread around the country from Lausanne all the way to Lugano. However, we successfully had meetings in Lausanne and in Bern. The first one included both a pizza lunch and museum tour of Museé Brut in Lausanne. It was great to get a chance to meet everyone. I had no idea what to expect going to the first meeting. I was delighted that everyone was very social and apt to talk about their research. A total of three other ThinkSwiss Scholarship recipients were with me at EPFL and one worked with me in the same building.

Other aspects of the stay include how living there was different from Boston. Since it is first and foremost another country certain things stand out as being different; language, food, etiquette, etc. My particular situation was unique in how removed I was from anything I am used to dealing with in Boston. The first and most prominent problem was the lack of any internet in my room. This caused a tremendous amount of stress given the distance I had from home. Luckily there was an internet café nearby with free internet and a comfortable ally-way that I could sit in to write emails late at night. I was sitting in the ally-way, because unlike most places in Boston or most major cities often-times stores close completely after 6pm and all day on weekends. This made for a very difficult situation when work needed to get done on the weekends and staying in the comfort of an apartment was not an option. I would recommend all future students who do this fellowship they make sure they have available internet, and are in a city since the country side can be quite lonely without easily available internet.

As part of this I was also startled that many of the Swiss in Vaud did not speak much english. It was still easy to get around speaking, but it was difficult at restaurants where french was the main form of communication. I had hoped to gain more experience with speaking french and think that one think I would do differently next time is spend it learning the language as well as working. This time I spent more time working than learning from outside experiences.

I happy with the connections and networks I have now built in Switzerland. I think my experience has been a very successful experience and I have contributed positively to the academic output of the lab I called my for four months. There was some difficulty for me adjusting to the lifestyle of Switzerland, and think that it was only a small problem. I am happy I went and glad to be of service to spreading science and education around the globe.

Brian Douglas Amster, University of Massachussetts, Isenberg School of Management:

Lugano is a very interesting city, not just because of its beauty, with a winding lake in the middle of beautiful mountains but also because of its diverse cultures. I would frequently hear English, German, as well as the expected Italian when walking down the street in almost equal amounts. I was very surprised to hear as much German and English as I did Italian. Fortunately I speak these languages but my Italian had gotten rather shabby from lack of opportunity and the necessity to speak it.

The day after my arrival I went back to the Faculty of Economics office and met Ricco Maggi, the Director of the IRE. The task given to me was to find out what logistics really is and more specifically what Humanitarian Logistics is. To do that I was given a great deal of material and case studies about that subject. IRE at the time of my arrival had 2 major projects on going for logistics section of the institute. The first project was the preparation of a 5 day summer course in Humanitarian Logistics to be given at the end of August, 2007. Many people from different humanitarian organizations around the world were going to attend and the IRE was trying to create a program with top notch material, speakers, and activities that would be useful learning experiences for these people. The second project was a Masters Degree Program in Humanitarian Logistics which was to begin in the fall of 2008.

Overall I liked my stay in Lugano and IRE. Lugano. It was really nice for me to practice my Italian and German again. As a direct result of my stay in Lugano I am currently taking an Italian and a German course at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (UMASS).

I am seriously considering returning to Switzerland when I graduate with degrees from The Isenberg School of Business, and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst Massachusetts and I might enter a PhD program in one of the Swiss Universities. If I decide to get my MBA first, it may be at a US University.

Unfortunately I do not have any experience working in an US office or a University so I do not really have anything with which to compare my stay in IRE. I did however notice that unlike in US Universities where professors have posted office hours when students could come and meet with their professor and ask questions, in Lugano, I never saw any of them in the office. I do not know if Swiss professors do not have hours set aside for students or they have them and meet the students somewhere other than the office.

Switzerland is expensive and I would respectfully suggest raising the scholarship amount. I paid 400 Swiss Francs a month for rent, sharing a one bedroom apartment with a very cool Italian student. This is very inexpensive for Lugano. The rates for lodging in Lugano are usually between 500 and 900 Swiss Francs a month. Food came to about 800 Sfr a month including a coffee in the morning, eating lunch out (a sandwich and a soda) and cooking dinner in my apartment.

Although I worked 3 months, I was paid by the university for only two months. My stipend was 1000 Sfr per month, total, 2000 Sfr. The THINK SWISS scholarship was 500 US dollars per month. With an exchange rate of about 1.26 Swiss Francs to the dollar for a total of 1860 Sfr for the 3 months. Total income for the 3 months was 3,860 Swiss Francs.
The rest of the money I spent came from my own pocket.

Flight to Switzerland, student rate: = 1200 Sfr (US 850.00)
Rent: 400 Sfr x 3 months: = 1200 Sfr
Food: 800 Sfr x 3 months: = 2400 Sfr
Misc Costs: 300 Sfr x 3 months: = 900 Sfr
Laundry, amusements, etc
Approximate Costs: =5700 Sfr

Income for the 3 months: =3,860 Sfr

Recommendations to future students: Do the math and clarify how you will be paid and by whom beforehand…

Overall I had a great time in Switzerland, I am considering doing my PhD at a Swiss University. I think it is great that the Swiss government is funding the THINK SWISS research scholarship and I hope it will continue to do so for many years to come, perhaps with an increase in payments to the scholarship recipients.

Todd Mytkowicz, University of Colorado, PhD Student, Computer Science

Overall Impression:
My trip abroad is slightly different from the other students in the
ThinkSwiss scholarship in that I had a pre-established relationship
with the professor I am visiting. I have been working in a research
group back at my home university with Prof. Matthias Hauswirth for
the past two years. Skype has been our savior and allowed us to work
together, meeting in person once a year when he comes to visit us at
Boulder. Collaboration over the phone has its place and we have been
able to do great work like this, but there is no substitute for
meeting face to face with a whiteboard to discuss ideas. For this
reason, visiting Switzerland was a great opportunity for my research;
it allows me to work/live in a close proximity with Dr. Hauswirth.
We had almost daily contact and I made strides in my PhD research
because of this.
I had a great time at the University of Lugano. I am sad to see my
time here come to and end. The faculty here is very new (started
circa 2004) and all of the facilities are also new. It was great to
see the process of how a new faculty develops its research and
teaching agenda --- how it fits into the local canton. I would
highly recommend someone coming here to study. Students are engaged
and are interested in conversing on the topic of my research even
though they may not directly work in my field. Professors seemed to
also be inherently interested in lively discussions.

Comparison with my Lab:
As far as a comparison between my university back home and my Swiss
experience I have a tough time differentiating the two -- my lab back
home includes Prof. Hauswirth! I however can compare and contrast
what I have seen about the type of research that occurs here vs the
states. First, I have noticed that research in Switzerland is much
more application oriented than the funding agencies back home. They
seem to be looking for more applications of research and how it will
directly benefit people or software rather than the more theoretical/
abstract research that I see getting funding back in the States.
This has a nice bent of pushing more students to industry and thus
pushing large ties between the university and the local businesses.
I have also noticed that the university provides most of the funding
for Professor's graduate students. This means that there is less
pressure on Professors finding grants to fund their respective
students. It also has the direct implication that most PhD students
must perform some form of teaching each semester.
I would absolutely love to come back to a Swiss university when I
graduate and look for academic teaching positions. I had a fantastic
time traveling in both Switzerland and Italy and would enjoy
continuing that if I had a full time job here. The university speaks
English, which helps as I have very little knowledge of Italian. One
thing I would note is that if I were to come here to work right after
my PhD I feel I would be at a disadvantage. The reason for this is
that, back in the US, I have established myself in a community.
While that community is international, I feel that, for the most
part, the people that make it up are from US universities. For this
reason I would have a hard time breaking directly into the research
community that is here in Europe. A post-doc would be invaluable as
it would give me a year to learn what communities are important here
in Switzerland. It would also allow me to get to know Professors at
local universities, which in turn would help when I start a tenure
track position. This is something that I feel a lot of people do not
consider when coming to Europe to teach directly from a PhD program
in the States.

Financial means and budget:
It was hard to get by with the amount of money given by the
scholarship. It basically just covered my rent and a bit of my food
-- anything above and beyond was out of my very little savings :). I
was lucky in that my university advisor payed for my flight over to
Switzerland (almost 1000 dollars). This helped immensely. I also
lived with 6 other PhD students which dropped my living expenses to a
manageable amount. This was set up by the university and was a great
experience for me in that it allowed my to get know a bunch of
different cultures without leaving my flat.

As a conclusion, I really had a great time here in Lugano. I loved
meeting the PhD students here and made great strides in my research.
Thanks to the ThinkSwiss scholarship for this opportunity!