Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It's Been a While . . . .

This week is the half-way mark for my stay in Switzerland. I can't decide if I'm half-finished or half-started. I have been saving up things to say for the last few weeks and that's why there were no posts. I have some brief travel stories and some musings on the life of a research engineer. Enjoy!

First Snow (!!)
Three weeks ago, I took a day trip on a gorgeous Sunday to Hoch-Ybrig. I had not heard of this resort from any travel guides and have since had trouble locating it on Google maps. I guess it's not a huge tourist destination, but it was a fabulous trip. I went with a couple of PhD students from my lab and some of their friends. The peak we climbed is in the foothills (1700 m) of the Alps, and you get a great view of the surrounding mountains and valleys from the summit. The weather was perfect--the first snow of the season had fallen days before, but the temperature climbed to near 20 by the end of our hike. Everything was dusted white in the morning, but it was still pleasantly warm. There was no fog and few clouds; you could see mountains in Germany! Below is the group during our lunch break.
St. Galen
Two weeks ago, I decided to make a day trip to see St. Galen and Lake Constance. Having been there for a short afternoon, I think I need to go back. It was pretty foggy on the lake (in Rorschach), but from the hill above the city you could see much of the lake and some white-tipped peaks poking though the clouds in the south. I missed opening hours for just about everything in St. Galen, but I managed to be in the old city right at sunset. I need to go back when I have time to try the bratwurst.

Basel and the Jura
Last weekend I decided to start exploring to the west. I spent Saturday hiking around Wasserfallen (a gondola ride), south of Basel. The weather was a bit cool, but otherwise gorgeous. The landscape there reminds me very much of the Ozarks, but on a larger scale. There were several times when I felt like I was back home hiking in the hills around my house. Highlights: I saw the ruins of a fort from--if I remember correctly--the 14th century. That was nothing like home. I also walked through the highest individual farm in Basel county and a path that was once used to avoid the customs post in Reigoldswil. Also, the waterfall the gondola is named for is not one but a series of cascades that the path follows quite closely. I love hiking with the sound of water in the background.

On Sunday, I visited Fondation Beyeler in Basel, which I cannot recommend highly enough. The permanent collection is mostly modern art, and what a collection it is! I saw some major players, but I was also introduced to Anselm Kiefer for the first time, for which I am greatful. They also have an exhibition going that features art from and about the city of Venice. If I get the chance, I'm going back. I'll leave it at that.

Work, work, work
Yes, I do work. In fact, I work quite a lot. The last few weeks have been . . . busy. Every day, I get a little more insight into the life of a research engineer.

You see, most of my work experience has been in industry. I've seen--if not done--many of the things that your typical process or design engineer does on a daily basis. At school, we learn to use existing processes, existing equipment, and rarely do we get to see the innovative side of our field. I knew that graduate studies would focus more on discovery, and applied for my job here with this in mind. I enjoy this application of engineering; I feel like I use both sides of my brain. That's a rare pleasure, and one that I imagine most people don't have at work. I think I will save a comparison between research and industry for a later post, and tell you a little about what I've been doing.

We finally got the calorimeter working, and I finish experiments about every day. Each one takes anywhere from four to twelve hours, and represents a significant investment of time and resources. This makes a successful run all the more satisfying, and a failed one all the more frustrating. We just got shiny new software to collect and process data, but apparently it's a little too shiny for our one-year-old apparatus. I'm still collecting data with the old package, which is time consuming, but fairly simple now that I'm used to it.

Oh, and the joys of data processing! Not only is it a special, nerdy high to see the stream of data flow across my screen, but processing is closely followed by Analysis (yes, capital "A"). At times, I feel like an alchemist. We have a pretty good idea of what is going on inside our tiny gasification reactor, but we can't be absolutely sure. With each experiment we mold our theory a little more, and we can explain most of the things we see. But not all. So, I go back to the lab to run more trials and tweak variables to get a clearer understanding of our microsystem.

While I wait for those long experiments to finish, I do more analytical work with our raw feed sample. In the last couple of weeks, I pulled out and dusted off at least half of the organic and analytical chemistry techniques I practiced at school. My professors would be proud. For the chemists out there, this includes TLC, liquid fractionation, and making solutions for ICP-OES and GC-MS. In short, big fun!

Coop's hosting a wine tasting in Zurich this week, and we're planning a trip this weekend. You'll probably hear from me again after that. Cheers!

- Joseph

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