Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Final Report: ThinkSwiss Research Visit, University of St. Gallen

I submitted my formal "final report' to the ThinkSwiss Program after returning from Switzerland in December (I completed my research visit in October and November). This blog contains a collection of interesting, and diverse research reports. I hope that this one contributes to the general stock of knowledge about the program and provides another example of how a research visit might be constructed and executed. This entry provides an informal perspective on the experience, written primarily for those who plan to apply for a research grant, or have applied and are curious about the experiences of others.

The ThinkSwiss program is extremely well-run, end to end. The administration and logistics related to the application process were smoothly handled, the research grant was generous, and my contacts at swissnex Boston and the Swiss Embassy Washington were great to work with. The application and reporting processes were far from onerous - the output of both processes were a precisely-defined plan for my stay and a set of documents that I could pass on to my advisors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Lally School of Management and Technology) and the National Science Foundation (IGERT Fellowship Program). I also appreciated the fact that ThinkSwiss sent a program officer to visit the University of St. Gallen (my sponsoring institution) to interview those that worked with me about my research stay. In sum, I would say that the way the program is run had a significant and positive impact on my research.

In October and November I based myself at the Institute for the Economy and Environment at the University of St. Gallen. They were great hosts - I was integrated into the activities of the Institute as soon as I arrived, and they had already arranged an office, desk, computing, and research support. Since the Institute is also home base for Oikos International, the office was a hub of activity every day. Dr. Rolf Wüstenhagen arranged a series of student-led presentations during my visit; near the end of my stay, we presented some of the results from our joint work to the other scholars there, and received great feedback. The research presentations were an important part of my visit, as my engagement with and feedback on the work of others was an opportunity for me to make a positive contribution to what was happening at the Institute. My day-to-day life at the Institute - reading, writing, thinking, and talking - left a strong impression on me.

Everyone I met at the Institute—and I do mean everyone—was focused, productive, organized, and genial: from top to bottom, from the experience getting a network password to arranging lodging, the group did their utmost to ensure that I was capable of being focused and productive from the start of my visit to the end. I can’t say enough about the capability and the hospitality of the entire group.

St. Gallen itself had everything I needed to settle into a routine. It's a walking city - I woke up, groggy, staggered down the hill to get espresso, started my day by engaging in the thuggish, brainless research tasks, occasionally accelerating into actual thinking, and usually writing. In the early afternoon Rolf and I would go for a trail run on one of the endless paths ringing St. Gallen, and then I would return and work until I snapped. After that, dinner, sleep, and repeat. Occasionally, I would break the routine of research and visit other institutions: for example, EAWAG in Dübendorf (Bernhard Truffer) and ETH-SusTec in Zurich (Timo Busch, Volker Hoffmann). Visiting other schools and meeting with visitors to St. Gallen kept things interesting at the time, and in retrospect those conversations created numerous insights and opportunities. One of the nice things about a research visit in Switzerland is that you are two hours by train away from any other university.

My research objectives during my stay were relatively straightforward (especially since the application process clarified for myself and the University of St. Gallen exactly what results they could expect). I was able to extend my existing research collaboration on innovation and the capital markets with Dr. Rolf Wüstenhagen. The two of us produced a proposal for the Swiss National Science foundation for research on the behavioral aspects of venture capital investment, using renewable energy technology as a context (does venture capital decision-making differ in the renewables space? how do venture capital investors choose new industry segments?). We also launched a new book project on energy entrepreneurship with the support of Edward Elgar Publishing. And we began work on two new papers, and presented a third (on venture capital involvement in the funding and commercialization of fuel cells) at two conferences.

I had some other, ancillary objectives to accomplish during this trip as well. First and foremost was to introduce my born-in-California, raised-in-California, never-left-California fiancé to life outside The Bubble. For an itinerant scholar, all roads do not end at the Pacific Coast Highway - one takes the jobs on offer. So for the two of us the trip was an experiment to see whether or not Switzerland fell into the No Way This Place Is Too Cold bucket. As it turns out (and much to my surprise) Switzerland (and especially St. Gallen) were a go. She liked the hills and cobblestone streets, remarking that the town felt remarkably like California to her (this is high praise). What sealed the deal: durum kabobs. Did you know that there is a Swiss version of Yelp that lists, and rates, every single kabab shop in town? Neither did I. We visited all of them. The local beer got another big-up. Smoking in the bars, not so much - but that's getting legislated out of existence as we speak. The farmer's markets were completely acceptable, as was the plethora of dark, seedy, intestine-ripping bread available from every local bakery. Other differences crucial to shaping her overall impression of Switzerland were the traditional ice cream break in the middle of feature length movies (initially confusing but good) and the rigorously enforced 10 AM and 2 PM break for espresso at the Institute (also good).

An unexpected outcome of my visit was an additional piece of joint research on solar energy investment and public policy regimes, which I am working on with another PhD student at the Institute. It was enjoyable to contribute to the development of the prestigious and important Oikos PhD Seminar for 2009, providing advice and introductions to Dr. Jost Hamschmidt.

Challenges relating to the stay are probably unsurprising, and one of which—the brevity of the visit—was of my own devising. Although I wish that I could have spent more time at the Institute—optimally, another two months—at this stage of my PhD dissertation a stay of that length would have been unworkable. It was a pleasure, however, to be outside of the United States during the weeks immediately preceding our elections, as this afforded a particularly interesting perspective from which to view the general goings-on inside and outside the United States.

The cost of living was, of course, a challenge; however the financial support provided by the ThinkSwiss grant made the visit possible, and in this sense I am grateful for the opportunity. Through the help of the Institute I secured a house stay with a host family, which helped immensely. I published my final budget to the Institute in December. Two things that I noted at the time were that additional ad hoc travel for meetings (to Zurich, Bern, Geneva, and Basel) turned out to be crucial, and quite expensive; and that staying with a host family changed my cost structure dramatically for the better. ThinkSwiss might consider trying to formalize a host-stay program somehow.

My final thought on the program relates to the oft-raised issue of expenses and activities, and for those considering a research stay perhaps the following might be something to consider. Conducting a research stay - traveling somewhere, staying there, and working - is roughly a fixed cost, minus the travel. Transport (walking) and eating (regional staple foods) are roughly the same everywhere in the world. I enjoyed a three week period in Switzerland where the Swiss Franc was pounding the dollar, and coffee got expensive, and then declined again. No big deal. What is a big deal is when you confuse or mix vacation related expenses (train tickets, eating out, general hi-jinks) with what it takes to conduct research (survive). If you try to take a "research vacation" in Switzerland, your research will be the worse for it and your vacation will suffer because you will fret about what you aren't getting done. My unsolicited advice: shelve the tourism for another time. There's a lot to learn and experience simply embedding yourself in your town, and simply living.

Thanks again to the ThinkSwiss organization, the Swiss Embassy in Washington, and the National Science Foundation IGERT Program for the wonderful opportunity.

Happy New Year (almost...)!!!

I wanted to submit my final thoughts to the blog after I got back to the US, but I thought this might be a good way to end 2008. I am sure once I get back to Austin and feel the cultural differences that I have stopped noticing, my perspective would be a little more useful. Anyway, below are my responses to the ThinkSwiss program questions!

I did not really know what to expect from my time here, but I think this program is a really brilliant idea. I see everything that others have written about their experience, and it seems like a lot of people are strongly considering coming back. As for me, I feel more likely to return here than to remain in the US because the Spatial Development and Infrastructure Systems MS program at ETH is exactly what I would like to do. While Zurich is one of the smaller major cities with about 400,000 inhabitants, it has every luxury and amenity a person could want within a manageable area. I will definitely return, especially if for a PhD, since I like the system better. I would like to return for my MS, but we will see how the application process plays out...

It’s difficult for me to name 3 “things” that were great about the stay. I really enjoyed my co-workers, the mountains, Zurich, and in general everything I got to experience. One thing I have been spoiled and especially impressed by, though, is the efficiency of everything in Switzerland. I only experienced a few delays in the public transport during my nearly four months here, and I never waited in line for an unnecessarily long time. It was possible to get information for just about everything online and even in English when I needed it. We were even able to order a 6 kilogram turkey online from a local farmer for Thanksgiving dinner and have it delivered the next day. It was the freshest turkey I have ever consumed. My favourite feature of this efficiency, though, is the integration of the post office and the banking system. The Swiss (and many other European countries) brilliantly combined two of my most frequent and annoying errands in one location.

There are not even three negative points I can think of, either. One thing that irritated me was people’s curiosity about the election and American politics. Obviously it was an exciting time, but some people were really rude when they wanted to talk to me about it. In general I am told the Swiss are as discreet about their personal lives as they are about their banking, so I am sure it was just a rare exception. Still, the exceptions were extremely pushy and insulting.

veryone at IVT, the institute I worked in, was really friendly and helpful. No one personally took me aside and explained anything as you would with someone in a laboratory, but I always felt comfortable asking for help from anyone. As far as comparing US and Swiss PhD programs, Swiss PhD programs take longer and are well paid. It’s more relaxed and people (seem to) have lives outside of their research while they are working toward their PhD. I always had the feeling in the US that getting a PhD was a very stressful and hectic time- where you sleep only a few hours a night but earn your MS and PhD after 4 years. Here the process takes on average 6 years, and it feels like everyone has more time to think about what they are doing. Also, PhD students in the US are typically much younger because they start PhD programs immediately after finishing their MS (and BS and high school diploma before those) so their perspective is different from that here, it seems.

And for budgeting purposes, I tracked my expenses during my 4 months here. I spent about 1400 CHF a month, but that is including airfare for some travel I did while in Switzerland, which is unnecessary and, to be honest, a little stressful. Looking back I would have preferred if I had just tried to visit my friends in Munich and Barcelona but spent all my weekends in the Alps or just hanging out in Zürich. I probably could have gotten by on about 1100 CHF each month.

While in the end I did not feel as though I had contributed anything significant with my research, I am so glad I had the opportunity to work in this environment. My goal was to predict the price and energy consumption of new vehicles purchased by Swiss households based on their environmental attitudes and demographic characteristics. Collecting such psychological data at all is still a relatively new concept, so perhaps there was not enough data to produce conclusive results. Maybe its because it is so difficult to measure at all; the vehicle market is so diverse that there are hundreds of options/luxuries/qualities to quantify. My models were at least consistent with past results in suggesting that price and vehicle size are the most important attributes of new vehicle purchases (so environmental attitudes, not so much). In any case, now that I know what kind of problems to look for in the data and my models, I feel any future research work will be much more productive.

Finally, I'd like to thank everyone involved with ThinkSwiss for this rare opportunity- I think its definitely a program that should be continued, if for no other reason than to advertise and incentivize overseas research. Also thanks to Prof. Kay Axhausen and his entire research group for all the fun and information they shared. It was a really great experience, and I can't wait to come back to Zürich!

With my favorite breed- the Bernese Mountain Dog, or Berner Sennenhund!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Final Report

Final ThinkSwiss Report
December 2008

Part 1:
Overall impression – Did your stay meet your expectations?
In case it’s not obvious from my previous posts online, yes, my stay did indeed meet my expectations! On the plane ride over I made a list of goals and objectives for my stay in Switzerland, and as I look back at them now, I see that just about all of them were accomplished. Being here 3 months has given me the opportunity to step back from things in the United States and reflect on my academic career, research, and personal interests. The time in Switzerland has really helped me to re-focus my goals, but has introduced me to new ways in which I might go about achieving these goals. For example, before coming to Switzerland I was debating whether or not I should apply to PhD programs, and if yes, in which field exactly and where, and if not, in which area should I be looking to begin my career. My Masters in environmental policy left me with the feeling that I have a broad range of knowledge on several aspects to environmental policy, but that I am not truly an expert in any one of these fields. Therefore, getting a PhD in a science field, such as going back to my roots with atmospheric chemistry (bachelors degree) or engineering, or even business, was looking to be an attractive option. After working on research here the past 3 months on hydrogen production pathways and seeing some of the other research that goes on at the ETH under the Energy Science Center, I am closer to pinpointing down the area in which I would like to do my PhD. I was worried that going back to the sciences would mean shutting out the policy side, but at the ETH at least, this is not the case. Not only does the research here involve policy and sometimes working directly with the Swiss government, but also direct contact and support from companies working to build certain energy technologies, or collaboration with firms working on similar projects. Suffice to say, I think I will be coming back to Switzerland in the near future…

Three positive points?
Switzerland is an absolutely stunning and beautiful country, with something for everyone! I have always loved mountains and hiking, but there’s something about the Swiss Alps that really does make me happy and bring a smile to my face, as cheesy as that may sound. The ease with which you can travel to places is incredible- there is no need for a car here (and hence a smaller carbon footprint)! Hiking trails are easy to follow, although perhaps not the easiest to climb, and the views from the top of the mountains are just breathtaking!
I also found Swiss “life” to be in general pretty relaxed and enjoyable compared to the pace of life on the east coast of the US. If Washington, DC is a workaholic’s paradise, then Zürich is…well, not the opposite, since a lot of work and great research is done here…perhaps it is where the workaholic is reminded of the importance of work-life balance. People do make time to take a lunch break with colleagues, take a coffee break, go to the opera and ballet at night, take time to be with family on the weekends, and also enjoy the beautiful nature that surrounds them. Maybe the culture and work-life balance enables people to be that much more invigorated and enthusiastic at work, hence making them more productive. And with this balance comes a general cheerfulness/friendliness/niceness/great attitude towards most foreigners that I haven’t experienced in other countries. It’s no wonder then that Zürich is ranked as one of the cities with the highest quality of life! I’m sure this doesn’t apply to the entire population here, but for a majority of the people I met, I found this to be the case.
Another positive point, which I touched upon in my overall impression, is that the research here is connected to companies such as Alstom or ABB that have practical, direct application for the research or the technology. I had the impression that research, at the ETH at least, is not as abstract and theoretical as it can be in the US. I never once thought to myself, who is going to ever use this research? Or, why am I doing this? I think the turnover rate from research to application is much faster here than in the US.

Three negative points / challenges?
I think all students will agree with me that Switzerland, and Zürich in particular, is fairly expensive!! As a poor graduate student coming to Zürich I was really strict with my budget and had to watch more closely where my money was going- which actually mostly went to groceries, rent, and train tickets to see places. Luckily though, hiking was free and the chocolate was also pretty cheap!
Another negative point would be that it was hard to meet other exchange students- be they from other European countries or from the US. I would suggest that Fulbright and ThinkSwiss work together and find some way to introduce one the students to each other (such as a facebook group or at least send the emails and contact info of students to each other). This would be especially helpful since I don’t think Switzerland participates in any ERASMUS type program, which generally makes it easier for finding travelling buddies and others to practice speaking German with.
A final negative point is definitely the bureaucracy here. Ughh. You have to register with the town, de-register, give proof of your health insurance, show your permit to work and research, etc etc. These are not difficult things to do by any means, and the process is generally very fast…but perhaps it is because the offices where you have to do these things are only open at strange hours, and not necessarily convenient ones, that it makes the bureaucracy such a hassle.

How well were you coached and integrated in the research team?
My first day I was given keys to the office, my computer was set up with an email and password, and I was briefed on who did what and whom I could ask for help, etc. A very efficient first day!! As an outsider coming in for such a short time (my initial contract with the ETH was for only 2 months, which has since been extended twice), I think those helping me did everything they could to prep my stay so I could begin research, and I thank them for that! As for integration, I think because I was not starting a PhD program or a lengthy stay, and because my research was different than 95% of the group (they work on engines, I work on hydrogen), the Professors didn’t feel the need for me to attend group meetings or classes in which my fellow co-workers were also teaching assistants. Therefore, it was a little difficult to feel integrated at first, but things have changed since then.

Comparison (advantages and disadvantages) between your Swiss and your U.S. research lab, research mentality and team.
As mentioned above, I really like the connection the ETH provides between science, policy, and technology. The universities I attended in the US did not have this linkage. I think the research mentality is the same- generally if you are doing research on a project you are fairly passionate and interested in the topic and don’t mind explaining your project to others, which I found to be the case here in Switzerland as well. The drive to publish good results and perform great research is universal in the sciences regardless of place of work, I think. As for the team aspect comparison, I’m not sure I can comment on this fairly. My research here was performed with the help of 1-2 other people, since my area of research did not have anything to do with the main area of research for the rest of the group; hence there wasn’t much of a team to work with. However, the research required the expertise of the people whom I did work with here, and not really such a big team anyways.

Do you consider going back to Switzerland for studying, a Ph. D. program, work or on vacation?
Yes, I plan to come back to Switzerland for either a PhD program or work, and certainly for vacation!! The weather started to turn cold and foggy by mid-October, so I didn’t get to see nearly half the mountains and cities I wanted to see…I think spring and summer are the ideal times to come back! :)

Finally, I would like to thank everyone at the Swiss Embassy, Swissnex, ThinkSwiss, and the ETH for making this experience so unique and wonderful!!!!


Rigi and Weihnachtsmarkt

Hello everyone!

It has been snowing all day in Zürich, and is expected to stay this way until Friday! Since it is snowing so heavily in the lowlands, I can only imagine what it is like at the top of the mountains- probably blizzard conditions! Here are a few updates as to what I have done the past few weeks:

Realizing I only had a few weeks left in Switzerland, and that 2 of the weekends would be consumed with rowing activities, I knew I had to get to the mountains one final time. After much online research to find the “perfect” mountain and hiking trail with a great view, to my disappointment I learned that most of the hiking trails and mountains were closed due to preparation for the skiing season, or they were already snow covered, and hence hiking without the proper shoes and dry gear would slowly turn into a very cold and miserable experience. However, things turned for the better as my Swiss rowing friends recommended that we go to Rigi, the Queen of the Mountains. Needless to say, I was more than excited!

The day started out foggy and cold, but at the peak of Rigi, the sun was shining and the view was, of course, INCREDIBLE! I just love the mountains here! It was also quite warm at the top. Located in between the Zuger See and the Vierwaldstädter See, Rigi gives a beautiful panoramic view of the entire Alp range (well as far as you can see). I could see Säntis, Titlis, Pilatus, the area around Interlaken, and many more peaks. We took the Berg-bahn up to the top of the peak and enjoyed a walk around the top taking a zillion pictures and then a nice meal at the hotel at the top (yes there is quite a fancy hotel at the top of this mountain!) I also saw the valley where Swiss legend Wilhelm Tell supposedly shot an apple sitting atop his son’s head (Friedrich Schiller story)…. It was a great day in all.

One weekend Alison (Fulbright friend) and I went to Rapperswil and explored the castle there. We weren’t quite sure why there was a Polish National History Museum inside the SWISS castle, but it was interesting for sure. We also walked across the entire Zürisee (ok at that point it is probably only 2 miles across) to Pfäffikon, as our guide books said walking across the bridge would be a “unique experience”. It sure was an experience, as we froze, first of all, but also saw some unique Swiss birds and views of Einsiedeln and the mountains.

Last weekend was a rowing adventure from Eglisau to Ellikon and back, which is an annual tradition that anyone from the Seeclub Zürich is welcome to participate in. After rowing in a single for the fall, it was sure nice to be in a boat with 3 other people and have teammates. The sun was shining and everyone was in good spirits, as is usually the case here, which made for a really nice day. The only thing that was not enjoyable was docking and launching in Ellikon- you had to step into the freeeeeeezing cold Rhein river! Guess the Swiss are just made tougher than me. ;)

Finally, I have been spending quite a bit of time at the Weihnachtsmarkt at the main train station. It is just it’s just something that we don’t have back at home. In the center there is a live tree absolutely covered in Swarovski crystal, which looks stunning and surpasses the Rockefeller tree in NYC by far, in my opinion. Surrounding the tree are little stands selling things you really don’t need, but end up buying anyways, like hats and scarves and incense and spices, and of course, Glühwein- the Christmasy spiced red wine. Friends huddled together drinking Glühwein with the soft glow of the Christmas lights everywhere is enough to put anyone in the Christmas spirit. :)

This will be my last post to the ThinkSwiss blog, as I head back home very soon. I would really like to thank the Swiss Embassy, Swissnex, the ETH, and all those who have made my experience here so wonderful and amazing!!! To all those future ThinkSwiss scholars, feel free to join the facebook group “ThinkSwiss” and send me any questions you might have about living in Zürich, travelling in Switzerland, or doing research at the ETH.

Adi und merci tausendmal!!

Katherine (no longer :( ) in Zürich

Friday, December 5, 2008

In Conclusion

I was planning on posting twice, once about the work and once to post the first part of my final report for ThinkSwiss. I got wrapped up in writing my final report for work, though, and haven’t really had the time. I think that I can combine the two here without compromising too much.

Wrapping Up

I “officially” finished last Friday. As time wound down, I was getting a better idea of why the Ph.D. students stay there for three or four years. You can only get so much done in three months, but as my report grew longer and longer, I was surprised to see just how much work I actually did. As I said in the beginning, I had two main projects: one focused on analyzing a potential experimental feedstock, the other on developing a catalyst screening method. I left them at very different levels of progress.

The analytical project went rather smoothly, but don’t mention confocal Raman to me any time soon. . . . The project was good practice for someone that claims to be part chemist but had little practical experience with analytical methods. I stress practical here, because working with real materials is rather different from the majority of our labs at school. Not only did I get some lab experience, but I also had to put all of my data together and draw coherent, sensible conclusions. This synthesis was by far the hardest part, but it was quite rewarding in the end.

The other project is nowhere near finished. Thankfully, there was a breakthrough in the last two weeks that answered one major question, so I got to leave with some closure. There is still plenty of work to be done and many more questions to answer; I’m going to try to stay in touch and see where it leads after I’m gone. Research like this moves in spurts. For this reason, project timelines are on the order of years, and it can be hard to make progress when you have people rotating in and out every few months. I have a singular appreciation for this fact now, and I am grateful that they let me work on such a project.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed the collaborative nature of my work, and the work that I saw others doing. The projects at PSI all feel like group efforts with contributions from students, advisors, and technicians. I had access to any equipment that I wanted and help operating it. I learned how to apply several techniques that I learned in labs at school and that I thought would never use again. I learned some new methods of analysis as well. I worked with minimal oversight, but with as much advice as I needed, which suits my work style perfectly. Best of all, I was exposed to graduate-style research, and this has allowed me to make better-informed decisions on my future education. I have to say something about Swiss culture as well, or this report would be woefully incomplete. If the stores were open later, I would never leave. I enjoyed the food, the outdoors, and the arts that I experienced, and the Swiss seem to relish these just as much. You should be able to tell how much I enjoy travelling, hiking, and museums from my blog posts. If not, let me say that these are, ahem . . . . a few of my favorite things. Switzerland is a wonderful place to be because they combine so much of this into such a small space.

While I enjoyed my stay, not everything was peachy. My chief frustration was the location of the Institut. I lived in the on-campus guesthouse, which made my commutes convenient but traveling on the weekends was slightly more difficult, and going out after work was nearly impossible. If I were to do this again, I would have moved into a city apartment. The only other big issue I had was with the weather. I don’t like cold and the cold, rainy season started as soon as I got here. This started to get on my nerves after about two weeks. I hear the spring and summer are nice, so I'll have to come back. The last issue was financial. I was working with only the scholarship for financial support, which is not enough for both living and travel expenses. I knew about this well in advance though, so I came prepared, but it was still a bit of a bother.

I can’t really compare this fall to my previous work because this was the first real research I’ve done. I learned a lot about the academic environment (and some of the incumbent politics), and my field in general. I seriously considered applying to ETH for my graduate studies. In the end, I decided not to, but I will keep it in mind if I want to do post-doctoral work. I would enjoy working here after school, too. Several companies in Switzerland employ engineers in my field, and I have plenty of incentive to move to Europe (six weeks of holidays?!). If it turns out that I don’t come back for work or study, I will be coming back for vacation as soon as I have the means. I still have to go skiing, and there are plenty of other things to do, outdoors and in.

I would like to finish by thanking everyone that contributed: my advisor and colleagues at PSI, the staff at the Swiss embassy (especially Andrea and Muriel), and all of the people that provided support from home. This was a great opportunity and a wonderful experience. Vielen Dank!

Goodbye, auf Wiedersehen, adieu, and ciao.