Friday, August 29, 2008

Facebook Group for ThinkSwiss

Due to my own feelings, and those of some other expressed in their final reports, it would have been nice to have a better network for the ThinkSwiss participants to organize meetings, help new arrivals to Switzerland, share our experiences, and also for potential future applicants to network in order to find labs/PIs/places to live/etc.

So - since many of you that I talked to in Bern have Facebook pages, I thought it would be a good idea to create a Facebook group for ThinkSwiss and other similar program participants. The name of the group is ThinkSwiss, and hopefully some of you can join to provide your experience and maybe help some of the people who will be going to Switzerland this fall or next year as part of next summer's group!

(hopefully the Swiss embassy won't be upset by using the ThinkSwiss icon for the group, either!)

Auf Wiedersehen (literally) from Bern!

Unfortunately, my final day in the lab was last Friday, and I had to leave during the weekend in order to make it home to start another clinical rotation Monday morning. I was not yet ready to leave! and my colleagues threw me a small going-away party on Friday evening, complete with sparkling wine from the Valais, cheese from Gruyeres, Swiss beer, and of course, chocolate, which made it even harder to say good-bye! At least the good-byes were tempered with the knowledge that I will be visiting again relatively soon, so it wasn't permanent.

I, too, will answer the questions from Muriel's email:

· Overall impression – Did your stay meet your expectations?

My stay more than met my expectations - I was able to learn many new techniques of immunohistochemistry, immunofluorescence, western blotting, ELISA, etc. - all of which are used extensively in the US as well, but this was my first experience with medical or biological research, since all my previous experience had been in engineering. I found my lab to be very well-equipped, comparable to what I have experienced here in the US. Outside of work, I absolutely loved living in Bern. Of course, I have a unique situation in that my significant other lives and works there, so I had somewhat of a built-in social support system. Although I have lived in large cities for my entire life, I really enjoyed the size of Bern, and that everything was easily accessible by bus, bike, or on foot. And how can one not appreciate the beauty of such a picturesque city? I already miss all of the streetside and riverside cafes, and how everyone appreciates sitting outside as much as possible during the summer months, as that is virtually impossible here in hot, humid Houston. I am also fortunate in that I speak the language, and even though I had difficulty understanding the Swiss dialect, when people switched to speaking high German with me, I was easily able to communicate. I can understand, however, that the language barrier could be a bit frustrating for English-only-speakers, as there were more people than I originally expected that did not speak English.

· Three positive points?

1. Quality of work environment - as I said above, my lab was extremely well-equipped, had very knowledgeable staff, and was working on several very interesting and cutting-edge projects.

2. Accessibility of travel - the Swiss transportation system is the best that I have ever experienced. It was always amazing to me to see the trains leave on the SECOND of the minute for which they were scheduled. And with the half-fare card, it was relatively affordable to travel throughout most of Switzerland. Due to its central location, it was also easy to travel to neighboring countries.

3. Swiss culture - I loved experiencing the variety of cultures that exist within Switzerland. Before traveling to there, I never would have known the diversity that exists within such a small country, with a relatively small population. Not only do differences exist within the various language-dominant regions, but from town to town. The appreciation for quality of life, of the working to live, not living to work mentality was really a fresh outlook, especially for an American with a guilt complex for taking time off. My PIs encouraged me, almost forced me :), to take time off and enjoy life and the country while I was there. When I came in on a weekend to make up some time that I took off, they all thought I was crazy! But it is good to realize that work and a personal life can be balanced, without sacrificing success in either. This is especially true for me as a 4th year medical student, who is looking residency, with its modern slavery-like hours, in the face.

· Three negative points / challenges?

1. Money - as everyone has said before, Switzerland is a very expensive place to live, and $700 US/month (especially with current exchange rates), makes living in Switzerland almost impossible without an extra funding source. Not to mention an additional $1000 for the flight. I'll leave the funds summary for below.

2. Bureaucracy - although things seemed to go smoothly with most people, because I worked in a hospital environment, security was a little more tight and so obtaining all of the proper badges and IDs as a "guest researcher" without a visa, even with all the proper documentation from the Swiss embassy, was rather difficult. It took multiple attempts, and my PI speaking with various bureaus, to finally establish my position and that, as originally said, I did not need to register with the foreign police. For anyone going to a hospital in the future, some of this should be arranged ahead of their arrival.

3. Meetups - I agree with what Erin said in her final post, that it was wonderful to meet everyone in Bern, and I would have liked to be able to meet people more than once, to share experiences, thoughts, etc. Perhaps future groups can organize more, or also smaller ones for people located closed to one another (ie. Bern and Thun!). I have an idea about that, but I'll post separately so that it doesn't get lost in this really long post!

· How well were you coached and integrated in the research team?

I was extremely well-coached, with my PIs taking time to explain things to me, show me techniques (especially when involving microsurgery), and were always accessible for answering questions or discussing ideas. I worked very closely with one of the lab techs, who I had a wonderful time working with, and she was an invaluable resource for me, showing me where everything was located and taking time to train me on a wide range of techniques. Our lab group also always ate lunch together and took a post-lunch coffee break, so I got to know everyone very well, in a more personal as well as professional role.

· Comparison (advantages and disadvantages) between your Swiss and your U.S. research lab, research mentality and team.

· Do you consider going back to Switzerland for studying, a Ph. D. program, work or on vacation?

I already have a trip planned back to Switzerland! Again, I have different circumstances than most, but I am happy to have the opportunity to return to Bern at least 2-3 more times during this school year. Although 2 of those times (over the Christmas break, and likely again in Spring) will be for vacation, I hope to return to Inselspital for a month in February to do a clinical rotation. I would love the opportunity to do some of my post-graduate medical training in Switzerland; however, in order to practice medicine in the US, I must complete my entire residency here. So after this year, I will likely have to say good-bye to Switzerland for a few years while I complete my residency, but I hope to return after that and visit some of the good friends I've made during my time spent in Bern!

Part 2:

· Visa: Did you or your institution apply for a visa for you? If yes, what kind of visa and was it difficult to obtain?

As I was staying for just less than 3 months, I did not require a visa.

· Accommodation: Was it difficult to find a place to live? And did you get support by your Swiss institution?

Again, I have slightly different circumstances in that I lived with my significant other, who has his own apartment, during my stay, so I was lucky not to have to pay for housing. However, I know that Inselspital has dormitory-style accomodations for visiting students and residents, which are located directly next to the hospital, so I would have been able to stay there had I not already had another housing option.

· Budget: How much money did you spend monthly on average during your research stay? Did you get extra support from your Swiss or U.S. institution? Or did you have to come up for the part exceeding the ThinkSwiss Research Scholarship yourself?

As I stated earlier, Switzerland is a very expensive country to live in, especially given the dollar to frank exchange throughout the summer. The dollar has devalued about 20-25% throughout the past year, because when I was in Bern last September, it was about 1.25 Franks per dollar, which meant our money went a lot further previously. Although you could theoretically live on $700/month, it would be very, very difficult and even start to interfere with social interaction. For the dorm-type room I talked about above, it costs about 500 CHF/month, which I think is pretty standard for most cheap housing, even if you also find a room in a shared apartment. For me, lunch at the hospital cafeteria was part of the daily routine of the lab, and I spent about 50 CHF/week just for lunch. Groceries are priced somewhere in between a regular grocery store (ie. Kroger or Safeway) and Whole Foods, so for breakfast and dinner, which I almost exclusively ate at home, probably cost another 50 CHF/week. And although the HalfFare card made traveling through Switzerland much more affordable, it cost 150 CHF for a year, and then you have to pay for the train ticket on top of that. Public transportation within Bern was also relatively expensive, with a 1-way bus ticket (with the HalfFare) to the hospital being almost 3 CHF. Luckily, I was loaned an extra bike by an ENT attending, so I rode to work most days, but even if I bought a month bus pass, it would have cost about 70 CHF/month.

So, for just the extreme basics of living (without budgeting for social coffees, beers, travel, extraneous expenses), it would have cost me about 1000 CHF/month if I hadn't had the extraordinarily lucky situation of free housing and a free bike loan. Thankfully I had the situation I did, or I would have had to supplement my stipend from ThinkSwiss with loan money, as I received no financial support from my university or from Inselspital. As it was, the $700/month was just enough to provide food (400 CHF/month), transportation costs (150 CHF HalfFare + bus when raining), and a small budget for day-trips outside of Bern and a few social outings with colleagues. I also had to pay the $1100 for my plane ticket on my own. Again, I think the exchange rate really hurt people taking part in the ThinkSwiss program this summer, as 1000 CHF was about equal to $1000, whereas last year, 1000 CHF = approximately $800, which is closer to the stipend provided by the Swiss embassy. Perhaps that can be taken into consideration for future participants.

In summary, I had an absolutely wonderful summer: I learned a lot, I saw a lot, and I experienced a lot. I would definitely do this program again, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how research is conducted in another country. It is an extraordinary opportunity to further your own research experience, as well as get to know a new culture and travel through a very beautiful, very culturally-rich country.


So my time in the neurosurgery/ENT lab came to a close last Friday, but given the relatively short time period that I was here (3 months for research, especially when working with biological systems, is so short!), we managed to achieve some good results. During the last 3-4 weeks of my stay, we fixed the cultures of inner ear cells after 13 days of incubation and began to do immunohistochemistical and immunofluorescent staining to determine 1. if the harvested and isolated cells had proliferated and 2. to see if they differentiated into either neuronal cells or hair cells, depending on their origin. We had originally harvested cells from the Organ of Corti, utricle, and spiral ganglion, and then incubated each with a marker for new cell production. This marker is Bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU), which is incorporated into DNA during S phase of the cell cycle, and can thus be used to determine which cells have been newly produced from the beginning of culture. An initial test run with 3-3'-diaminobenzidine (DAB)-developed staining protocols showed many newly produced cells, indicating our culture medium and conditions worked! Many of the cells showed morphology of neurons and hair cells, but this needed to be confirmed with a double-stain for both BrdU and markers specific for neurons and hair cells. We did these using immunofluorescence for BrdU and neuron-specific enolase (NSE) and Myosin-VIIa, for neurons and hair cells, respectively. Amazingly, the stains worked beautifully and showed many cells that stained for both BrdU and the respective cell markers! Given that this was a first-run trial with these cultures, I was actually amazed that it worked. Thankfully, some of the prepwork in testing different antibodies for specificity (we had 3 anti-Myosin-VIIa antibodies from different manufacturers) and experience from the many neurosurgery experiments helped to make this experiment more successful. My PI had also done some of the same types of experiments with mice and guinea pigs, instead of with rats, during this 2-year tenure at Stanford. So although the initial experiments and set-up were successful, more work still needs to be done, and will be continued after my departure. The ultimate goal is to apply these techniques to human tissue, which is harvested post-mortem. And we showed that it is possible to expand and differentiate post-mortem rat tissue, which is a good step in the right direction! And we will be presenting a poster at the University of Bern/Inselspital Day of Clinical Research, so I also was able to get a small publication out the experience, with hopefully more to follow as the work progresses.

Enough with the hardcore science that is specific mostly to my interests! I had a wonderful time working in my lab - it was a wonderful environment, very well-equipped, with staff whom I hope to keep in touch with. As the summer progressed, it became even more international, as at the beginning, it was predominantly me and the Swiss PIs, lab technicians, and neurosurgery and ENT residents (also a German or two thrown in the mix). But the language was almost exclusively German, whereas mid-summer, one of the lab directors, who was out on maternity leave, returned, and as she is French, the language shifted to a mixture of German, English, and French. And while everyone understood every language (except me - no French!), they would almost always speak their own language or English. So Angelique would ask Jasmin a question in French, which she would then respond to in German, and yet everyone could communicate perfectly in that way! Then at the beginning of August, another nationality was thrown into the mix as a visiting PhD student from Denmark joined us, who spoke only English but could understand some German due to the overlap in their languages. The fluidity of language use in Switzerland still continued to amaze me throughout my entire stay.

Being back in the US for a few days now, I miss already hearing the different languages (although I do get a good mixture of Spanish and English in the county hospital here in Houston!), and I miss the more laid-back approach to life. Quality of life is definitely appreciated more in Switzerland, I believe, and I am really missing a good Mittagspause with time to sit down and enjoy lunch . . . it's now back to having 10 minutes or so to wolf down a bite to eat when I have a chance!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hello All,

This is my last post in the thinkswiss blog.Had not been able to post for some time because it got really really busy in the last weeks in basel.
A few lines about the time after my earlier post.
The weeks went past very quickly, coz it was all very enjoyable.I went to Bern with all the think swiss guys, had a wonderful lunch, and went to the place of Einstein where he wrote his famous 5 papers. It was a rare opportunity and I certainly did enjoyed it, partly coz the trip was very well organized by the thinkswiss people(and ofcourse bern being extravagant in its beauty) and partly because I have been a fan of einstein for quite some time ;)...After the bern trip I came back to basel. Since the last days were approaching very swiftly, I decided to go somewhere which would be very basel centric. Therefore, along with my colleague I went to the museum of contemporary art in basel. The art presented was exceptional and it was kind of fun. Further, I had the opportunity to be in basel on the swiss national day. Apart from all the hustle bustle of the day, the night shone with the extravagant fireworks in the clear sky and they were awesome.

Thereafter, few days of work and then I headed back to chicago. The journey, fortunately went smoothly and I came back home...home sweet home..:)

I am now going to post the answers for the questions that Muriel sent me.

* Overall impression - Did your stay meet your expectations?

This is a kind of open ended question so I am going to divide it in two parts.

My first part of the answer would relate to the work. My overall work related impression was pretty good. All of the people that I worked with were serious dedicated professionals. The research experience that I got working with the guys at biosystems department, eth was exceptional. Ofcourse, I got what I expected.i.e. serious researchers doing serious science...and I Loved it.

Second part of my answer would be non-work related. MY overall impression of non worked related stuff was good as well. I wont indulge in details here, but I found Switzerland to be very rich in culture and nature and yes I found what I expected.

* Three positive points?

1) Swiss life, culture and its natural beauty. The environment it self had certain kind of soothing experience. May be it was the mountains and the running water, but it was all very good.

2) The people I worked with, were very dedicated professionals. The lab setups, the infrastructure and the system all seemed to be very appealing. I didn't even had any troubles with the IT department :D

3) The third nice point that I would like to point out is the size of the cities and their organization.I live in chicago and it is kind of huge place. Basel on the other hand was quite small town which was kind of easy to manage even though I had not lived there for long.

* Three negative points / challenges?
1) One of the challenge that I had to face many times, was that of the language. It was hard to communicate in english and even shop! :(....

2) Initially I had some trouble looking for a place to stay.May be it was due to the soccer games or not, I am not sure. But a colleague of mine joined the lab after the soccer games, but he was having trouble too.I don't know.

3) I didn't had this particular problem as such, but with the same style I live in the chicago, it is almost impossible to live on 700$ in swiss.(not to mention that half is paid after you come back home)

* How well were you coached and integrated in the research team?

I found my colleagues to be very professional, very dedicated and very knowledgeable in their fields. I had the chance to work with physical statistician and mathematicians and was integrated very nicely in the team. We had kind of weekly meetings and sometimes at other times as well and every one seemed to go along very nicely.

* Comparison (advantages and disadvantages) between your Swiss
and your U.S. research lab, research mentality and team.

I found the research team in swiss to be some how the team I work here with, in US. My team is very helpful always, with anything work related(not to mention non work) and fortunately I found the same in the swiss.

* Do you consider going back to Switzerland for studying, a Ph.
D. program, work or on vacation?

I am currently in a PhD program, but I may consider joining any post-doc position if I have to. however, I would be very happy to come back in the summers and do some more hard core summer research in Switzerland.

Last but not least, I would like to thank ThinkSwiss organizers, Swissnex, Presence Switzerland, and the Swiss Embassy in Washington. I had a wonderful and enjoyable expreience.....

Good bye :)

Fahad Saeed

More travels!

The past few weeks have been unbelievably busy, both in the lab and during my freetime, so I have been a bit lax in posting on the blog. No worries! This will be the first of several posts summing up my last few weeks in Switzerland. First, the fun parts with accompanying photos. I've tried to take advantage of my time here, both in traveling through Switzerland as well as its neighboring countries. This is a quick summary of a couple of trips, one long weekend in Rome and then a week of Switzerland and southern Germany.

As several of you who I met and spoke with during the Day in Bern know, I had to leave early due to a previously planned trip to Rome. And after seeing the photos and reading the blog, I'm really sorry I had to miss out on the neat tour of the Zytglogge and Einstein Haus. Although I pass by both daily, it would have been neat to get a more personal tour of both. I also was sad to have left, as meeting everyone was a lot of fun, and it was really interesting to hear everyone's stories, both from Switzerland and the US.

Anyways, Rome was unbelievable! We tried to pack as much sight-seeing in as humanly possible, walking from just after enjoying a breakfast in the garden cafe in front of our hotel to well after dark. We received a luck tip from a colleague who is from Rome about our hotel, which was located directly across from the Roman Forum and around the corner from the Colosseum. It was perfectly situated for easy access to all the sights Rome has to offer. I definitely need to come back, as we were only able to see the highlights, and there are still so many historic churches, museums (including the Vatican Museums, since the line to get in was probably 2 hours long), and ruins that we didn't get to. We did, however, make it to most of the Roman ruins within the city,
as well as the Vatican,
Spanish steps (too many tourists!), Fountain of Trevi, Palatine, and many things in between. When I eventually make it back, I hope to return in the Spring or Fall, when it's not such high tourist season and a little bit cooler. It got pretty hot during the afternoon, but there were so many streetside cafes, hidden restaurants, and gelato stands that we were able to take breaks with wonderful food and drinks.

My parents came to visit me for a week in the beginning of August, so I took a few days off to travel with them through parts of Switzerland. For only a few days, we made it to quite a few places! They really enjoyed their visit, and absolutely loved Bern and the easy access of our apartment to the Altstadt and train station for all of our excursions. I took advantage of their visit to see a few things I had not yet made it to - inluding Murten, a picturesque city still enclosed by the city walls:
Avenches, which has Roman ruins sitting in the middle of farmed fields (including tinkling cow bells as a backdrop), Thun, a return trip for me to Gruyeres, and finally to Zermatt to get a view of the famous Matterhorn, which decided never to show its peak from under a self-made cloud during our entire 6-hour hike. We did, however, have a fabulous hike surrounded by mountains, and took the opportunity to have lunch with a perfect view of the Matterhorn across a small lake (really a pond!):
In true Swiss fashion, people were even swimming in this high altitude, and I'm sure very cold, lake! Zermatt itself was extremely touristy, and if anyone makes the trip, I suggest going in spring or fall and not during high season, but once we hiked away from the Gornergrat train station (which we took all the way to the top - the highest train in Europe!), we had almost the whole trail to ourselves.

As my significant other, who lives and works in Bern, is from Germany and lived in Munich during medical school, we also took the opportunity to go travel to southern Germany for a few days with him as our personal tour guide. My parents were thrilled to have someone lead them around, especially navigating the extensive underground system in Munich! We of course stopped on the drive into Munich at crazy King Ludwig's castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, which were absolutely stunning. I needed at least a day of wandering through Neuschwanstein to appreciate all the nuances of the castle - the ornate trappings are jaw-droppingly beautiful. And a quick, 45-minute-long tour is definitely not enough!
Munich itself was also stunning - although it seemed huge at first after spending so long in Bern! Which, in itself, it quite funny for me since I live in Houston - a city with almost the same population as the entire country of Switzerland. But again, Munich, like Bern, is very vibrant - there are always people walking the streets, the buses/trains/underground are always full, and people really seem to take advantage of all of the street cafes, enormous parks within the city, and of course, the biergartens. I definitely took advantage of the beer, with my amazingly fresh Paulaner Hefeweizen enjoyed at the Paulaner Brauhaus. Liter-sized beer: bigger than my head!
It was wonderful to have Markus show us around his city, and we were also able to meet up with and enjoy some more beer with some of his friends, who are true Bavarians (he's actually from Cologne). They drink beer way earlier in the day than I think I could! And it was also a startling realization for me to be surrounded by German german-speakers, as I could actually understand what everyone was saying! I definitely made progress in deciphering Swiss german during my stay, but it still requires quite an effort, and I still have troubles understanding conversations that I overhear. Good to know that I do better with high german or the not-so-strong German dialects!

Anyways, all of my travels throughout the summer have been amazing, and I wish I had more time to see everything! Especially after seeing all the photos posted on this blog and what I hear from my colleagues, who always have suggestions of new places to go.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Final Post!

Hi again from Thun,

It's my final post here, so I'll answer the questions that Muriel sent (answers attached below). I really enjoyed my time here in Thun, and am very eager to return someday! A huge thanks to the ThinkSwiss organizers, Swissnex, Presence Switzerland, and the Swiss Embassy in Washington. I have had a wonderful experience.

Merci vilmal and tschüss!

Part I
1. My overall impression is a good one! I very much enjoyed my time in Switzerland, as I accomplished quite a bit and found motivation for further research in the field I studied here.

2. The three positive points about my summer could be: (a) The Swiss lifestyle and experience! The culture in Switzerland is actually not so starkly different from what I've experienced elsewhere (and even in the United States), but there's definitely a different feeling of relaxation here; even when I'm at work with deadlines approaching, I look through my window at the mountains, and sense that there's something more than work. I think this attitude prevails even in Swiss people, since I never saw any angry Swiss the entire time I was here (:

(b) The scientific environment in my lab. The infrastructure in the lab--for example, the microwave system I've worked to model over the last three months--is simply some of the best in the world. And any kind of equipment, literature, or computer setup I asked for, I was given; it's so nice to work at a research institute that is truly focused on giving its employees the proper tools to satisfy their scientific curiosities.

(c) Naturally, such wonderful infrastructure and an open attitude in the laboratory attract the best scientists from around the world. I have never met people more happy with their work than those at the EMPA. Everyone I met was eager to describe his or her (there are many more females here than in my lab in the U.S.) research, and to offer enlightening suggestions for my own research when I described my own project. The employees here have varied backgrounds as well, which is something essential for any successful research organization; for example, my team employs materials scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and chemists. Such varied backgrounds contribute to diversity and depth of research in the lab.

3. The negative points or challenges in living in Switzerland were all very, very minor--except for the first, most glaringly obvious point: (a) money. Things are expensive here, whether it's housing, food, clothing, or even the amazing transportation system (even with the half-fare card, it's pricey to hop on a different train every weekend). Simply-put, ThinkSwiss students should consider seriously whether they'll have the means to live in Switzerland for three months--if this means saving for a year before the trip, or if it means finding a lab that's willing to give a salary in addition to the grant, that's a good start--but it's something that students just simply need to be aware of. I strongly recommend keeping a written record of just how much you spend in the U.S., and on what; this is the easiest way to see exactly what you need to cut back on if you're feeling financially strained here in Switzerland. All of that said, it *is* possible to live here on 700 USD a month, (for me, rent was 500CHF per month), but only if you watch your budget very, very carefully.

(b) The language barrier was, at times, a minor inconvenience. But when I use the phrases "at times," and "minor inconvenience," I mean exactly that--it was never a problem to find someone to communicate with in English or in French, even in the smaller town of Thun. Of course, I could have avoided this minor thing by taking German courses or doing independent language study before I came... so this isn't a very major concern.

(c) Since I really had no problems adjusting to anything else here in Switzerland, I'll let the third concern be one of ThinkSwiss organization: I wish we'd scheduled more meetups among ThinkSwiss students. It was nice to meet everyone in Bern, but it seems like everyone's living and studying in such interesting places, and it would have been lots of fun to have seen these places! Perhaps in future years, an e-mail newsgroup could be created for ThinkSwiss students so that we can organize meetups ourselves?

4. I felt very well-coached here in the lab; my adviser fully integrated me with the team of researchers here, and I've always felt that my work is appreciated and will be used here even after I leave Switzerland.

5. The research environment here, as I've mentioned, has been one of the most positive aspects of my stay in Switzerland. Everyone in the lab has been absolutely helpful! I have worked in places in the U.S. where individual researchers focus on nothing but their own projects, are isolated in little cubicles, and rarely communicate with one another. This seems very counterproductive to me, and I'm very glad that the exact opposite happens here at the EMPA.

6. I would not consider coming back to Switzerland on holiday, at least not within the next few years, simply because it's so expensive here (I'll wait until my student loans are paid!). I would absolutely consider coming back here for an M.Sc., Ph.D., or work--especially since I had such a wonderful experience here at the EMPA. The quality of scientific research in Switzerland in general is absolutely world-class, and I know that there will always be space for a mathematician in most research teams here; so I would be very happy to return!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Hello to everyone! My name is Katherine, and I just arrived yesterday in Zurich. After sleeping about 13 hours to get over the jet lag, I'm ready to go! I will be studying at the ETH at the Energy Science Center, on a few projects about which I will post more later, after I meet with the professors and get the detailed information. I'm very excited to begin working on these projects though! I've been to Zurich twice before- once in 2004 and once in 2005 for about 2 days each- but I think it will be very different to live here and not just be a tourist. But nevertheless, the magic and beauty of Zurich and Switzerland is still here and I can't wait to enjoy everything and go exploring!
Just so you know a little more about me, I study Global Environmental Politics at American University in Washington, DC (going for my Masters). I'm originally from NJ, and did my undergrad in chemistry and german at Boston College. Although I can get by in German, I was totally taken aback when someone spoke "Gruetzi" (hello/good day) to me...I hope I'll adapt to the Swiss accent quickly!
Alright, I'm off to do some exploring downtown and to adjust to life here. It's so exciting!
schoene Gruesse!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Arrival in Zurich

My name is Charlotte Whitehead, and I am coming from the Civil Engineering (CE) program at the University of Texas at Austin. I will graduate in May 2009, and hopefully go on to attend graduate school in Transportation Engineering, a specialization within CE.
On Wednesday, August 20, I arrived in Zürich after a week in Copenhagen and Oslo. I checked into my new room here and headed toward ETH Hönggerberg, where I will spend the next 4 months working at the Institut f
ür Vehkersplannung und Transportsystemme (IVT). My first project will be to model and predict vehicle purchases of those living in Switzerland, but so far I have only looked briefly at the data. From my understanding, my results will be a part of a larger model that aims to determine just about every single travel decision made on a daily basis here in Switzerland, which includes a lot more than just cars.

So far I have had a great time meeting the other students in my group. I had hoped to travel a bit on the continent during my time here, but I think I will have plenty to keep me busy between my housemates, co-workers, and the Alps. The pictures below are from a group hike in the Alps on Sunday. I am looking forward to a great semester!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Completion of Internship

Well, my research and traveling have come to an end now. Since my last post I have gone to many new places including Paris, Stuttgart, Amsterdam, Rome and various hikes in the Alps. I am now back in Utah getting ready for work and school to start up again next monday. It was nice meeting everyone and I enjoyed all of your company when we had a chance to hang out. I am not on my laptop, so i cannot post any photos of my final travels, but I will try to later on.

Here is my response to the questions the Thinkswiss program asks at the end of the internship.

Overall, my stay in Switzerland did meet my expectations in most aspects. When I applied to work there I applied to work in the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology (LSCB.) I planned on working with Stem Cells, but instead spent my two months working on a technique that will be used with stem cells once it is working efficiently. Although this was not what I planned to be working with, it was not a disappointment, and I enjoyed the challenges that came with this particular material science project. The laboratory environment was great, and the people were wonderful to work with. I think this was an absolutely beneficial research experience.
My time in Switzerland, and the rest of Europe, definitely exceeded my expectations. I couldn’t believe the diversity of landscapes that was accessible just a short train ride in any direction. The country has so much to offer in terms of culture, geography, and entertainment. I absolutely loved living in Switzerland for two months.
There were so many positive aspects of my stay. (1) The opportunity to work with individuals from all over the world was incredible. Meeting people with so many backgrounds and so many different ways of looking at life, politics and science was a new experience for me. In Utah, many people in the labs share quite similar perspectives on the events affecting us, but the lab at EPFL was a well mixed variety. Also, I loved being outdoors in Switzerland, no matter where it happened to be. (2) Taking a hike in the Alps or the Jura mountains, sitting by Lake Geneva, or wandering through the various cities, many (or all) of which were older than the USA, was such a great and accessible experience. It was such a cool feeling walking into buildings that have been around longer than any structure in my country. (3) The experience of the various cultures in the area was something I am really not used to. In the USA we have some cultural variation, but it also tends to be spread across much more land. In Europe it seems like culture can change drastically from one town to the next. It was great to see and experience this for several months. It was also great to see how every day life is in a different part of the world, which gave me a greater appreciation for some things in the US and also made me dislike some aspects of life back home even more haha.
Aside from all the great aspects of my stay, there were also some difficulties I experienced. (1) Everyone told me that Switzerland would be expensive, but I didn’t realize how expensive it would be. Prices for most things were 2-3 times more expensive and my three months worth of living expenses that I saved in the USA before flying out was simply insufficient for two months in Switzerland. At times, this made it difficult to enjoy myself and experience the culture just because I knew that my budget would now allow me to do so. (2) It was also difficult living in an area where I didn’t speak the local language. It seemed like a lot less people spoke English in Lausanne than I had expected. In many of the other cities (especially in the German speaking part) it seemed that most people spoke English, but in the French areas it was less common. This language barrier made the simplest tasks, such as buying groceries, quite frustrating and difficult, but after two months it was quite easy to get around and use a few French phrases to ask for help. Finally, (3) getting used to the “Swiss way of life” was difficult. The businesses in town were still closed in the mornings when I went to work, and by the time I came back to town they were already closed. In two months of me staying I only saw the business life of Lausanne maybe four times, which was disappointing. Also, Europeans take many more coffee breaks than I am used to in the USA, and found myself feeling guilty several times when my boss would walk by and I was having coffee with other colleagues; however, I know that it is pretty much expected there and it was just my “American mentality” that made me feel guilty haha.
My coaching and integration in the research team was reasonable. I didn’t receive a thorough training nor was I expected to read any standard operation procedures manuals. I was mostly just shown a brief overview of the project and sent to work. The PhD student I was working for was always around if I had questions, and others were always more than willing to help if necessary. The research team I worked with was really great and we all enjoyed each other’s company. It was a really pleasant research community.
I have already pointed out a few small comparisons between my US labs and the Swiss one. One difficult thing in the Swiss lab was deciphering some individual’s accents sometimes. I am used to being around all native English speaking individuals, and it took some practice to understand the English words concealed beneath some of the more intense accents. The Swiss lab operated for the most part similarly to the labs I have been in previously. There was a good sense of community, everyone was very cooperative, and they all seemed to be supportive of each other’s projects. I was glad to see that these characteristics are common within worldwide scientific communities!
I am definitely considering going back to Switzerland in the future. If I go for vacation it will not be until I have a job that can actually support the Swiss lifestyle. Since jobs in Switzerland pay significantly more than the same jobs in the US (I was told McDonalds will pay around 20-25 SFR there compared to less than 6 USD here) the cost of living in comparison to the wages earned is actually not that bad. Coming from US wages to Swiss prices was a big shock though. I would consider going to Switzerland for my PhD, but not for my Masters, again for financial reasons. Foreign students are not allowed to work the number of hours I would need to live there while also paying for my Master’s education, making it quite difficult for me to even consider applying until I have already obtained a masters here. The PhD programs pay quite well there though, and would definitely be an option. The research going on in Switzerland in all of my fields of interest is also quite incredible! I definitely see myself moving to Switzerland at some point in the future for a career in science. I love the country and think I would love living and working there.

For anyone considering going to Switzerland for the internship in the future.
1- Don't arrive on a sunday! haha, you can see why by reading mine and Alisha's first blogs.
2- get a place in town if you can. My place was downtown and was great, but I had friends who lived ouside of town (Alisha and others) who couldn't stay out too late due to the public transportation ceasing at midnight.
3- Make sure you understand that Switzerland is an expensive country, and once you are there you can count on spending much more than you would need to in the United States.
I found incredibly cheap rent that included cooking for 450/month, although I still had to buy groceries. Even with this great deal, i spent much more money than I had anticipated.
4- MAKE SURE you know how much the institute will really be paying you if they say they will. My budget was cut by 30% after I had already been there for over a month due to "overspending in the lab." Get an email or something stating your salary so it is official, otherwise, this can be a devistating turn of events in an already expensive country.
5- BUY THE 1/2 PASS AND THE VOIS (gleis) 7!!! You will save tons of money when traveling, and if you don't think you will be traveling much, buy them anyway, because you will find yourself exploring switzerland anyway!
With the vois 7 you travel for free after 7pm, and if you work your traveling out accordingly, you can save a lot. I only had the 1/2 pass and i saved a ton! (also, it costs about 100 dollars for a 1 month half pass or 150 for a year, i did the year pass as it costs less than two individual months).
6- Have fun, take advantage of the rail system, and bring books. It is incredibly reliable transportation system, and gives you time to read all of those books you never had time to read before while driving your personal car in the US :).

Thanks everyone,

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What a beautiful city!

My host student and I went to the river side after the class yesterday.
It was great to have someone who knows the city well.
She showed me the university hospital and the cathedral.
We also took a small boat to across the Rhine river for FUN.
I was amazed to find out how many people swim in the river.
It seems that swimming is a part of their everyday life!

For the last two days, I had dinner with my host student and her house mates.
They have a very cozy house with a beautiful garden with raspberries, grapes, and different kinds of herbs.
It is a perfect place to take a rest after sitting in a classroom for a whole day.

I enjoy the statistics course as well as meeting people from all over the world.
Looking forward to another great day!

Summer School

I am enjoying the opportunity to meet new colleagues and learn in an international environment. Basel is beautiful and the experience is great. Will share pictures later

Day 3/7

Having a wonderful time in Basel. I was prepared to be impressed with the beauty of the city, but I was not prepared for the tranquility--such a quiet, gentle place and much to see. It is Day 2 of our statistics course and it has been a treat to learn with such a diverse and interesting group. Farewell for now.
Carol Anne

Second First Impressions

This is my second time in Basel, although the first time was only a brief view, seen in a day. Of course a day in Basel is insufficient to do it justice. I am currently at the Institute of Nursing Science doing a week long summer class in research methodologies that will hopefully inform my dissertation. While we have spent a good amount of time in the classroom, several of us have found enough time to explore the streets and alleys of the main town. It is really quite quaint, what you hope and expect to see in a European city. The Rhine is magestic flowing through the city. Last night on our way home from dinner the moon was full and provided a dramatic backdrop to the river that looked like a postcard. Its been tough so far balancing our desire to see the city and get the most out of our classes including doing the homework assignments that are given to us daily. But its a fun challenge


I arrived in Basel on Sunday morning and my host student picked me up from the airport. She was perfectly on time as I am finding most of the Swiss are. She gave me a tour of the area she lives in, showed me around her flat (which has a wonderful garden outside) and then continued to show me around the area and how to get to the University using the Tram system. We also went out to enjoy her horse and the scenery. In the evening, we ate a lovely dinner on the outdoor terrace together and enjoyed some of the final days of the Olympics on TV (in a language I didn't know of course) ;)

Yesterday was our first day of class and I thought it went quite well. We enjoyed an early morning lecture and some hands on practice in the afternoon. Many of us went out for a drink and dinner along the Rhine which proved to be a perfect evening for that.

I will continue to post as the days go on!

Monday, August 18, 2008

International Flavor

I write this sitting in a circle of friends that includes people from Serbia, Italy, France, and the U.S. An Italian movie is playing next to me, and two individuals from Serbia are playing ping pong a few feet from me, communicating in Serbian.

This scene epitomizes my experience in Switzerland and points to the international nature of the country. It is situations like these that have characterized my time in Switzerland and the aspect of my trip that has been the most educational to me and what I want to comment on.

The international flavor of my trip was evident from the very first evening that I was here. Two of my three roommates were from Spain and the third was France. The conversations that flowed that night with my roommates and others that lived next to me transitioned fluidly between English, Spanish, French, and even a bit of Turkish. As we explored the different languages and the cultures, I was already beginning to pick up on the similarities and differences n betweethe cultures.

Switzerland is the perfect locale for such conversations and experiences. Composed of four different cultural regions, Switzerland embodies the notion of internationalism. To hear that a person is actually from Switzerland comes as a surprise to me, as even in my lab, I am surrounded by individuals from Netherlands, Greece, France, England, and Pakistan. I have realized that Switzerland's culture is in great part derived from this very diversity. Strong regional influences contribute to this diversity and internationalism.

What is the most noteworthy to me is the fact that despite being from completely different countries, everyone that I have met is very open-minded and harbors a desire to learn from people unlike themselves. Perhaps it is the inherent nature of people who travel abroad to be more adventurous and curious of other cultures. Regardless, the open-mindedness and inviting nature of everyone I have met only serves to enhance my experience here.

In my 7th week in Switzerland right now, I have had the chance to travel all around the country, having visited Interlaken, Jungfraujoch, Zurich, Lucerne, Mt. Titlis, Schaffhausen, Ticino, and this past weekend, the Aletsch Glacier. Of course, I have also taken the time to wander through Lausanne, attempting to soak in the atmosphere of the city and the country through my travels. One of the things that my travels during the weekends have taught me is that even in the U.S. I need to travel more. Studying at the university and becoming enveloped by its activities, I often forget how much I truly love to travel.

As I continue to work through my last 3 weeks here in Switzerland, I hope to travel to Paris, France and afterwards to several different countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany. I hope to write again about my trip to the Aletsch Glacier this past weekend and my adventures this coming weekend...Au revoir until then!

Another 2 weekend post... promised. This is the last in the series of weekend adventures; I leave this Switzerland this Sunday morning and already have my last blog planned out (I'll be writing it on the plane). What follows is an itinerary from Appenzell to the Glacier Express (weekend 1) and Oeschinensee to Luzern.

Based on a friend's suggestion to see a small mountain town, I headed to Appenzell. The town and region of course attracts attention as producers of Appenzeller (you've seen the ads! "Depuis 700 ans..." or "Seit 700 Jahren..."). The demonstration cheese dairies unfortunately aren't near the town, but I did get to taste some fresh Appenzeller--much better than what's available at COOP or Migros.
The tourism that the region receives, as well as its pride, strongly encourages it to maintain its character, as seen from its facades. My visit also corresponded with the annual Ländlerfest, a folk music festival, featuring folk music groups in the squares and restaurants. Most groups included accordions and a bass, sometimes also a hammered dulcimer, with all members dressed to match. Older women selling pastries and children selling raffle tickets were dressed traditionally; the dress is very characteristic to the region, colorful, and ornate.
The sound most representative of the region, to me at least, is the cow bells. I walked from Appenzell to Brülisau, then took the funicular up to Hoher-Kasten, and could still hear the bells (somewhat eerie, as the the peak was engulfed in a cloud).

St Gallen
Also a town with architectural character, known for its Abbey District. I enjoyed the Stiftsbibliothek; it's a beautiful room that houses texts more than 1000 yrs old (and also a dead body!). Unlike contemporary texts, these writers were also artists: the text was elegant and usually accompanied by small drawings.
Somehow I've always managed to get to a church every Sunday, but always as a tourist. This Sunday I visited the baroque Cathedral, much different than the gothic style that I'm used to.

St Moritz and the Glacier Express
The trip from Chur to St Moritz on the regional bahn was gorgeous (it's a UNESCO candidate). Even though the peaks aren't frosted with snow, the immensity of these alps is incredible. In the mornings, the lake is a perfect mirror; I enjoyed the walk around the lake, just to stop and see the different reflections. I only spent the night in St Moritz to board the Glacier Express the next morning, but the possibilities for hiking and other excursions are endless.

The train system in Switzerland fascinates me, especially all the finely tuned details. But what makes the ride enjoyable is the view, which is why a panoramic train through the Alps is perfect for me, 7hrs of viewing time. The ride was also culturally informational, explaining the scraffiti on the buildings in St Moritz and the blackened wood buildings near Brig. I was free to move from side to side until my car filled with more tourists at Chur. After that, I was convinced that my seat was on the "wrong" side of the train, as I spent the majority of the time looking out the windows across the aisle.

I took Catherine's suggestion to visit Oeschinensee, a mountain lake near Kandersteg. The hike up is steep, but picturesque with the surrounding mountains and waterfalls. The reward after hiking almost straight up after an hour is a view of the lake. The water is a gorgeous blue that perfectly contrasts the green and white on the mountains. It became apparent to me then why all the lakes and rivers in Switzerland are so uniquely blue and clean--most come from melting glaciers. The waterfalls along the lake are small and intricate, what seemed to me like the mountains' veins. Unlike the Alps I saw during the Glacier Express, there were some with snow on top...quite a summer view!

The cloudy weather on Sunday discouraged any excursions to Grindelwald-First, Jungfrau, or Mt. Pilatus. I instead followed the recommended city walk of Luzern, the highlight being the lion monument, and train rides along Lake Thun and Brienz, also beautiful for their blueness.

Everything's coming to an end as I prepare to leave...fewer research experiments, packing, and good-byes. I hope the weather stays sunny for my last few days!

(note: I tried to format this with all the pictures, but who knows what will happen when I click 'publish')

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trip to Bern on Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dear Charlotte and Thinkswiss Basel Nursing Summer School participants,

As announced by e-mail, you are invited by Presence Switzerland to spend an evening in Bern on Thursday, August 21, 2008. It’s a great opportunity to enjoy charming Bern, to learn more about the Swiss health system and to have a nice dinner. The detailed program will be sent to you by regular e-mail soon.

Enjoy and have lots of fun!

Best regards,

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

From Chocolate & Cheese to the Swiss Italian Region

I've waited to long since the last post, and as a consequence, have much to write. As three weekends of traveling is too much in one post, I'll split it up and post soon again this week. This post contains my travels to Broc and Gruyère then Vallorbe (weekend 1) then Zürich and the Italian region (weekend 2).

Chocolate & Cheese
(Broc and Gruyère)

As much as much as Ms. Keiner emphasized in Bern that the Swiss want to achieve quality reputations the realm of chocolate and cheese, getting past these stereotypes will be difficult! I visited the Callier chocolate factory in Broc and La Maison de Gruyère in (where else?) Gruyère.

The chocolate factory was a pleasant experience. All visitors first view a short film about chocolate making; there's a rotation of 3 videos, all with a nostalgic, good ol'days 50s theme. The tour then proceeds through several rooms where you can see the raw ingredients, smell the chocolates, and (most importantly!) taste the chocolates. I unfortunately had brought no water
with me and couldn't "cleanse my palette" to appreciate the range of chocolates: from dark to white chocolate, with and without nuts, so many options! And no wonder Switzerland has quite a chocolate reputation--Callier claims to be the inventor of milk chocolate. I'm hoping to return before I leave Switzerland to stock up on Callier chocolates and to sample all the chocolates again.

In Gruyère, I visited both the castle and cheese dairy. The castle was charming, but what piqued my interest the most was the cut hand the castle had on display. Legends of the hand's origins range from the crusades 11th century to the 15th century. Scientific analysis, however dated the hand much (MUCH) earlier; it was Egyptian mummified remains and came to the castle during Europe's infatuation for Ancient Eqypt in the late 18th century.

On my way from the castle to the cheese dairy, I happened upon the men with long horns (picture). Their tune was interesting and very mountainlike; I'm not sure how they even could produce different pitches.

The cheese factory was enlightening about the process of cheese-making. I hadn't known that Gruyère taste was saltiness due to the daily salt-bath spray the rounds receive and surprised I could taste the difference between the aged cheeses. Not as delightful as the Callier factory, but very culturally relevant.

Pedestrian Tourism (Vallorbe-->Orbe)

After this trip, I've noticed the yellow pedestrian and 'wanderweg' signs everywhere, even in Lausanne. This is an easy effort of a city to add to its tourist attractions, and, certainly, some places pedestrain tourism is more successful than other. I found this one on, a trek along the l'Orbe river from Vallorbe to Orbe. It was quite a walk, good exercise, but not the scenic excursion most are looking for. Vallorbe and Orbe are not tourist attractions, and the walk wasn't impressive, as it lead me past power plants (naturally, as water power is a considerable Swiss energy source).

National Fête at Zürich

I spent the rainy national holiday in Zürich. I saw the main attractions (Grossmünster, Fraumünster, shopping streets) and plenty of people dressed in costume for festivities near the lake. For Zürich's size, I was surprised that I didn't see much more celebration going on. It's possible that I missed some as stayed close to old town. Someone told me that Zürich didn't even have an official fireworks display. Again, not sure if this was true, but I was so exhausted after walking all day that I stayed at the hostel (not near old town). The next morning I went to the zoo, credited to be one of Europe's best. The zoo had a painted camel theme, which is how I found the spidercamel.


The Italian region is gorgeous: all mountains and beautiful blue lakes. I again found the pedestrian signs in Lugano, letting them lead me up Mount San Salvatore, where I was rewarded with a great view of Lago di Lugano between the mountains. One of my favorite weekend moments.

Even though I missed fireworks in Zürich, I found them in Lugano! Apparently the city decided to celebrate Saturday night instead of Friday; a small stage was set up and several food/drink stands as well. Only after noticing a sign for fireworks on the lake did I realize the festivities. I brought a boat ticket to see them on the lake, a great decision. The lights weren't distinctly reflected in the lake as one might romantically imagine, but still had a effect. The show was magnificient, maybe one of the best I ever seen. To dispel any ambiguity about the end of the show, three loud pops sounded once the finale had concluded. After that, I watched all the viewers in personal motors boats scatter, only indicated by the scurrying front and port lights.

Like Dusty, I also stayed in the Bellinzona youth hostel, which posted an impressive picture under a castle wall. I missed the chance to see them light up at night, but they're just as impressive during the day. All have the same characteristic wall stereotypic to medieval castles. I started at Sasso Corbaro, on the hill, and traveled down to Montebello, and last Castelgrande. Castelgrande had a large courtyard within its walls and seems to be available for rent. I split this day between Bellinzona and Locarno, and spent little time in each. Locarno, however, seemed to be a smaller Lugano on Lago Maggiore. The grand plaza was already set up for its famous film festival which started last weekend. I left Lugano early hoping for a scenic train ride trough Domodossola, but most of the journey was through tunnels.

I came back to Lausanne sore from all the climbing and walking, but immediately started planning my next weekend. THe only reason that this post is so long is because it's pouring outside, and I'm not running off to do other things. I'm not happy about this weekend's forecast of rain either....

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hello to all my future colleagues

I want to say a warm hello to my future colleagues at the upcoming Institute. I am Debra Thompson, a PhD student in nursing at the University of Pittsburgh. I am looking forward to meeting all of you and learning together in an international environment. I am new to blogging, but it should be fun.
See all of you soon

Friday, August 8, 2008

Trip to Bern on July 24

Dear ThinkSwiss Participants,

Thank you again for participating in this Blog and posting interesting stories and very nice pictures. Fifteen of you were in Bern two weeks ago and I would like to share with you some pictures of that wonderful day in the capital.

Ms. Harriet Fulbright gave a speech about U.S. Fulbright scholarships. Her enthusiasm must have been very inspiring and we hope that some of you will apply for a U.S. Fulbright - Swiss Government Scholarship later on.

Ms. Kiener giving her presentation about the Swiss educational system.

Enjoying a really good meal at a nice restaurant...

A last picture in the old town of Bern.

More pictures can be seen in a Picasa album at the following address:

I wish you all the best during your stay in Switzerland and back in the U.S. Enjoy and have lots of fun!

Warm regards,

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"Sounds like you're learning a lot about more than just science!"

That's what my rabbi said when I emailed home about what I've been up to in Zurich. Well, it's true. Even though I'm a participant in the Biology Undergraduate Summer School (BUSS) here in Zurich, I'm learning a lot about more than just research.

The 25 BUSS participants come from 14 different countries from around the world. The lab I work in at the University of Zurich is home to an equally impressive collection of internationals including a post-doc from Greece and a PhD candidate from Costa Rica. Being around such an eclectic mix of people every day, it's hard not to discover new things about the world.

Before coming to Zurich, I didn't know how to really work with C. elegans and had pretty bad lab notebook habits, but I also didn't know about the wonderful cheeses produced in the Canton de Vaux, the four regions of Catalonia or the long tradition of Christianity in Armenia either.

One of the most rewarding experiences I've had in Switzerland was a cross-cultural exchange of sorts that I did with other BUSS members. I went to my first mass with three other BUSS students who are Catholic. In exchange I took those students as well as some others to an Erev Shabbat service at the synagogue I've been frequenting in town. We were able to ask each other questions and learn more about a different religion that we were only familiar with on the surface in a non-confrontational atmosphere.

Participating in such an international program as BUSS has been a crash course not only in transposon mutagenesis, PCRs and structural biochemistry but in international history, world politics and foreign affairs as well. And, as with any big group of people, we have had our share of culture clashes and heated debates. But at the end of the day, this is just a valuable lesson in foreign diplomacy.