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!!!!


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