Monday, September 1, 2008
Although I originally had planned to write this on the 17-hour journey back home, with ideas fresh in my mind, I’m now starting to write a week later back in Houston. This week of transition back into American university life has let my ideas mature and has also deepened my appreciation for everything Swiss.
My stay in Switzerland of course exceeded my expectations. The Swiss research environment, from what I experienced at the EPFL, promotes and encourages quality research. I loved the Swiss geography, especially the mountains with the lakes, and was impressed with most cultural aspects, such as transport, city architecture and layout, and recycling.
The geography, transport system, and international community all positively impacted my experience. I fell in love with the Swiss Alps and lakes when traveling around the country; as an active traveler, the endless possibilities for bike tours, hiking trails, and other outdoor activities amazed me. I consider all that I did only a preview, and all possible thanks to Switzerland extensively developed and reliable transport system. Public transport in Switzerland enabled me to go almost anywhere (in Switzerland). I didn’t need a car, car insurance, gas, or directions—all I needed was a train ticket. In addition to a beautiful setting and means of transport, Switzerland also fosters a diverse international community. Never have I heard so many different languages in so little time (and usually in lab)! For me this diversity translated to a great influx of ideas (for research) and money (for the economy).
I found some challenges, mostly unique to my circumstances. As Switzerland is a country of quality, the cost of living is high, especially for my student intern budget. To maximize my weekend travels, I cut down on other costs. My summer diet was by no means gourmet and only included a few dinners out. Likewise, I didn’t do any shopping (except for food). This was alright and manageable for the three months I was there. I also found the limited store hours sometimes frustrating. Shopping became more of a planned effort as I needed to schedule it. Research doesn’t have standard or set hours, so I wasn’t guaranteed time to get to Migros or COOP that day if I needed to. Someone who I met, incredibly frustrated with the Saturday crowds, termed this as a “stress on society”. What I also found challenging was social integration; however, considering my situation, this was expected. I lived in my own studio, my presence in Switzerland was transient, and I was a foreigner. The lab members (only one Swiss) were friendly and welcomed me, but I had few acquaintances outside of lab. My understanding of Swiss culture as it pertains to the Swiss is still mainly that of an outsider.
I found Swiss research to be very competitive with that of American institutes. The key differences between my two labs that I noted were the ratio of post-docs to doctoral students, the availability of equipment, and the personnel. My understanding is that Swiss institutions generously provide for researchers. The ratio of post-docs to doctoral students at the EPFL was much higher than the American average, which provides better mentoring support for the students and more experienced researchers for the faculty. The amount equipment accessible for my lab was impressive. That the lab even had its own lab manager and histologist was impressive. Maintenance details, which can be distracting for a post-doc or doctoral student, were minimized. The lab director and a good number of the post-docs and doctoral students were American, so I didn’t see any notable difference of research mentality. The one complaint, the real disadvantage to research in Switzerland was when we had to deal with the machine shop (issues with the speed of Swiss labor, one lab member had to wait months for a part to be made).
I would love to vacation in Switzerland, I think Switzerland would be a great place to live, and I am strongly considering doing my PhD there. I’m not yet ready, however, to start a PhD program immediately after my undergraduate studies, and not quite sure yet what I’ll be doing. Either way, it’s extremely likely that I’m coming back!