Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Final Post

From the moment I got off the train from the airport to Zurich, my main impressions of Switzerland were efficiency, cleanliness, and warm weather, the latter of which I was not appropriately dressed for. It seemed efficient because everything seemed very well-run and organized, especially the public transportation. Cleanliness came to mind because there was no trash in the streets or other public areas, not even gum stains. The heat was not oppressive like in Houston, but I had always imagined Switzerland to have at least a cool alpine climate, so I had dressed with that in mind for my arrival. I brought summer clothes with me as well though so it was not a problem for the rest of the trip.
ETH itself was very impressive as a research institution. The building I was working in was fairly new and with very modern looking wood and glass architecture, with a great view over the city and the lake from the higher elevation on the right bank. The facilities were all excellent, just from what I initially saw at my own office building. When I went to their extended science campus at Hönggerberg, I was in complete awe of what they kept there. There was an extensive collection of the latest equipment, stuff that I thought only industry would be able to afford.

The students and professors were very friendly and open to helping me on whatever project work I would be pursuing. They also all spoke very good English, which was fantastic since I have no background in German. Apparently any studies done at ETH past a bachelor’s degree are taught in English, so it is required for the students and staff to have a good grasp of this language that is not even an official language of Switzerland. It reflected the idea that ETH is an internationally oriented university, with requirements for its own students to study abroad as well as a welcoming attitude towards visiting students such as myself. There were also good connections with industry, as indicated to me by a whole day event called Industry Day that occurred while I was there that had well-known visitors such as ABB, Siemens, as well as academic scholars from around the world who were associated with ETH.

There was not much I could contribute in terms of research knowledge to the group that was hosting my Rice professor and me, since I was just a rising third year undergraduate and not well-versed in the latest accomplishments of their work. However they did show some interest in the projects my professor and I were pursuing, and the PhD students were particularly good at coaching me through the processing of these devices. I was also able to find students in other lab groups that collaborated with our host group, and these individuals were also very helpful. All the research groups there that were part of the “Micro and Nanosystems Platform” seemed close-knit and shared their equipment and knowledge very frequently. Back home, it seems like the research groups are all very much independent of each other, with the professor actively working with all of his students, even undergraduates, but not as much with other professors or industry. Maybe I’m just speaking from a Rice perspective, which means coming from a small, teaching-focused university with not much emphasis on research. ETH is fairly large and has a rich history in research, going back to Albert Einstein in his day. The professors are very much the head of the research groups, but they interact less with their subordinates and are mostly busy maintaining their extensive network with the rest of the department and outside institutes and companies. The PhD students take the Masters students as their close protégés, and have them mostly working on projects related to their own thesis work. I think that overall this is a very efficient method of running a research-focused community.

What I probably enjoyed the most about Switzerland was the beauty, both natural and manmade. The historical and modern interplay of architecture in Zurich against a background of a clear lake, lush hills, and the snow-capped Alps was breathtaking when I first went down to the river quays. When I saw the rest of the surrounding countryside and other cities like Geneva, Bern, and Lucerne, I was more and more I awe of what I saw. Not even pictures could do complete justice to convey the experience; you had to be able to stand there at the mountain peak or the lakeside to really know. Also, to get to these various places it was helpful to have the extensive rail network in Switzerland. In a continent where travel by car is usually very expensive, it is great to have a reliable public transportation system. The rail company offered a good deal for young people like me; the half-card in conjunction with the Track 7, which allowed me to travel free on the rail after 7 PM and at half-price at any other time. This also facilitated travel to other European countries, such as Switzerland’s neighbors of Germany, Austria, Italy, and France. This was another advantage of living in Switzerland, as it made it very easy to hop across a border over a weekend and see a new place. On this trip I was able to visit all of these countries I mentioned as well as the UK, all of which I had never been to before except France. I only wish I had more time to visit more of Europe.

There were very few dislikes that I could list about the trip. Maybe if Switzerland could manage to get a tropical beach as well? Speaking realistically, it was pretty pricey to live in Zurich. Not just for buying everyday consumables but also just to obtain visas and permits for living there. There were many times where I wandered down a street in Zurich or elsewhere that struck me as a “playground for the rich”, with expensive brand-name shops, gourmet restaurants, and highly secluded luxury hotels. These were not welcome places for budget-conscious students. It was also irritating to not have stores open around my residence past 7 PM, or at all on Sundays. That schedule seems to go with the Swiss way of early-to-rise-early-to-bed, which is not how I personally operate. Another minor inconvenience was that I couldn’t speak a word of German when I came. So there were a few miscommunications during the trip with locals, none of them too bad. German writing actually seems very similar to English, so that made it easier for me to figure out what the signs and booklets were saying.

This trip actually gave me some consideration to getting a PhD in engineering, and also possibly to get one at ETH or other schools in Europe. The facilities for research at ETH were just so outstanding that I really think I could accomplish a lot if I just put some effort into a major project while I was there. Then of course there is also the compensation factor, which is twice or even three times as much at a Swiss institute than US ones for their PhD students. Then again to buy stuff costs two or three times as much in Switzerland, and to travel back and forth between Europe and the US to see family and friends would be even more expensive than it is today I imagine. So I would probably end up picking a PhD program in the US if I found a good one at an institute as well-equipped as ETH. However, if I decide I just want a Masters degree, then I would seriously consider ETH. The tuition is low and the scholarships are plentiful enough that I would be interested. There is also a chance for me to come back to the US as part of my internship that is required by the Masters program, so I would not have to leave behind my friends and relatives completely. As for Switzerland as a vacation spot, I would definitely consider coming back to ski there in the winter. Its central location in Europe also makes it an excellent place for a “home-base” in any Euro-trip type of vacation. In the end, I really enjoyed my trip there and honestly had Swiss-nostalgia as soon as I returned to the US.

9 comments:

Ella said...

Overall…. It was a nice trip of yours.

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