Thursday, July 31, 2008

Microfluidics, Creux du van, Lugano, and Berlin

Now I can show you all what my microscopic plumbing actually looks like since I finally transferred some images to my computer.

These channels are about 24 um wide (2.4 x10^-5 m)

Creux du Van

Recently I traveled to Noiraigue with a

colleague of mine to hike in the Jura Mountains. The hike we chose was to the Creux du Van, which is a giant cliff face shaped by a glacier. The cirque cliff is nearly 1000 feet tall and is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They look much taller when you are laying on a rock at the edge of the cliff, looking directly down. At the time of our hikewe didn’t know how tall the cliff was, so we at least determined that it takes a rock nearly nine seconds to fall to the ground. The view was absolutely amazing. To the east you can see the mountain range of the Alps stretching across the entire horizon, to the north there are three lakes, Northwest a grassy valley with stereotypical mountain-swiss houses, and of course, beauty in all directions. I highly recommend the hike, but I would go on a day of clear skies, otherwise much of the view will disappear.


After our hike we took the train to Bellinzona, in the Italian part of Swi

tzerland. When we arrived we navigated our way

to the local youth hostel where we would stay. Immediately after we went into our room some of our hostel-mates returned and we met them.

After they left some random man walked into our room began looking around, just standing in the doorway. He could speak a little English and was asking us if the room was full, but he appeared to be either incredibly drunk or on some other kind of drugs... Since we just arrived we didn’t really know, but there were bags by the remaining three beds so we told him we thought it was full. He wanted to sleep in our room, so I asked if he had reservations, but he didn’t, saying that the reception closed too early (which was at 10:00). We told him that we’d ask the other roommates if there was a bed open, but without a reservation we couldn’t just let him stay in a bed. He insisted that we go down and find our roommates and he would just stay in the room and wait for us, by himself. He was either trying to steal from us, hoping we were naïve, or he was really just looking for a free room. In either case, he tried walking his way into our room as we were leaving so we ended up having to pull him out of the room. Later we saw him getting kicked out of the hostel by the owner.

We walked around that night to view the city, which was formed within the walls of three connecting castles. At night all three castles are illuminated and are simply unbelievable. The city is in a valley between two parallel mountain ranges, and the connecting castle walls were built to cross this valley eliminating any passage through it. On the train ride home a man who writes about “magic places” in Switzerland told me som

e history of Bellinzona, as well as many other places in Switzerland. The walls had been built by the Swiss when the Italians from Milan began expanding their territory. The swiss didn’t want them to pass through “their territory” so they completely sealed off the passage through this part of the alps and built guard towers (turrets) probably every 15-20 meters.
This town was my favorite of all the towns I have visited so far in Switzerland. The night life died early (1:00 a.m.) and there doesn’t appear to be that

much to actually do there (there probably is if you know people there though), but the design of the city, the buildings and castles, as well as the amazing landscape were incredible.

The next day Andhyk and I went to the top of the lower, largest looking castle and went to the top of the watch tower where we had a spectacular panoramic view of the entire area. We didn’t have time to visit all three castles because we were headed to Lugano for the day, so we quickly saw the things that were the most appealing to us boarded the train.


We arrived in Lugano and immediately headed to the lake, which is beautiful and has amazing scenery to enhance it. We were hungry by this time and Andhyk wanted to eat at Burger King, so I decided to eat American food for my first time since my arrival in Europe. I must say, for being 2-3 times the cost of burger king in the U.S., I expected at least the same quality, but my sandwich was absolutely terrible… the fries were good though haha. The moral of the story is, don’t eat American food in Europe when you can have authentic European food, although that should go without saying. We stopped by the information office (adjacent to Burger King) and found some parks and castles to go look at. We went to two parks, one of which had a great view of the lake, although on the way to the park we took a wrong set of stairs and were nearly attacked by a guard dog at the edge of private property. We went to view one of the local castles, although when we arrived it was more of an armored house with a tall tower. I don’t know the name of it, but it looked like an Asian structure, with the stereotypical pagoda style roof. It was very cool from the outside, but access was closed for the day so we were unable to go inside. We then we took a tram up to the top of Monte Brè, where we climbed to the top of a small chapel at the top of the mountain. From here we had a spectacular panoramic view of the entire region. We could see the entire lake, plus two smaller ones, and the mountains everywhere. From the top you can also see as far as Milan, Italy. It is worth going to see at least once!

Berlin, Germany

The following weekend I went to Berlin, Germany, which was also amazing. I took several guided tours, knowing that they would be a great source of historical information, and they were worth it (all but one of the tours was free.) I spent one day just looking at the major attractions like Parliament, victory square, the Jewish memorial, and, of course, the remains of the Berlin wall. I checked out a museum on the history of the wall and learned quite a bit about the politics of it during one of my tours. The following day I visited a concentration camp (a work camp, very different from the death camps.) It was a strange experience being in the place where so many people were literally worked to death. I took a tour here also, which provided a lot of details of the camp that I wouldn’t have known from wandering there on my own. Berlin is a city of very much important history, and it all becomes much more real when you are able to see it for yourself.

I also wanted to say that it was a pleasure meeting everyone in Bern.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Starting To Say My Goodbyes

During my research internship in Switzerland, I worked in the Psychiatric Neuroscience Center in Lausanne. The aim of the research was to investigate the genetic mutations, duplications, and deletions that may play a role in the development of Schizophrenia. Beyond gathering data in both a clinical and animal model setting, I was able to observe and learn techniques from other colleagues in the lab including the geneticists, electrophysiologists and biologists. I was given the exciting and truly invaluable opportunity to attend the Forum of European Neuroscience (FENS), which is the largest conference of its kind, located in Geneva. I was quickly and easily integrated into this setting and given the freedom to choose to work where I felt I would learn the most. I also had the opportunity to review the studies occurring in other labs and other European universities.
The lab that I worked in was about the same number of people as the lab that I had in the United States, but there were no undergraduate assistants to relieve some of the workload placed on the doctoral students and the post doctoral technicians. I immediately pointed out this difference as I saw my colleagues engaged in unskilled work related tasks that always seemed to be handed to the undergraduates in the USA. Also, the freedom and the training on techniques that I was given was far beyond what I could have expected to receive at any internship in the USA. The entire lab was more than happy to teach me anything that I had an interest in understanding. Also, I was able to contribute in a unique way; I was able to assist the staff clinician in learning the MATRICS, a battery of cognitive tests for Schizophrenia patients.
The country itself is an amazing experience approximately a third the size of my home state of Nebraska it happily houses four languages and many different cultural backgrounds. This has set the scene for a welcoming environment for those wanting to learn each culture, patience for those trying to learn the language, and joy in learning about different cultures. I was able to visit many places with in Switzerland including Bern, Zurich, Lugano, Bellinzona, Geneva, Locarno, Interlaken, Konstanz, and Montreux just to name a few. Switzerland also has an ideal location for those wanting to visit several European countries and I took advantage of this as well visiting Paris, Milan, and Prague. However, there was always more than enough to do in Switzerland and I was able to attend events such as the Jazz Festival in Montreux, the Jazz Festival in Lugano, and the public Euro football events. The most wonderful aspects of Switzerland stay here all the time. There are the beautiful mountains, the chateau de Chillion, medieval cities, the Roman Bridges in Ticino over crystal clear water.
I have been working over in my head if there is anything that I would have changed or that could have been better. I have really found nothing really. There is the high cost of living in Switzerland for which I was not entirely prepared. The language barrier, which was my greatest concern, was not truly a problem, but those considering studying a broad I will warn it is just a little lonely sometimes. I never got homesick for the USA, but I did get homesick for the English language, or maybe it was just laziness. I cannot emphasize enough how happy I was to be able to attend the FENS which gave me the opportunity to consider not just Swiss graduate schools, but the European graduate schools as well. I was able to learn as much about Neuroscience as could possibly have fit into the three month stay, and I loved every second of it.

My Last Day

First off I would like to thank everyone for the wonderful time in Bern yesterday. The weather couldn't have been better and I was surprised to see all of us pretty much around th same age. Hearing our different interests broadened my science scope.

Today is my last day at the anthropology institute and museum at the University of Zürich's Irchel sciences campus. I have cherished my time learning the 'life while becoming a doctor' and the effort it takes for proud research. I feel as though my motivation back home for the next semester and after that will be much different. My assistance at UZH was in a low pressure environment and here I gained a work ethic not based on expectation but honest effort. As Suzanna said, "people working to live." I can not wait to attend classes with this new outlook. I have been to Switzerland many times but never outside of family visits, this has been such a foundational experience. The perspective does not stop at study though, the Swiss seem to make any moment worth their time. Whether it is hiking a mountain, spending the day at a lake, appreciating a Summer festival or cooking with quality ingredients, these people love life. The honored lunch hour is a great example of health and happiness. I really never ran into an explicitly stressed person during my time at the institute, contrary to this I did learn a Swiss idiom: "Sii/Er macht d'Fuscht im sakk" literal translation is "S/he makes her/his fist in the pocket"... to be secretly angry. People were always content and responsible for their reality.

My overall impressions can not be matched to any ideas I thought could have come from this stay. Some positive points, getting to see research steps from the beginning to the end, working in a university research group setting for the first time, and learning public transportation in a foreign city. I don't have any negative points for this experience except the amount of food I have consumed, it all tasted too good. The language barrier was not a challenge since most everyone could speak English and I gained some more understanding in Schwiizer-duetch. I can not compare this research group's mentality and team since I am not participating in one at my university in Boulder, CO. I had just finished my second year and am not involved within a research group at CU. Of course I would love to come back to Switzerland, although not for study since I am unsure of continuing with obtaining a doctorate.

It does not feel as though I have been here since the end of May and yet I have enough memories to fill twice the amount of time. I am very excited to travel out side of the Swiss borders next week after the First of August. A friend and I will start our trip in Geneva for the independence celebrations, then through Paris and eventually up to the Netherlands. ThinkSwiss has given me the opportunity otherwise not possible, most of all they allowed me the experience to work with a Swiss research project. I also must thank the director of this institute, Prof. Dr. Carel van Schaik, for the initial acception, he is an easy going guy and passively taught me you don't have to be serious if you are good, living with passion in your field produces results you are excited to talk about and the more thought and research to back up these ideas the more valuable and credentialed they become. I saw this philosophy in the people he is responsible for, and hope to carry on this motivation. I will always seek out passion as I create a career, even if I don't continue on with a doctorate.

Farewell and it has been soo wonderful to learn more about what each of you do and the Swiss influence. I have one last recommendation, for anyone who has not been to Luzern I suggest visiting the Dying Lion. The story goes: a Swiss officer happened to be on home leave in lucerne when his soldiers were killed in Paris during the French revolution. After the revolution in 1815 he felt obliged to erect a memorial for his fellow soldiers. Above this beautiful art carved into the mountain, there is some Latin "HELVETIORUM FIDEL AC VIRTUTLE" To the Loyalty and Bravery of the Swiss!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Here's some info on visas, apartments, and budgeting:
To answer some practical questions posed by our excellent ThinkSwiss administrators, if you're doing research for three months or less as a US citizen, you don't need a visa. Therefore I have no advice for those seeking a visa. To find a place to live, go to the apartment list, it's fantastic. I had to change apartments for personal reasons, but was where I went first even then. If you are a practicing Christian, look up a few churches in your denomination (maybe including non-denominational and maybe even from mosques and other religious communities, although that might be a tougher search) and contact them to see if they have apartments or free rooms you can rent. Keep in mind when picking a neighborhood in Bern, at least, that buses and trams don't run very late within neighborhoods on the edges of the city, although the main-street trams run late and can usually get you to within walking distance, if far (I was in Wabern for 2 months, which is gorgeous but the bus closest to my street stopped way too early). You should also get a mobile phone with a prepaid card from a company like Orange, for example. Of course, consider emailing your workmates as well; mine were helpful, in fact the house in Wabern where I stayed for my second and third months was the family house of a workmate, but this is idiosyncratic to each institution of course. People in Switzerland are helpful, just ask. I highly recommend borrowing, renting, or buying a bike (and a helmet); I was lucky enough to borrow one from my mentors. You can even take your bike with you on most trains (although I don't remember if you have to pay a bike fee).
Budget is hard to calculate retrospectively. I somehow found a great place with really cheap rent (250CHF/month), but I would budget (if you are staying outside of Zurich and Geneva) 500-600CHF for rent/month,
500CHF/month for groceries and eating out,
500CHF/month for travel including buying the discount/youth HalfDays card and/or Gleis7 (see my entries at an earlier date) and extras including gifts, chocolate, clothes, that broken leg on your first ski lesson, whatever.
So that's about 1500/month, and that's not counting airfare, which for me was paid by my institute in lieu of a salary.
Groceries are similarly priced to good grocery stores in the States. Eating out is absolutely ridiculous for a Houstonian (we have great food for great prices), for example pasta with calamari for 25CHF. Yet we had really good schawarma from the corner Lebanese restaurant for 8CHF and other restaurants had lunch plates for 10CHF... so think 10-30CHF for lunches and 17-40CHF for dinners, barring small sandwiches, wurst (sausage), and pizza. For Geneva, however, expect to pay at least 30-50% more. Travel expenses depend on you and can vary widely. But I would eat less and travel more if you have to! So all in all, I pretty much emptied out my bank account including half of the scholarship (the second half comes when you are done, much like a bandage for your wounded coffers). You might do the same, but if you need to save and you're under 25, get a cheap apartment, buy the discount travel cards HalfDays (HalbTags) and Gleis 7/Voie 7 (the under 25 part), cook your own food, and travel after 7pm!

Tschüss, Zusammen! Machen Sie viel Spass!!!!!!! Vielleicht wir sehen uns ein mal in der Schweiz :). Bye, everyone, have fun! Maybe we'll meet someday in Switzerland.

Voilá mes pensées.. Hier sind meine Denken...Qui sono i miei pensieri!

“Where is the ‘Treffpunkt’ please?” A young Ukrainian on his way back home ushered me to the Meeting Point of the Train Station/Mall/young-people’s-24-7 hang-out. Ten minutes ticked slowly as I took in the ebb and flow of Swiss and internationals rushing to and from train destinations, greeting their friends with three kisses, and coming out of the underground stores with groceries, fresh-baked bread, music, and clothes. The aroma of waffle cookies drifted behind me in a sample display but I hadn’t yet recovered from my plane ride enough to lug my big suitcases over with one hand and gesticulate to abet my poor German with the other hand. Welcome to Bern, head of Bern County and capital of Switzerland.

My first roommate eventually found me and took me on a disorienting taxi-ride to my new Swiss apartment (the first of four, but that’s another story). In those initial twelve minutes, impressions from the taxi window broke almost every stereotype that I had heard of Switzerland.

- Switzerland is the land of organization: the first view of the city I had was of bike riders darting every which way regardless of stop signs, cars, or pedestrians around a huge construction site for train station improvements in anticipation of the EuroCup2008 Austria-Switzerland.

- Switzerland is a land of rich businessman handling millions of dollars every second: the population around me on a mid-day weekday, presumably a representative sampling of Bern in general, included slightly punk/too-cool-for-you teenagers, some sparse adults in elegant suits balancing briefcases precariously on their bike racks, and mostly youth and adults in Berkeley, CA hip-casual clothes walking, biking, and riding the trams.

- Switzerland is a land of punctuality and perfect transportation: that stereotype held fast until the my visiting mother’s last Swiss train ride, ironically, when we spent an unheard-of 60minutes stock still in a hot train which stopped a few minutes from Zurich airport (thank God, we didn’t miss her plane!). As someone from a rather disorganized culture, I was amused (and understanding) with how anguished the clockwork Swiss were to see their usually dependent schedules evaporate.

- Switzerland is a made of apple-cheeked smiling Swiss faces, cows, and cheese: the first Swiss resident I met in the plane from London was a young Russian working in Ticino, the Italian-Swiss region; the second I met was the helpful Ukrainian returning home from a year of Swiss work, the third I met was my Kurdish roommate, now a Swiss citizen. I didn’t actually meet a Swiss-born and bred person until my first day of work where I met my Swiss mentor and his British-Chinese wife, my second mentor. I did however have lots of dairy (lactose-free, three HUGE cheers for COOP, whose lactose-free milk products I’m trying to import to my local grocery store), and found fields and cows (and llamas and rams!) five minutes from my fourth residence, in Wabern on the edges of Bern.

- Ah, yes, the most anxiety-inducing stereotype: Switzerland is so orderly and rule-bound that you shouldn’t even flush your toilet after 9pm. Yes, someone who traveled in Switzerland (and many other countries) actually told me this. So perhaps my Dutch workmate did have to sign up to do her laundry on the 9am-9pm only schedule, but after two days of tip-toeing around my apartment, I felt unrestricted enough to answer nature’s call at any hour, turn on faucets, and even play soccer inside.

- The most unsuspected stereotype for a capital city, in my opinion: the Bernese are the slowest and most closed-minded of Swiss citizens. This turned out only half-true. The Bernese speak and act at a slower pace than even here in good ol’ Texas, but closed-minded they are not. It might take a Bernese guy three months to decide if he likes the fast-talking American visitor, especially if that visitor is a young, single girl… but he and his male and female officemates will welcome you with smiles and words of advice from day one. Even if the Swiss-Germans call their friends and acquaintances alike “kollegen/ colleagues,” they will extend you courtesy and respect from the beginning and will offer more if you have the patience to win their friendship.

My expectations of how I would interact with the Swiss and how I would experience life as a beginner Swiss epidemiologist for three months drew entirely on the stereotypes I heard, the experiences of about three Swiss people living in Houston and at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, DC (Andrea Buetler was exceedingly helpful in providing information, advice, and her own excellent analyses of Swiss vs. American culture, for which I am very grateful), and my own brief communications with my mentor, Dr. Matthias Egger, director of the ISPM, and with potential and actual roommates. I expected to encounter a quiet city with lots of nature, an extremely challenging project with information and methods almost entirely new to me, a language with which I was only mildly proficient but which I hoped to improve quickly, and people who worked to live instead of living to work as in the medical culture which surrounds me.

What I did encounter matched perhaps eighty percent of my expectations. Bern was essentially, much too quiet for me and for some quirk of weather, cold, rainy, and grey for at least two thirds of my time there. The absolute best train system in the world took me gratefully away to greener, sunnier pastures (and mountains, and snow, and small castles, and…) on the weekends and holidays. My research project, still in progress, was a huge learning experience and I spent much of my time learning how on earth a systematic review and meta-analysis is conducted and the differences between such things as an odds ratio and a risk ratio. Many people in my institute worked much longer hours than the other Swiss leaving around them who I could see coming and going through my street-view windows.

I expected to have consistent teaching and mentorship throughout, and I received exactly that, although more from my surprise main mentor, Nicola Low in addition to Matthias Egger, which turned out very well. Working with them as a co-author and not as the lowly medical student on the bottom rung of the medical hierarchy (which I had experienced with humbling results but not without respect for the previous three months on my medical school Surgery rotation) required self-evaluation and a change to perceive myself as a yes, new and naïve but also valuable part of the epidemiology team. I also had to change my expectations of the outcome of my three months and I counsel future mini-scholars to set realistic goals for their research including realizing that researching, analyzing, writing, submitting, reviewing, submitting again, and having your article published takes perhaps up to or more than one full year and can only be organized and started upon in three short months. Every minute in conversation with my mentors and experienced colleagues reminded me of how little I understood about the complexities of article submission and publication and of the politics and etiquette which color the research microcosm.

Perhaps Bern’s medieval charm and EuroCup host-status didn’t completely capture my heart, but the lessons I learned both about myself and more specifically about simple statistics, systematic review and meta-analysis, the world of research, the life of an epidemiologist and wonderfully the friends I made—real friends in the full Swiss sense underlying that strangely distant persistent use of “kollegin”—gave me full reason to value my three months in Bern as an excellent experience. The Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine offered me world-class epidemiology in one of the most naturally-beautiful and visitor-friendly countries in the world, and I thank the Swiss Embassy’s ThinkSwiss Scholarship Program for allowing me to make the ISPM and the multicultural and surprisingly laid-back Bernese a part of my life and identity. Hopp Schweiz!

Gurtenfestival & Recycling

Two topics that would seem unrelated, but little do you know...
I spent the weekend in Bern to go to the Gurtenfestival. I got a little preview Sunday morning of what we'll all see tomorrow.

First, Gurtenfestival!
I had planned to attend Friday evening through Sunday, but couldn't leave till Saturday morning. Probably for the best for how little I knew what I was getting into. After getting wristbanded and seeing the enormous line for the Gurtenbahn (a small railway up to Gurten), I decided to walk up thinking it couldn't be that bad. It was actually quite a hike, around 30-40min! But once at the top I was rewarded with music from Züri West, KT Tunstall, Ben Harper, William White (again!), Amy MacDonald.....

Züri West seemed to be the main attraction--the most prominent Swiss rock band (lyrics in Bernese Swiss). I enjoyed their performance, but obviously not as much as everyone else. They're quite old/established; the crowd knew most of the lyrics. So many people were now at the festival, that transversing the grounds to get to the next stage (with Amy MacDonald) was a challenge...basically a human herd.

Unlike Lausanne, where I hear many different languages frequently, including at Festivale de la Cité, I heard, almost exclusively, Bernese German at the Gurtenfestivale. Naturally, more artists were singing in German, or at least conversing to the crowd in German. I was thankful that KT Tunstall didn't speak German; she's good at entertaining the crows in between songs.

Overall, a great festival with a lot of different artists. And an aggressive approach to recycling-->

2. Recycling at the Gurtenfestival
At both Festivale de la Cité and Montreux Jazz, I noticed many recycling stations. Recycling was encouraged and readily available; the Gurtenfestival, however, made it almost mandatory. For most containers and plates you had to pay a "deposit" when you purchased your food or drink: 0.50Fr for PET bottles, 1Fr for plates w/utensils, 2Fr for cups. So, for 0,3L milkshake, I paid 5Fr: 3Fr for the milkshake + 2Fr for the deposit. Heineken served beer in more durable, reusable plastic cups, so naturally, you wouldn't have the impulse to toss it aside. Throughout the festival grounds, there were 3 or 4 stations where you could return your recyclables and collect your deposit. The effort was extremely successful; the festival grounds were clean, except for (what I dislike about Europe) the cigarette butts .

3. Recycling in Switzerland
Generally, recycling is a luxury service, meaning that it's only available in developed countries. I remember educating African refugees in Houston about recycling; the concept was new to them, as no recycling programs were available in the native countries. In the States, recycling is encouraged, a praised effort, a good habit. The Swiss, however, have a extensive recycling system--they recycle 76% of recyclables. The importance on recycling really hit me when we had a short review at lab meeting about the our recycling in lab. Even during my first week, after reading my housing complex's instructions on waste disposal, I was confused about what items could be recycled and what is waste. I recently found out that households have to purchase stickers for trash bags (so the collecting service takes it away) but not for recyclables.

I wanted to post all this earlier, but was waiting to find my camera cord to include some pictures of Bern and the festival. The cord's lost, so the pictures will come in a separate post.

See everyone tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Grüessech aus Thun!

So, another post is in order, albeit a bit late (it's been four weeks since my last post). In the meanwhile, I had a four-day meeting with the Fulbright board in Washington at the beginning of the month. The flights were interesting, but that was about the extent of it--and it's great to be back in Thun!

1. Research

2. Montreux / a new friend

3. Gurtenfestival

4. Train schedules via SMS?

1. My research continues to go well. I finally got to use the big microwave system in the lab the week before I left, and I'm now learning how to write a program that automatically generates a heating pattern to be fed to the machine (rather than manually feeding a heating pattern in). The model I wrote of the microwave appears to work, but I need to compare the results of my simulations to actual physical data collected during heating (we're able to do this by means of a nifty infrared camera and thermographic film that's part of the microwave setup). I was excited to find an accurate way of modelling thermographic film in the package we use--it's something I'd never seen before!

2. Like some of the others on the blog, I spent a while at the Montreux Jazz Festival recently, and saw a few awesome performances and got really excited by the atmosphere, but regretted being restricted by the train schedule (it'd have been worse, though, if I hadn't made a friend in Lausanne: I had two friends from Finland visiting and one of them knew an Irish M.Sc. student who's working at EPFL for the summer). I had a great time with the Finns and Irishman on the night we went to Montreux, and then we wandered around Lausanne for the first half of the day, and Bern for the second half, afterward to cap off the weekend.

3. And since we all had such a great time at the festival in Montreux, I figured the fun shouldn't end there--so although the Finns have been back in Finland for a week or so now, I invited the Irishman to the Gurtenfestival in Bern last weekend (just Friday night, couldn't afford much more!). My favorite act all evening was the John Butler Trio, a band from Australia that plays bluesy rock tunes. The festival was much bigger than I had imagined in a city of Bern's size, and the atmosphere was energizing and nice. One of the coolest things I saw was the train going up the Gurten---it's hauled up and down the hill by a chain on the front, connected to machinery at the top of the hill. At around 2 a.m., we made friends with one of the conductors on this train, and he said that if we came back next weekend, he'd let us in the building at the top to see the actual machinery inside--more on this if it actually happens (:

4. I learned something cool this weekend: if you want information via SMS on the next two trains running on your specified route, then you just text the departure and destination points to the number 222, and for the price of a regular SMS, you'll get the departure and arrival times of the next two trains. For example, I'd text something like this: "thun bern" (without the quotes) to find trains going from Thun to Bern. I just think that's so cool.

Well, that's it for now. Hope all's well with everyone, and I'm looking forward to the meetup in Bern on Thursday!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Munich, and saying farewells...

This weekend my friend from Geneva and I took the train to Munich. It was my first visit to Germany, and I enjoyed it very much. At least the city of Munich was very clean and transportation was convenient, like it is in Switzerland. At the time we came they were celebrating their 850th city anniversary, so there food vendors everywhere and a techno-music blasting party in the evening. Among the places we visited were the German Technical Museum (HUGE place with lots of stuff), Nymphenberg Palace, the English Garden, the Olympic Park, and BMW Welt. If we had more time there is still many places we would have liked to go to, but alas I have to get back to work or I'll never finish anything before I leave... which is this Friday! Wow, time goes by fast here.

I have not spoken much about my research work, figured that would be pretty boring to most of you, but I'll have to fill up space by doing so here, sorry : )
Originally we planned to work with our nickel nanowires (nano-sized wires or rods made of nickel) in a project where we suspend them across electrodes where we apply a current over them while stretching them so we can measure the conductivity versus the stress/strain. This is mostly just to characterize the material, not to make an effective sensor device like the lab here is trying to do with metallic and semiconducting carbon nanotubes. However, this project gave way to what seemed like a very simple task at first: simply manipulating the nanowires into place over these electrodes. So now the summer here has been spent on several projects dedicated just to these particle manipulation methods.

One uses shadow-masks, which are basically reusable, easy to use fabrication masks that allow you pattern electrodes on your silicon chips without having to do photolithography, which is a very time intensive process. This did not end up working very well, as the alignment of the pattern over the particles is completely random. You simply have a pattern with lots of electrode pairs and a sample substrate with lots of dispersed particles, and hope that at least one is matched. Since we are not trying to make actual devices on commercial scales, merely to characterize the particle, going on luck of the draw is alright in this case but we think it could be better.

Another project involves dielectrophoresis, or using an electric field to polarize the particles and attract them to the metallic electrodes. This is probably the easiest and most successful method we've tried for these particular nickel nanowires, because they respond well to the electric field. We have a success rate on this setup of perhaps more than 1 out of 10, which is better than the other methods. However, we have not yet had any success on our own micro devices, just on electrodes specifically made for this setup using carbon nanotubes, so we may have to alter the design of our testing devices if we use this.

Lastly, we tried using alternating, 3-dimensional applied magnetic fields, produced by another simple setup of just 3 pairs of Helmholtz coils (AC coils that each generate a one-dimensional magnetic field in between them). Magnetic manipulation of ferromagnetic particles, particularly nickel, is fairly popular these days, so there is also quite a bit of literature on the topic. With this we have managed to make the nanowires rotate at controllable frequencies and directions, and even get them to "swim" under our control. This setup is also particularly attractive for use on other particles we fabricate in our home-lab, including silver nano-rings and composite gold/nickel nanowires. We tried both particles in the setup, but not for much success. The nano-rings will hopefully generate currents in their loop structure by Lenz's Law and produce interesting mechanical oscillatory effects, but we don't see this yet. This will probably take more investigation to complete, and we are now considering constructing our own Helmholtz coil setup in the home-lab when we return.

So that's basically all we've done, doesn't seem like much but I've personally learned a lot and look forward to finding out more when we get back.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Montreux and lots of EXCEL

WOW! So the Montreux jazz festival is as great as everyone has said. I saw Galactic at the Jazz Cafe and they put on quite the show, definitely the best concert by far this year. I am excited to see them perform when I get home to my University town in Boulder, CO. The weather was beautiful and the small huts along the lake provided all the food you could eat, beer and clothing from different cultures. The mountains were impressive and it was a cool feeling to see France on the other side of the lake. The French side of Switzerland has some contrasts to where I have been staying, for example while visiting friends in Geneva during the lake parade, the light posts still had eurocup decorations, I stated how the day after the championships the huddled soccer players in the main station were getting torn down. They explained "It's a little more easy going here." Yea well the next day, a slow poke bus driver (taking it too easy) caused me to wait an extra two hours after missing my train at the Nyon station.

Right now it is gorgeous in Zürich and I am watching a big bird, the Milan (Kite in English) swoop down past the office window and just float in the wind. The wildlife here seems to remind you how in touch Switzerland is with nature. A hedgehog waddled by on my path last Wednesday and I even got to pet a four month old fox during the week, she was rescued by one of the zoo keepers.

I have been spending more time at the institute and everyday has been dedicated to excel. In order to gain information from the data recorded during observations of the chimpanzees you need it transfered into a computer. You would be surprised how many interactions take place in an hour, let alone a day in a chimps life.

A friend who works in the same office (there are a total of 4-5 desks in this office, no cubicles here) asked if I could proofread something for her, since I have helped her with english before I of course had no problem with it. Next thing I know I get an inch thick pile of paper and Sabrina handed over her masters-thesis... It took a while but I got a refresh on Australopithecines :)

This weekend I will take a train to Maloja where my cousin is completing her apprenticeship at a hotel. I have been in Switzerland over two months and this will be the first time I see her, pretty strange, but I guess I have never been so busy when visiting.

I look forward to meeting some of you next Thursday along with our tour of the famous Einstein exhibit. Should be very interesting! Enjoy Saturday because I think it will be raining Sunday, depending where you're at ;)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Festivale de la Cité, Montreux Jazz, & Rain

For the last week, I've been enjoying both the Lausanne Festivale de la Cité and the Montreux Jazz Festival. Both feature good entertainment for free! Not too crowded and not a hassle to get to. On Thursday night was Gustav & son Lonely Heart Attack band (right). I can't quite classify what genre they belong to, somewhat rock with salsa trumpet infusions. The next night the rain stopped just long enough for William White & the Emergency's performance. Even better than the night before! White, as best as I can put it, is a Jack Johnson and John Mayer combo with a Barbados twist--just a chill, just a sweet, and just as charming.

What's unfortunate is that I can't stay at the festivals too late; I have a self-imposed curfew of midnight, based on the metro schedule. I now really regret choosing to live close to the EPFL. Missing the last metro means an hour walking back to my apartment. This wasn't too bad when I was at the Lausanne Festivale, but the Montreux festival lasts a lot longer into the night, sometimes even till 5am!

My only other frustration is the weather; it's been raining on weekends but not on weekdays. So it's gorgeous outside when I'm in lab and miserably cold and wet when I'm not. I want to go hiking and do other outdoor activities, which shouldn't be done in rainy weather. Next weekend I'll be in Bern for the Gurten festival; hopefully the weather will be better this weekend.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

over 4 weeks...

Hello All,

Here I am again, with completing almost 4 weeks in Basel.The weeks were very exciting with euro cup coming to an end.....

In these 4 weeks I met Niko, the professor that I will be working with. He introduced me to the other members of the group . It was very exciting. I had many many meeting , discussing the different aspects of the problem that we will be working on. Discussed various dimensions of the problems, the kind of final solution that we wanted and the way to progress.It was interesting and the discussions were different as compared to the group that I work in UIC. The reason of this is also the interdispiclenary kind of research that involves various people.
The work environment is very good, though a bit different from US. In Chicago, me for example, I go to the lab around 1030 or 1100 and leave late, 8 or 9 pm depending on the work load. But here at ETH, I find people coming in early, like at 8 or something and then they take alot of breaks(tea coffee lunch etc).I guess, the working hours boils down to same, but it is fun to work like this as well :)..

They assigned me a office where I could work, and the nice IT people did setup a very nice desktop for me.It is apple mac and the screen is bigger than what I have in Chicago :D..They also very nicely explaned me the working of the systems and printing etc.

The weekend, I spent with some families and friends. The host had arranged very nice bar b que chicken and beef 'kabob' with fresh bread(which was really tasty). Spent most of the saturday with these friends, talking chatting, and ofcourse eating..(I ate alot :D)..Most of the sundays were spent, chatting with friends online and sleeping....
I did go around to see some of the places in basel.Few pics that might interest every one....I will take some more of these.....
I am happy to be here, and am really glad that the jet-lag is finally over.The work place is very good and I plan to go swimming this week with my collegues. Now that is gonna be fun. Just for the record, I never swam in the river before ;) ..and It is getting hot and is killing me...with no airconditioning in the building :(

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Trip to Bern on Thursday July 24, 2008

Dear ThinkSwiss Participants,

My name is Muriel and I am the new intern in the Office of Science, Technology and Higher Education at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, D.C. I will take over Andrea’s job for the next few months and I look forward reading your impressions. I have been studying International Relations in Geneva, in Germany and in Belgium. If you have any question about Geneva, I would be happy to give you some information.

Your experience seems amazing and you all have fun beside your work. Continue to take all opportunities you have to visit Switzerland and its neighbour countries. It is very useful to share your experiences as it can give inspiration to the other participants.

Trip to Bern on Thursday, July 24, 2008

As announced by Andrea, all researchers who received a ThinkSwiss Research Scholarship or a Travel Grant for the life sciences summer school in Lausanne or Zurich are invited by Presence Switzerland to spend a day in Bern on Thursday, July 24, 2008. You will have the chance to meet other researchers from the U.S., enjoy charming Bern, and learn more about Swiss history, democracy and higher education. The detailed program, as well as some questions regarding the transport and your food preferences have been sent today to you by regular e-mail. Please don’t forget to send me the necessary details for a successful trip. If you have not received it, you can notice me by e-mail: .

Enjoy and have lots of fun!

Kind regards,

Office of Science, Technology and Higher Education
Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More traveling . . .

We've had several visitors the last couple of weeks, so between settling into the lab and traveling through parts of Switzerland with first my sister and brother-in-law and then with a couple of old friends, it has been a busy last couple of weeks! It's been wonderful to have friends and family visit, both to be able to introduce them to Bern, as well as take advantage of their desire to see various parts of Switzerland.

I'm glad some of you will be able to travel here to see Bern, as it really is a beautiful and unique city. They've done a wonderful job preserving the Altstadt, and as a result, the center of the city is vibrant, beautiful, and always has something new to see and experience. We've been lucky to have (mostly) beautiful weather, so it's been great to take visitors on walking tours of Bern, seeing the churches, parliament, open markets in the squares, rose garden, and of course taking advantage of the many outdoor cafes and beer gardens. And of course, watching people jump off bridges to float down part of the Aare is always entertaining!
And Bern is beautiful both during the day, as seen above, and at night, when so many of the city's buildings and monuments are lit up. Plus, it still never ceases to amaze me how safe this city is, especially in contrast to most American cities. I can walk around in the middle of the night by myself, leave my bike unlocked in front of the grocery store and still have it be there when I come back out, and keep the windows of our apartment wide open without fear. It's a very freeing feeling, and makes me rather sad to think about what our cities have become, since 40 years ago when my mother was growing up in Houston, they were able to do the same . . .
We also managed to be in the right place at the right time, so we were able to see the Tour de Suisse come through Bern!

We took a nice day-trip to Gruyeres, which if anyone has a few extra hours, I highly recommend! It's a tiny village perched on top of a hill, really with just one street running through the town, from the remains of the old city walls at one end
to the giant Chateau (really a castle) at the other end. The pastoral setting, where you can hear the tinkling of bells on sheep and cattle just adds to the ambience. And of course, you can sit and relax on a restaurant terrace enjoying a pot of fabulous fondue. Another interesting tourism spot . . . the HR Giger Museum and Bar is in an old chalet just below the castle, so for any sci-fi/Alien movie fans (he did all the designs), I recommend checking it out!

If you want a beautiful hike up in the Alps, with the reward after a 3 hour, 1000 meter upward climb being a stunning view of a mountain lake, the Alps, and a restaurant complete with a good panache, take a train ride to Kandersteg and then hike up above Oeschinensee. I can't really do it justice with words, so I'll just include photos . . .
. . . and to include another random note, on the advice of the one local accompanying us, try drinking the water from the high-altitude (well above timberline) mountain streams! As a backpacking American, this goes against every piece of advice I've ever received about hiking, but I dubiously agreed with the promise that if I get some wierd bug, he would treat me (helpful to have a physician tag-along). I am still healthy almost 3 weeks later, and it was the best water I've ever tasted.

Another day trip gave a view of a rather larger Swiss city, and it was nice to see something of Basel other than the train station and airport. We spent a few hours wandering around the Altstadt area of Basel, which had a stunning city hall and a beautiful terrance behind the main church that had a great view of the Rhine. Definitely more hustle and bustle with cars going through than what I'm used to in Bern, and it is hysterical that Basel now seems like a "big city" when I normally live in Houston . . .

And more to come when photos are uploaded on the Montreaux festival and Murten/Avenches.

Somewhere in between all of the above, I've managed to get some work done :) I've been working predominantly with neurosurgery for the first few weeks, as the lab I am working in belongs to them. I've been learning various immunohistochemical stains to identify neurons in rat brains that are positive for several different proteins. Of particular interest are those that indicate new neuronal growth, especially in experiments creating a rat model of intracerebral hemorrhage, a devastating disease of which still so much is unknown. Some of the experiments also involve transplanting stem cells into lesioned areas of the rat brain, with evaluation of functional recovery and extent of transplanted cell survival and differentiation. Many of the stains, immunofluorescence, and other techniques I am learning (western blot, ELISA) we will start applying soon to inner ear stem cells, as we will be harvesting them from some rat specimens later this week. As it is supposed to be the main focus of my summer, I'm excited to begin. I'm also very excited to learn how to surgically drill out an inner ear, so it should be a good week!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Research and Festivals

When I arrived at EPFL the project I am working on was struggling to function. We are developing hydrogels from Polydimethylsiloxide (PDMS) that will be used for microfluidics and studying stem cell progeny behavior. The PDMS formed into a square (by injecting the silicone into a mold) with sides of about 1/2". Small channels are molded into the face of the chip creating what could be described as a microscopic plumbing system. The channels range from 12 to 24 micrometers in diameter and are between 125 and 1000 micrometers long, depending on the chip, which means that all of our work is done under a microscope so we can actually look at these channels. I realize the description is fairly ambiguous, but I will post images so you can see when I'm at EPFL, I have none on my computer.
The channels are formed in a series of switchbacks winding parallel to each other. Near one end there are small "traps" notched out that act as shortcuts for the fluids to move through the channels. We will eventually be flowing solutions of stem cells in medium through the system and the cells will be caught individually in these traps.
Now I will explain the use/purpose of this. Generally when studying stem cell populations it is pretty much impossible to observe the variation in differentiation from one cell to the next since they are all cultured in clusters. This technique will be used to isolate the stem cells individually so you can observe each individual cells differentation and the daughter cell's lineage. This is important for really understanding the behavior of individual stem cells and signaling cues. So, the place where we are in the project is still analyzing the characteristics of our channels when fluids are flushed through them. We have had many problems with this so far, specifically with dust (or whatever type) particles. The traps in our channels are less than 12 micrometers wide, which means that any particle that happens to get into our PDMS will clog our plumbing and make our chip useless. We have been fighting this for about two weeks now and I have finally made some progress on cleaning the chips and making them more reliable. When I started, nearly every chip would clog before we could gather quantitative measurements. Now we are nearly at a 66% success rate. Hopefully this will continue to improve as I try new methods to clean and keep the chips sterile.
I promise, this will all make much more sense when I post a photo of the chip under the microscope haha.

So, until then, I will move onto the Swiss life.


Since I have been here I have spent a couple of weekends in Lausanne, going to ouchy to read by the lake and seeing festivals. Three weekends ago was the fete de la musique in lausanne. I spent the day listening to various types of music throughout the 36 different stages in the city. There was constantly music being played at every point in the city of every genre. Afterward, I went out and experienced the true nightlife of Lausanne and went out to a bar/dance club until closing time at 5:00 am. This is atypical of what I am used to, coming from Utah, since all bars and clubs are closed at 2:00 am at latest, some are earlier. There is also a much larger variety of music played in the clubs here compared to the clubs in Utah. I think I could get used to the night life in Switzerland :).

Last week I also took a trip to Heidelberg, Germany, which was absolutely amazing! I loved the city there and the geography, despite the absence of the Alps. This was my first time to Germany and it left a very good impression. I also took the time to go look at the old house where Mark Twain used to live, not far from the local castle. The city has probably five towering churches which were worth seeing and a beautiful library. The buildings were amazing, many of them being decorated with gold flakes. The castle was amazing, and home to the largest wine barrel in Germany (possibly Europe..?), complete with a dance floor on top of it. It was a beautiful city, which I highly recommend. It was really amazing being in a city which has been around longer than my country has existed haha.

This week marked the beginning of the Montreux Jazz Festival. Being a fan of Jazz music, I have found myself grinning for hours on end while listening to the musicians playing on the various stages. I will not be going to any of the concerts which are not free seeing as how the price of each ticket is over $200 in most cases. Aside from the music, there are booths of souvenirs and food for nearly a mile down a walkway, on the way toward Chateu de Chillon (which is worth seeing!!) if you go by foot from Montreux. There are people on the side playing music or painting, and are quite entertaining to observe. I watched some guys make complete paintings using spray paint and paper, no brushes... and they turn out incredibly good! The festival goes until the 19th of July, and I recommend going for at least one night! After the bands are done for the evening (around 12:30-1:00) DJ's take the stage at local clubs (like the MDH club and Montreux Jazz Cafe) and play music until 5:00 am. The first night out I stayed until they closed, last night I came back to Lausanne early (at 3:00) so i would be refreshed enough to go on a hike today in Noiraigue, which has some terrain that is supposed to resemble the grand canyon. Unfortunately, It was raining incredibly hard this morning so I decided not to go this weekend. Even now as I am typing this I can hear drums from the music festival which is simultaneously going on in Lausanne. Switzerland is quite the eventful place in the summer!!

Italy, Rigi, Lucerne

Two weekends ago I went to Italy with my mother, who visited me in Europe for a week. We took a sleeper train from Zurich to Rome, and we could tell as soon we got there that Italy is nothing like Switzerland. The train stations are completely different. The attendants act as if they really don't want to have anything to do with you, and the trains themselves were never on time. We nearly missed our train back to Zurich because our train from Naples to Rome was nearly 2 hours late! It was a great relief for me to come back to fully functional, clean, and convenient Switzerland, but my first trip ever to Italy overall was definitely interesting and worth it.

Back in Switzerland, the next weekend we climbed Mt. Rigi outside Lucerne. The morning low-lying clouds were very thick at the summit for a few hours, but by the afternoon it completely cleared and we had the fantastic views we had hoped for. After that we descended to the small towns at the base of Rigi on the lake. That was the probably the most beautiful lakeshore I had ever seen, with the pretty buildings and gardens, the mountains, the old-fashioned ferries, flowers everywhere, and clear blue waters. From there we took a boat to Lucerne, which was also very beautiful. We walked around the town near the river and to the glacier park before returning to Zurich. The next day I took Mom to Lausanne and Geneva so she could see the French-speaking side of Switzerland, which was also fun.

As for work, things have really ramped up for me. I have 4 different projects now that I am trying to undertake all at once. Hopefully I will make significant progress on them before I leave... in less than 3 weeks! To be honest I really wish I could stay much longer, even if I had even more work piled up on me. They really take good care of me at ETH and the city of Zurich is such a fantastic place to live in compared to Houston. I don't know how much I'd like the cold winter, but I do enjoy skiing so there would be at least that highlight.

And as a sidenote on economics and research in Switzerland in general, since that is a topic I see is currently in discussion, I would like to add this. Before I came to Switzerland I was under the impression that Europe was no longer an international epicenter of research and technological industry, and that the US and Asia had taken most of the reigns. I had in my mind a research lab where work would progress gradually and slowly, where everyone would be taking frequent vacations and sipping espressos and lattes on the side whenever possible. And although the Swiss definitely do drink a lot of coffee, my original idea in mind was proven completely wrong. I think they mostly take a coffee break to keep well caffeine levels high for a good life set to the motto of "work hard, play hard". Even for how cheap their higher-education is due to high-favor in the eyes of the federal government, they do not take any of this for granted. They also keep the labs very well-maintained, being very careful to maximize the lifetimes of their subsidized equipments. Their clean-rooms and even their general-use labs make the labs at Rice look like pig pens. This disciplined work-ethic makes it easier to make sure work proceeds on schedule, as they don't have to worry as much about health/environmental hazards or whether or not a machine will be in good enough order to carry out accurate experiments. It's why the Swiss are still well reputed for precision and reliability in engineering and their products are in ever higher demand, since not in most other places are the nearly as concentrated on these slight details that could eventually lead to a less dependable product. But they would not personally admit that, they don't have the time to boast.

The students will work hard all week and when they have a weekend or vacation to themselves, they're either spending time doing something active with their family or friends or travelling around to Italy, Germany, or somewhere else interesting. No sitting at home just watching TV or vegging out completely. Sometimes they're even on military service, which I at first I thought was pretty silly for a forever-sworn neutral country to make mandatory, but that may attribute to their general attitude of hard-work and modesty.

It's almost as if a Rice Honor Code (those of you who are Owls will know what I mean) applies for the entire Swiss population that keeps everyone doing their duty from picking trash up off the street if they see it to paying for public municipal transport even if they know that ticket-officers almost never check them. They are also very friendly towards non-Swiss, despite what other countries have lambasted them as anti-foreigner since they reported the infamous SVP "black-sheep" ads that you sometimes see. They all treat you with ultimate respect and even take the time to learn 1, 2 or even 3 languages other than their own mother-tongue just to be able to communicate with non-locals.

When it comes to finances, they do not spend lavishly on personal luxuries like fancy cars just to show off. They prefer to do whatever is efficient and whatever is least taxing on others. That means being responsible, by taking a bus to work and paying prices that are more near to what we in the US should also be paying for gasoline. I think being in the Alps with it's rapidly shrinking glaciers and relatively difficult cargo-access has given the Swiss a better idea of what wasteful consumption can lead to in effect than what we misbehaving Americans know.

So again, it was a fantastic eye-opening experience for me to come here, and I am very grateful for it. I can't thank enough the Embassy of Switzerland, NSF, ETH, my professors, and my student colleagues and even though I'm not done yet I'd like to remind them if they are reading this now that this is really one of the best pleasures of my life and it would not have been possible otherwise.

PS. Anyone recommend visiting Stuttgart/Munich or Prague? I am looking into them as possible weekend trips before I go.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Research, Doctorat à la Suisse

This is an extension of Corinne's blog about education and the differences of my research experience at Rice versus here at the EPFL. For me, this summer is also a time to start looking at graduate schools. Besides just looking online, I've been asking advice from the post-docs and graduate students that I work with. Talking to them has given me a basis for understanding differences between the Swiss and American systems in day-to-day observations. This probably applies more to the sciences, especially bioengineering (my focus) than other academics.

Most students pursuing a doctorat are required to have a masters degree. Like Corinne said, most Swiss 'undergraduates' study for five years and receive a masters. It seems that the masters degree here is much more class intensive, rather than research intensive, which allows doctorat students to do full-time research. In contrast, many American (bioengineering) students can enter a PhD program after receiving a bachelor's degree and would spend the first year taking courses to specialize in a particular area. Thus, without the time-consuming classes, doctorat students in Switzerland finish almost always in four years, whereas Americans take closer to five years. (Or unlike Britain, where it's a strict three years, after which funding for the student is cut.)

After the researching for years, the student gives a dissertation. In the States, anyone, usually friends and lab lab members, can attend the dissertation, but may be required to leave for the oral examination by the student's advising committee. Here in Switzerland, there is first a private defense--just the student and his/her committee. Then, the public defense, open to all of Switzerland, occurs; this is based on the logic that the public has a right to be informed about the research because they, as taxpayers, have paid for the education. The public defense is more of a celebration, where the degree is awarded, and when the rest of the lab can roast the new dotorate (so I've been told). A Swedish post-doc here in the lab told me his defense was followed by a celebration similar to that of a small wedding: they rented a room, served drinks, maybe a small meal, etc.

Financing the education--one of the biggest differences between the Swiss and American systems. As Corinne mentioned, student debt in American is very common, unfortunately so. Here, however, tuition is minor cost; in fact, according to the EPFL website, doctorat students don't pay the university. American students are charged tuition, but this is usually covered, as is the cost of (a modest) living, by fellowships and grants. I haven't gotten any numbers what a typical Swiss graduate student's cost of living is, but I'm sure it's higher than an American student's.

The lab's funding, in terms of equipment and such, seems much more generous than in America. My lab at Rice is quite large and considered well-funded; there's 13 graduate students , 3 post-docs, a lab manager, and a lab technician. In contrast, Dr. Swartz's lab has 6 post-docs, 8 graduate students, a secretary, a lab manager, and 2 lab technicians. I've been extremely impressed with the amount of equipment and personnel available to the lab. It seems that there's a greater emphasis on research here in Switzerland than in the States.

Swiss university's also boasts a large number of international students. My lab has 11 different nationalities represented. I hear at least 5 different languages a day! The lab director is American, so English is the principal language. This makes it easier for me to understand, which is critical for successful experiments, but I haven't had a lot of opportunities to speak French, to be fully immersed.

As far as my cultural experience, let the festivals begin! I'm getting ready for Lausanne's Festivale de la Cité that starts this weekend. Most museums here are free the first Saturday of every month, so I'll go to a couple this weekend. After that, I hope to spend my remaining weekends traveling and seeing the rest of Switzerland!