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!
Erin

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!

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