Thursday, July 30, 2009

Getting "Bern"-ed in Switzerland

Accept the cheesy title for what it is – it was too good to resist. For what is maybe the first time in my life, I'm glad that my hands are perpetually icy. They've come in handy all week as ready-to-go ice packs that I can throw on the back of my neck, where I have my first official sunburn from Switzerland! (Sorry Mom. And the rest of the family.) I usually don't burn and considering that I've been out in the sun here for the past three weeks and I've remained the exact same color (no burn, no tan either) while most of my friends have vacillated between shades of pink and red, I assumed that a quick splash of sunscreen on my arms and face would suffice for my journey up Aletsch Glacier. It did, actually -- neither my face nor my arms burned. But, I forgot that the fun thing about scoop-necked tees is the "scoop" part in the front and the back, which I neglected to sunscreen .. and now as a result, I have a stunning scoop-shaped burn on both sides of my neck. But it's not that bad, and all in all, my hike on Sunday was more than worth the burn.

As usual, the past two weeks have been jam-packed with fun times with the other SRP-ers. Thursday night we had our lakeside barbecue/volleyball game/football game/bike ride/late-night swim/seaweed fight. It was one of those nights where everything seemed completely perfect. For the most part, at least. The bottom of the lake was covered with these long, tangled seaweed-like plants, so while swimming we naturally decided to scoop them up with our feet and throw them at each other. That was pretty fun until I got some seaweed in my eye – surprisingly, not as pleasant as it sounds! Getting an eyeful of seaweed didn’t quite fit into my image of the ideal night… but after laugh/cry-ing it out for five minutes, the perfect night resumed. (P.S. Cathy – there may or may not have been a Taylor Swift dance party on the beach. This may or may not have been one of the highlights of the night.)

Then, Saturday morning we all caught an early train into Neuchatel, home to the Notre Dame Cathedral and to enormous stretches of vineyards. We started off by wandering around the cathedral, which was beautiful. I rarely feel religious around buildings that I have no actual ties to, but being inside the cathedral was an experience. It was beautiful, serene, and made me want to hold my breath and look around in awe. After our semi-religious experience, we decided to go for a change of pace and wandered down to the lake, where we found three sculptures – a turntable, big enough for ten people to sit on, and two upright spinning poles with foot and hand holds. So naturally, to counteract the more serious beginning to our trip, we decided to spin around until we were laughing uncontrollably, and then 30 seconds later, until we were nearly ready to vomit. After recovering (mostly), we headed back toward the cathedral and the chateau at the center of the city, and walked around for a little bit before heading by tram to Boudry, a nearby town, for a wine-tasting. After our tasting, we thought we’d buy a few bottles and sit outside and share some wine. Classy, right? We thought so. The vineyard owner whose bottle-opener we asked to borrow didn’t exactly agree. Before being allowed to uncork our bottles we had to assure him that we would not drink the wine a) in the street or b) from the bottle. Out of respect to the wine, if we were going to do either of the two, he could not help us to open the bottles. We reassured him, and then sat down in a courtyard overlooking the vineyards and drank out of Swiss flag cups. We may have looked like tourists, but at least we were respectful.

Then, on Sunday, came the Burn. Part 1. The morning of our hike to Aletsch Glacier started off fabulously – we missed our metro, and then decided to be extra clever and catch the metro in the opposite direction to Renens, so we could catch a train from Renens to Lausanne and still get to Lausanne in time!! Sadly, what they say about Swiss trains is true. They depart right on time. So we got to Renens at 8:09, to find that the 8:07 train had departed exactly 2 minutes before, and there was no chance of catching our 8:20 train to Fiesch, where we would hike the Aletsch Glacier. Alas. So instead, Liza, Delwen, Sheena and I made the most of our extra hour. We toured the 24-hour convenience store in the train station, bought ourselves a tart and mozzarella cheese – the perfect breakfast snack – and then at 9:20, climbed aboard. Around 11:00 we got out at our transfer station, and I had my first real experience of the Swiss language divide. Within an hour and a half we had crossed from the region where everyone speaks French and you hear very little German, to the complete opposite. It was incredibly cool – Swiss German is a fun language to hear spoken, and maybe even more fun to try to speak (you try saying “Züri-Gschnätzlets” five times fast).

Then once we got to Fiesch, our hike began. In terms of hiking, the afternoon wasn’t quite what we had planned – we forgot that when you hike with 17 people, you don’t move quite as quickly as when you travel with, say, three. When we had finished hiking, we looked at the map, expecting to have covered half of the trail … and realized we had barely traveled an inch. But in terms of an afternoon adventure, the glacier was incredible. The entire landscape was absolutely breathtaking. It’s funny – my mom keeps complimenting me on what great photos I’m taking, but this has zero to do with my photography skills and everything to do with the fact that the landscape makes it impossible to take bad photos. Everything looks surreal – in the photos of me standing on a rock, framed by the mountains behind me, it looks like I’m standing in front of a Hollywood green screen. Then, about halfway up the mountain, we saw our promised land: a patch of snow, just begging to be turned into snowballs. So, that’s exactly what we did. After shoving ice down each other’s backs and posing for a ton of pictures, we were ready to resume our hike, but before heading back to the trail, we looked around for a little and decided, hey, the trail was good, but it was full of switchbacks and we were getting pretty hungry … why not just make our own, more direct trail? After all, we’re all in good shape and the rocks ahead looked like they were made for climbing …

Twenty minutes later, when we were climbing with hands and feet up what felt like a 70 degree incline, we regretted our decision. Forty minutes later, when we were staring down at the stretch of rocks we had just cleared, we decided that we were adventurers and that was the best idea we had ever had. Minus the part where we didn’t know if we’d all make it up to the top. It was surprisingly difficult at times, but honestly, I’ve never felt cooler than when I realized I had officially become an explorer. In the future, though, I think I’ll keep in mind that apparently trails are put in place for a reason.

When we got to the top, we could finally see the glacier. It was amazing and beautiful, but honestly, I think the actual hike was even better than the finale. It wasn’t until we were getting on the train home that we all realized the collateral damage we had suffered – each and every one of us was some variation of lobster red. I’m pretty sure Steph wins the prize, though – she’s going to look like she’s wearing a white watch for the rest of the summer. But, no big deal – between our combined international recipes for sunburn treatment (yogurt, honey, and tea being the most popular three), we all managed to get to sleep that night.

Then, the Bern, part two. Yesterday, ThinkSwiss, the company that a) I am blogging for and b) is helping to fund my trip to Switzerland, invited all the American ThinkSwiss students to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. My expectations going into Bern were average – I knew nothing about the city, except that the bears who give the city its name were not in the usual bear pits, since they were under renovations. (They being the pits, not the bears.) But the city far exceeded my expectations, and yesterday was incredible. We toured the city, which has a more metropolitan feel than any of the cities I’ve visited to date, but is still distinctly Swiss and is not too busy and doesn't feel rushed. We climbed to the top of a cathedral to look at the city from above, went to Einstein’s house, and toured the oldest clock tower in the city, build in 1530. Again, I didn’t have particularly high expectations for the clock tower, but it turned out to be one of the cooler things I’ve seen since getting here. It is an elaborate system of gears, pulleys, and levers that marks the zodiac symbol, the month and approximate day, the hours for prayers at that season, and when the sun will rise and set. And at each hour, not only does a bell ring to mark the time, but a rooster crows, a jester dances, a king turns over an hourglass in his hand, and a ring of bears travels around in a circle, all to announce that the hour has changed. It’s wild, and so cool, considering it was built almost 500 years ago.

Then came the perfect end to the evening. We had seen a river from the top of the clock tower, and given that there were people already floating in it, we naturally had no choice but to join. Never mind that none of us had bathing suits with us. Being the intrepid adventurers we are, we traveled to the nearest Co-op City (my second favorite store in Switzerland, beaten only by Migros, which I actually adore), bought some cheap clothes to swim in, and then made our way down to the water. The river is gorgeous, clear, and clean and runs down from the glaciers – which also means it’s ICY. The current is fast in the middle but pretty slow on the sides, so people of all ages climb into the river down one of the staircases, set about every 30 feet on the bank, make their way out to the middle, and float down to wherever they wanted to get off, at which point they’d swim over to the side again and grab hold of one of the railings to climb out. I can’t even explain how much fun it was. I don’t know if the adrenaline rush was from impulsively swimming in our clothes in a strange city, or from the freezing water, or the fact that it was a combination of relaxing and floating on our backs with being slightly nervous and scared that we wouldn’t catch the last railing and we wouldn’t be able to get out, but we went into the river over and over again and were still talking about it today.

All in all, the rest of the Americans and I had been planning to skip Bern when the rest of our group went to visit, but after our day yesterday, I know that I plan to go back.

Suisseventures, part 2. (Copyright credit to Liza’s friend.) I can’t believe I’ve already been here for a month – I don’t want to leave! I’m just so happy I decided to do this program. I had some definite hesitations about going off to a country I didn’t know, to a lab I’d had little contact with before the program, to live with a group of people I’d never met who were quite possibly as different from me as could be. But I don’t know why I ever doubted it – like Governor’s School, and like all the other summer programs I’ve done, this experience is unbelievable and the people are more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. And then on top of all that, I’m in Switzerland. Traveling every weekend, and having the time of my life. So happy to be here.

A bientot!


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wine Tasting, Castles, and Glaciers - Oh My!

Hi Everyone!

Week three passed quite quickly and I can't believe week four is nearly half way through! I can't believe how much data has accumulated from my experiments already . . . I spent the first half of this week attempting to catch up in my lab notebook and organize my data into meaningful compilations - something I'm sure most researchers can sympathize with.

This past weekend, we explored the town of Neuchatel - about an hour away from Lausanne on Lac de Neuchatel. The lake is even more beautiful than Lake Geneva in my opinion . . . smaller, but with just as great of views and clearer water. We wandered around the town and up to the castle where they happened to be having a Bocce tournament! It was quite the juxtaposition to hear techno music and watch people throwing metal balls and drinking beer on the terrace of such a historical monument. Might as well enjoy it as much today as it was in the past!

We also stopped by a local vineyard in Boudry for some wine tasting. The winery had a neat little museum presenting its history and a wonderful cavern in which to enjoy tasting the local wine. We tried several different Pinots and decided that the Pinot Gris was our favorite. Here is a picture of us toasting to Switzerland using Swiss-pride cups we purchased for the national day coming up this Saturday!

The picture to the right pretty much sums up our Sunday. We hiked to the top of Eggishorn (2900 m tall!!) in order to get this view of the Aletsch Glacier - the largest glacier in the Alps!! It is 23 km long and covers more than 120 square kilometres and, by the way, it is absolutely stunning up close. As a nature - freak, I would have liked to spend much more time exploring the huge chunk of ice, but cable cars, fondue, and crazy train-ride games took us back to Lausanne. Until next week . . . Ciao!

Moving along nicely

Sorry it's been a while since I last posted, but I've been pretty busy with our research project for this summer. Over the last 5 weeks or so I've been building a data set comprised of major litigation, violations, etc against 50 investment banks or so since 1990. A lot of banks indeed, which has made for a lot of data! I must say, however, that the speed at which I was gathering the data picked up quite a bit as I moved along simply because my strategy/technique was more efficient. I actually just finished up building the data set yesterday, and will now move forward with the next steps in the project, and/or make modifications to my work thus far as my PhD candidate to whom I am an assistant reviews it.

Since making my last post I spend a few days in Barcelona over 4th of July weekend. The city was great, and I definitely enjoyed it more than Amsterdam. The weather was spectacular the 3 days I was there, and my friends and I spent a good amount of time on the fabulous beach Barcelona has to offer. It was nice to see my buddy as he wound down his 12-day Euro trip. We thought about trying to make it to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, but I read somebody was killed by a bull, so probably a good idea we didn't go.

Last Monday, Evgeny, the PhD student I mentioned above, was kind enough to invite me to a BBQ he had at Tiefenbrunnen, which is a beach (no sand obviously) by the lake here in Zurich. The place was pretty sweet, as it had spots to barbeque, ping pong tables, slides and diving boards going right into the lake. The weather was perfect that day, which was nice because it's been a little rain as of late here in Zurich. To the left is a nice shot looking onto the lake.

Tomorrow I'll go to Bern, as many other ThinkSwiss people are, for the programs all day event. Should be a good time, and I'm excited to travel to the country's capital. Friday my mom and her sister will come to Zurich to visit for about 5 days. I think we'll be doing a few activities around Switzerland next weekend, so I'll be sure to post an entry next week with some cool pictures from their visit. Should be a blast!

Monday, July 27, 2009

more like schmigital fabrication

in my typical being on top of things fashion i have delayed my first post by nearly half my stay in switzerland...but hopefully i can make up for it a bit now.

luckily for me tom has already outlined the work we are doing at in the gramazio + kohler digital fabrication group at the eth a bit, where ive been working since mid june. for better or worse, mostly better i think, ive encountered a working situation quite alien to what expectations id formed before arriving in zurich. ive been mostly working on the new york project that tom described (a robotically assembled undulating brick wall for a gallery in manhattan) the work for which has been a bit mixed...there was a two day period for example where i cut swiss bricks by hand in a factory in rural switzerland for a prototype which required simulated american bricks...another two days where i manually fed bricks into a conveyor belt for a different prototype and squeezed plastic levelers underneath its base layers to keep them steady over an uneven ground surface...the theme here apparently being that often much complexity and even manual labor is actually created or exacerbated rather than eliminated by these digital fabrication techniques that are often touted for their assumed ability to streamline design and construction processes.

brick saw!/ mr tom stewart with robot

this week i am starting a new project (partly because they just found out their insurance at the eth wont allow us thinkswiss types to operate the robot once its in new york because the govt wont issue us work visas)...which is a commission from a dutch architect/planner to reinterpret a set of paintings that madelon vriesendorp made for another well known dutch architecture firm (she had an exhibit devoted to her work in switzerland recently, which i missed bc im a dummy: into large scale sculptures for an installation in rotterdam, which will be 5 axis milled using our institute's robotic arm. quite a strange assignment actually given the scope of the work that the group usually does, but in this case it is strange in a pretty interesting way i think. my main task will be to develop a process which can realize the figures at a certain level of abstraction which will allow for the sculptures to be both legible as manifestations of the vriesendorp paintings but also relatively imprecise enough in detail for the pieces to be realizable on a tight time schedule. also it should be better for this blog now that tom and i wont both be making brick-centric posts all the time.

outside of the institute ive been having the summer it seems most everyone else is having, lots of trips exploring switzerland, lots of biking and hiking, lots of not buying anything because everything is so ridiculously expensive...this past weekend i took a day trip to austria (where i bought 5 euros worth of food and ice cream that would have cost me 20 francs in zurich btw) to see a peter zumthor museum/antony gormley exhibit in bregenz, and the next day went on a hike from adelboden/engstligenalp to kandersteg, with really perfect weather the whole day for a change (note the current spontaneous downpour after a full day of clear sky for those in zurich at the moment).

gormley exhibit / ascent from engstligenalp

looking forward to meeting everyone in bern this week...


Running around

Another week, or two (?) has gone by. In lab, work ahs been pretty steady. I have been running subjects almost every morning, putting them into the system and running very mild analysis in the afternoon. A while ago my computer-savvy supervisor attempted to introduce me to the EEG analysis program he uses that runs through Matlab. I have absolutely no familiarity with programming, so my first encounter with this monstrosity was bewildering to the point of hysterical laughter. He taught me what to type to achieve this or that effect from the program, and every few days I’ve been picking up a new set of magical mantras to make the program generate the next level of analysis. Most people have a slight bias for the blue color of the spectrum—this is not the topic of my research, but a byproduct observation. I have now run 11 subjects; my goal is about 20—removing some bad recordings that should make for a small but sufficient sample size of maybe 12. This is all I can say about my research so far—the main topic requires much more analysis, some of which I cannot do. I also have enjoyed some interesting presentations related to the main work that goes on in this lab.

Socially, I have had a few adventures. Last weekend I spent an afternoon in Luzern—a very pleasant town that hosted the unfortunately named Blue Balls festival the day we were there. We went to the art museum there as well, and I was pleasantly intrigued by the work of Hans Erni. At night we took the train the Schwyz, the town that, according to my guide book, is the namesake of the country. If you look at a picture of this town, you will think is if photoshopped, because behind a perfectly normal building shoots up an entirely otherworldly mountain. But it is really so. We stayed in a hostel, 6 people conveniently in a six-person bedroom. I and another fellow had bought two beers at the supermarket, something new to try out. When we opened them up before bedtime, the beers turned out to both smell and taste like smoked meats.

In the morning, the others planned to hike. I, not an experienced hiker at all, felt my day would be more satisfying spent closer to civilization. I visited Fribourg first—a sizable town that has a fantastic old section that I didn’t know existed until suddenly it appeared under a bridge. It was beautiful and far down, and the next few hours I spent running back and forth and up and down this hilly old center. Very enjoyable. Next, I headed to Neuchatel—town on a wonderfully blue lake with yellow buildings and one “rouge” (but really entirely pink) cathedral. The museum had an exhibition about some chocolate company—so I got to eat some free chocolate. Last, I headed to Yverdon-les-bains on the other end of Lake Neuchatel, where there is a castle that closed before I got there. I didn’t enjoy this town that much. I was tired, and missed my train home for a delicious icecream (entirely worth it).

On Tuesday the students in the summer program had a group barbecue. Thursday I went to a museum, la Fondation de l’Hermitage, that was displaying bits and pieces of early 20th century-to-modern art. A new discovery here was Max Ernst. This museum was small and pleasant, and I tried to follow a tour in French, semi-successfully.

This past weekend was yet another adventure. On Saturday, while everyone else headed to Neuchatel, I made my way first to the cathedral and market in Lausanne (delicious berries and spinach and apples!), and then to Vevey and its Alimentarium. On this day, my phone broke, my long-dying mp3 player refused to turn on, my camera stopped responding, and my student ID disappeared, all within 2 hours.

Vevey was in fact nice; for me it had two highlights/goals, really one: find the Fork in the lake, of which my brother has an excellent picture, and go to the museum of food=Alimentarium, to which the fork actually belongs. The food museum (where I realized that my student ID is missing) was not actually all that interesting minus the amusing little things they had like creepy animations, 3D movies illustrating digestion, and a giant hamster wheel for people.

Some other amusing points of Vevey: They have chairs installed into the rocks by of the lake. They also have a statue of Charlie Chaplin, and some kind soul put real flowers into his hands next to the metal one on his lapel. They also have a long lakeside promenade; this inspired me to walk, rather than take the train, to nearby Montreux (I planned a pilgrimage to the statue of Freddie Mercury there).

The walk to Montreux was not particularly memorable. Seeing Montreux by day free of crowds and food booths of the Jazz festival, I don’t really know how they fit all that stuff into these relatively small space. From behind some shops emerged Freddy Mercury. I was very happy to see him. I sat down next to him and tinkered with my camera, which stopped working as I left Vevey, to no avail. I took a discrete photo that didn’t work out too well. But now I have evidence of having encountered his statue. My mission in Montreux is complete.

Next destination was Chateau de Chillon, a few more kilometers away. This is an almost thousand-year old structure that was the stronghold of several different series of rulers. This castle had wonderful latrines—holes with lots of space below descending to the lake. I also enjoyed the large reception room where the insignias of different whoever’s were painted all over the walls.

Sunday morning many of us from the summer program hiked to the Aletsch glacier. We only got to hike to it and not along it because, after some delays, we would not have been able to catch a cable car down the mountain, and could have missed the last train home. I have never really hiked a mountain before. It was beautiful. A different world. When I am up high in the mountains, I feel that if I just go a little higher, I will be able to see a very far-away place; or that strange creatures reside there.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Trekking through the vineyards

As I sit here at the end of my last weekend in Switzerland, I am starting to realize all the things I will miss. I have even stuck my camera out the window to catch video of my view (which can't be captured, despite my efforts). I've taken the "scenic route" from my place to downtown Lausanne just to try to soak in the last couple romps down the hill, although I'm not crazy enough to try to come back up the hill that way. However, in many other ways I am more than ready to go home, as I really miss the people, the foods, and even the simple familiarity of being in one's home country. The difference has been really wonderful, but there's "no place like home".

This last week at work was an interesting one, as my mentor was out of town. Unlike most people, who find the absence of their supervisor to be time to slack off, I generally work harder. I have no one around to say "that's just not worth it", "won't that keep you here too late?", or simply having help making plans for the next experiment. It's actually a great practice, though, as I will work more like that during my PhD studies. What I have to learn now is how to contain my exuberance, that unhealthy excitement that pushes me beyond my limits because I just want those results. With science, as with many other things, the harder you push, the more things you can get done poorly. This summer has taught me, more than anything else, how to take my time so as to not make mistakes, but this week that just left me getting out much later than I intended. I'm sure the pendulum will swing into place, and then I'll be a perfectly balanced researcher, but for now, I'm waiting for that piece of wisdom.

On a funny note from lab life, I've been picking up a lot of English and its strangenesses. Odd, really, that I'd come all the way to a French-speaking country just to learn my native language, but it's true. For instance, my supervisor is a German with a Scottish boyfriend, who spent much of her univeristy years in the UK. As many things in biology reek to high heaven, she used the word "fushty" to describe a certain smell. I asked her to repeat, and realized it wasn't just her accent, that was just not in my vocabulary. It's a word for disgusting or sketchy. So now I've added that along with a word for content/pleased she also taught me, "chaffed". Along with that, a German in the lab has taught me some of his language, along with making fun of my American sayings, like "have at it". He said that when Americans say "hi", it sounds just like "hai", the German word for shark. So once I said "hi", and he replied, "fish". Once he explained, it made more sense, but it's good to know that it's better to say "hello" to a German.

After a long week at work, I realized that I needed more than anything else to just sleep in, take a more laid-back weekend, and get ready for my departure this coming Friday. I had originally set out a plan, on an excel spreadsheet (my dad was an accountant, all life can be organized on a spreadsheet) with all the places I wanted to go before I left. Ishita, Nasreen and I picked appropriate weekends, and so since a couple weeks into June I've had every weekend planned. Given weather and other concerns, some things got shuffled around, and then Sundays were added to enable us to do even more. All of a sudden, I ended up at this final weekend without a Saturday plan. Fortunately, I had left something off the list that was just perfect for this Saturday, the Lavaux. It was close, beautiful, and a great way to cap off this excellent Swiss experience!

The area between Lausanne and Montreux, the Lavaux, is composed almost entirely of vineyards tucked up into the hills. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, as these vineyards have been cultivated since the 12th century by monks. With its perfect location along the banks of Lac Leman and its many adorable villages that maintain their old-world charm, it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful areas in Switzerland. I took off in the late morning for my hike through the vineyards, and walked for at least 15 km (although probably more) up and down the hills. You just pass vineyard after vineyard, seeing a few small villages along the way. It was just so
incredibly quiet out there, and people generally stick to only to three of the more popular areas. If you go off the beaten path, you don't really lose any of the charm, but you do escape the noise! There are 6 different "appelations" in the region, two of which produce "Grand Cru", the most quality of wines. What makes these wines so special are the grape (mainly the Chasselas, uniquely from the Lac Leman region), the soil (rocky, left from a passing glacier), and the abundant sunshine.
Beyond the hiking, there are "caveaux", little wine cellars that open from about 5PM-10PM and serve wines from the region. Generally, it's kind of a little mom-and-pop shop, where the vineyard owner showcases his wines. I had the opportunity to visit one in the little village of Epesses (also the name of one of the appelations). I sat at a little wine bar, speaking to this vineyard owner who opened a bottle of his Dezaley Grand Cru and showed it to me, saying in French, "this is my own wine". After I tried it, I told him it was very good, and he smiled that proud smile of a man who's produced a masterpiece. Here in the Lavaux, people take great pride in producing only the best (although that's a general, and very nice, attribute of the Swiss). I tried another glass, which he was very sure to top up to the 1 dl mark on the glass, just to make sure I got exactly what I paid for. When I asked where one could buy his wines, he said only in his caveau. It's so interesting to be in a place where they make so much wine, and have so many visitors, that people can just sell their wines from their own backyard.

So that's all the updates I have, other than to say the next time you hear from me, it will probably be in the form of my final report. I have coming up this trip to Bern, along with many of my ThinkSwiss colleagues. I am so excited to return to Bern, as that remains one of my favorite cities in Switzerland. I agree with Ursina's comment, the Aare is one of the nicest things there, and it really does "make the city". So for now, à bientôt!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

ThinkSwiss trip to Bern July 29, 2009

Hello, Bonjour and Sälü zämä,

On July 29, many of you ThinkSwiss researchers will take part on a trip to Bern. I hope you will all enjoy it. It is a great opportunity to meet many interesting people: your sponsors from Presence Switzerland and the State Secretariat for Research and Education, people from the U.S. Embassy and last but not least your fellow ThinkSwiss researchers from all over the U.S.

ThinkSwiss participants on the trip:
ThinkSwiss Research Scholarship awardees: Ishita, Jason, Matan, Julian, Yee Hoong, Erin, Jonathan and his wife Kristin from Lausanne; Rebecca from Geneva; Brett, Tom, Martin, Katlin and Rob from Zurich.

Travel Grants awardees at the Summer Research Program at EPFL: Stephanie, Amy, Liza and Hallie.

Travel Grants awardees at the Biology Undergraduate Summer School in Zurich: Chantal, Jen, Shane, Heather and Alexander.

Don’t forget:
To print out and bring along your e-ticket, half fare card (if you have one) and a picture ID to get into Embassy. There’s no dress code, casual clothing is ok.

Enjoy Bern!
Bern is my hometown, where I’ve lived for the last seven years. So I hope you will like this place as much as I do.

My three favorite spots in Bern:

  • The “Pläfä” , which is the platform in front of the cathedral (Münster) overlooking the river Aare. A beautiful spot to just hang out and relax.
  • The Old Tramdepot, down by the bear pits. This used to be the place where streetcars were stored, but now it is one of the best places to drink a beer in Bern. They have their own homebrew and the view from their terrace onto the old city is great.
  • The river Aare. Anywhere along the Aare is great! I think in summer I love Bern mainly because of this nice river. For a little stroll along the river you probably best walk upstream from the bear pits.

Have fun,

Office of Science, Technology and Higher Education
Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, D.C.

P.S. At the moment there are no bears in the bear pits. Pedro, the last bear in these pits died recently :( and the new ones are waiting for a nice big bear park down by the river, which is still under construction.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

KNACKERED in Lausanne

Hi, my name is Hallie Rozansky and I'm a rising junior at Yale University, majoring in chemistry. I'm originally from Rydal, PA, a suburb outside Philadelphia, and this summer, for the first time in my life, I'm living for two months outside the United States. I'm spending my summer in Lausanne, Switzerland, working in the Swartz laboratory at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL). As you may have gathered from the title, my past two weeks in Lausanne have left me absolutely knackered. For anyone who doesn't speak British English or doesn't have a good friend who does (and for both of those things, I feel sorry for you -- one of the highlights of the past two weeks has been repeating back, in my best British accent, the wonderful phrases I hear from Delwen, my Belgian friend who has an English "mum"), the definition of knackered is:


–adjective British Slang. exhausted; very tired: He is really knackered after work.

I should clarify though. Knackered
may seem like a bad thing, initially, but considering that I'm only knackered because I've spent all my time either: a) working in a fascinating lab, learning how fibroblasts affect tumor cell migration b) hanging out with the 25 other students in my program, who are smart, funny, love science as much as I do, and are giving me a captivating window into other countries and cultures (we comprise, I think, 14 countries among us) c) traveling around Switzerland and d) playing volleyball, soccer (football for the non-Americans), and swimming in the breathtakingly gorgeous lake that's only a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment, I couldn't be happier about it.

So where to begin? I think my only option is to break down this blog (and apologies to everyone reading this, this is about to be a long one) into those four sections.

a) The Swartz Laboratory. My lab's overarching theme is the lymphatic system, a system of vessels, capillaries, & other pathways through the body that is similar to the circulatory system, except it carries lymph, a combination of fluids & proteins that is similar to blood plasma. The lymphatic system is important as a transport system and as a regulator of fluid flow through the body (it prevents fluid accumulation, and therefore swelling, in tissues) but is maybe most familiar these days as the transport system for tumor cells, which can travel through the lymphatic system to the lymph nodes and metastasize. My work is primarily based off the finding that fibroblasts, a type of cell, seem to be able to aid tumor migration, and perhaps in that way aid metastasis.

I'm lucky -- my work is both really interesting and fun, and my experiments are fairly short (about 1 day each) so I can get results quickly and then decide where to go from there. The people in my lab are also really wonderful, and my post-doc is an excellent mentor, and has taught me a ton in just the last two weeks. I'm looking forward to the next 6 weeks here -- whether or not I get any conclusive results (although that would be GREAT), I’ve learned a lot already and look forward to even more, and the experience I’ll gain here will be invaluable in whatever I choose to do next.

b) The other students in my program. There are students from the United States, Turkey, China, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Morocco/Canada, Russia, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, and Romania. And this is just the
students in my program. The students we hang out with from outside the program are also from Taiwan, Algeria, France, and Canada, to name just a few. As I've written home to nearly everyone, it sounds corny, but learning about other people's cultures has been one of the most incredible parts of this program. Not only do I now have some fabulous vacation spots where I can stay for free whenever I decide to travel the globe, but I also am meeting people with backgrounds and perspectives that are vastly, vastly different from mine. I've learned more about Eastern Europe in the last two weeks than I think I have in my whole life, and whether we're talking about the country’s cuisine, poverty issues, the police force, or the night life, I'm constantly amazed by the experiences and the insight of my fellow SRP(Summer Research Program)-ers. The best part is, we really are so so different -- different backgrounds, languages, culinary tastes, sometimes senses of humor -- but we connect so unbelievably well, and we are so similar underneath it all. Sometimes the jokes we make are phrased differently, but the same ideas are still funny to everyone. We all love science and get into conversations about patch clamps or cell cultures that would be incredibly boring and nerdy to any outside observer. And generally, we all share the same curiosity and desire to learn about each other and each other's cultures, to travel, and to explore our new home, and we all love to hang out with each other. Some of the best times I've had so far have been sitting in Planete Bleue, the complex where the majority of the students are staying, throwing Smarties into each others' mouths, playing run-around ping pong, nearly breaking dishes with our insanely bad volleyball skills, and just generally laughing and having a good time.

c) LA SUISSE! I came to Switzerland fully expecting that, as an American living in Europe, I would do a tour of all the big cities. I'd jet off each weekend to Paris, Rome, Barcelona, London, and Prague, sleeping in hostels, hiking on weekends, and taking cheesy pictures in front of monuments – essentially, a scene straight out of any “young American tours Europe” movie. Little did I know that a) the cost of living in Switzerland is way too high for me to have tons of spare change to be tossing around the globe and b) ... even if that wasn’t the case, I wouldn't want to leave the country. Over the past few weekends, my friends and I have begun to start traveling Switzerland and I can safely say it is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. I don't plan on leaving much at all during these two months. So far, we've only traveled to/explored Lausanne, Broc, Gruyeres, Montreux, and Verbier, but we've made a list of about 6 other cities, and plan to travel nearly every weekend. Two weekends ago, we started off by going to the Montreux Jazz Festival (, which actually felt like a bit of a misnomer -- some of the biggest acts were Prince, Lily Allen, and Alice Cooper, and we spent most of our time that day/night listening to a Brazilian band. But jazz or not, the festival was incredible. We strolled by the lake, listening to outdoor music, sat in the park and watched the Brazilian band play for hours while we all took a billion photographs, and then moved to the Jazz Club at night, where we heard the same Brazilian band play and this time, danced along, too. We then crawled our way onto an absolutely packed train and made it home in time to catch the pyjama bus, the legendary nighttime bus that runs from 12 a.m. - 4 a.m. every weekend, after the metros have shut down.

The next morning we woke up, and before going to the lake to swim and play volleyball and soccer, two of my
friends and I (Liza and Delwen, for anyone interested) decided to check out a museum in Lausanne. We finally settled on the Art Brut museum ( -- not an easy feat, since there are at least 10 in the surrounding area, all of which seemed great -- and after navigating Lausanne with Liza as our guide (Delwen's and my senses of direction are not to be trusted anywhere), found the museum and spent the next three hours wandering around, awed by what we were seeing. All the art in the Art Brut museum is done by people who were either diagnosed with psychological disorders or, I believe the description says, are "outcasts or loners" or otherwise unusual people. The museum and the art were very different from anything else I’ve seen, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Lausanne (Family, this is for you).

Basically, each weekend gets better than the last. Last weekend, instead of settling for just two cities, we decided to go for four. On Saturday, we visited the Cailler chocolate factory at Broc (yum), then walked over to the chateau and cheese factory at Gruyeres (yum again), took the train into Montreux for the last night of the jazz festival (good music and good Movenpick ice cream = double yum). Then on Sunday, we went to Verbier to watch one of the stages of the Tour de France. I know I’m raving about everything, but all these places were just so fantastic – so unbelievably beautiful, so much fun, and so different from anything I've seen before. The chocolate factory was cool in and of itself, but the grand finale at the end – a chocolate bar for visitors with bite-sized pieces of all the different kinds, was like something out of Willy Wonka. And I imagined, when I was heading over to watch the Tour de France, that it would be crowded and impossible to see the bikers – when Lance Armstrong rode by, he was about 8 feet away from me! Had I wanted to sabotage the Tour de France, I could have done so. (Instead, I cheered.) I also didn’t imagine the enthusiasm, singing, and free giveaways that were everywhere (we got some interesting hats), or the beautiful views from the side of the trail. All in all, this country is unbelievable.

d) Over the past two weeks, we’ve have taken to calling a certain portion of the lake “our lake.” Too bad for everyone else there. There are volleyball courts, a football/soccer field, beautiful warm water that’s perfect for swimming as long as you steer clear of the (apparently ferocious) swans, windsurfing and kayaking that we plan to take advantage of, and a grilling area that’s about five minutes away and was the site of our barbecue last night. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s the perfect place to go after work, and every time I sit there I’m struck by how beautiful the lake is and how lucky I am to be here this summer. Swimming, playing an intense game of beach volleyball, eating burgers and kebabs, or having a seaweed fight late at night – whatever we’re doing there, it’s peaceful and wonderful and just makes me so glad to be here.

It’s 12:43 my time and I have to wake up in less than seven hours for lab, so it’s probably time to get going … this post is ridiculously long anyway. But there it is – the beginning of my “Suisseventures,” as Liza calls them. Can’t wait to have more : )


First week in Switzerland

Hi everyone,

I am Julian and the first year Ph.D. student in Architecture at Texas A&M University. Regarding thinkswiss program, I am doing the study and workshop at the Media and Design Center, EPFL with Dr. Jeffrey Huang.

I took a very long distance trip in four days. You can find my flight from the picture: China,Shanghai-Atlant-Houston-Amesterdam-lyon-Lausanne; that is almost one circle of the earth.
However, any tired feeling disappeared at the moment when I got on the train from Lyon to Lausanne. That is a very impressive trip with so many great lanscape. The scattered white buildings with red roof look like grow in the mountain; that is, Alps! The beautiful lake, lac Léman, is partly hidden and partly visible.

After arrival at EPFL, I communicated with the professor and did a short presentation to introduce myself and my interested research. Acturally, EPFL has very good environents for studying. Different departments are related each other. Just like my lab, they did joint projects related to architecture, engeering, computer science, climatic and environmental research. As for me, I will be invovled in one or two research projects which are exploring the biological issues and architectural needs in reality. My interest is for energy efficiency from the inspiration of biological shot term adaptation responding to the climatic stimuli, like temperature swings, solar movement or seasonal wind.

For relaxtion, I took much time to walk around the Léman lake and trvelled from Lausanne to a town of France by the boat several times. Great view and great weather!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Week 2: all by my onesies, volley & futball, Lucerne, and Tour de France

Hi All!

My second week was just as grand and even more eventful than the first. It flew by so fast - partly because of all the events and partly because I was on my own in the lab! My post-doc took a holiday in Italy and left me with a laundry list of experiments and data to collect. Come Monday I was quite intimidated by the expectations to repeat techniques I had just learned the week before . . . By the end of the week, however, I found that I had completed everything I had set out to do and without any major catastrophes! It was really nice to be trusted with some responsibilities and confirm to myself that I am ready to start doing my own experiments as a grad student.

July 15th, Ouchy: Although a group of us weren't able to see Harry Potter since it was sold out, we caught a beautiful sunset in Ouchy instead! The picture on the right shows the port in Lac Leman. Other attractions in Ouchy include the huge Movenpick hotel (the best ice cream you will ever consume), the Chateaux d'Ouchy (a ritzy hotel right on the water), good food and an esplanade. We ended up buying a half gallon of Movenpick and picnicking on the grass at the waterfront. At one point, a couple of tourists stopped and ask where we were all from. At that moment, we realized we each represented a different country!

The couple happened to be from England and Greece themselves (with their Mexican dog), so all together we represented England, Greece, Mexico, Canada, Russia, America, Hungary, Romania, and Taiwan. Below is a picture of the us the kind tourists insisted on taking - I still think it's amazing how so many different people can come together in one location and find commonalities with which to share with each other.

Saturday, July 18th: Lucern or Luzern? This sign was posted outside of a small resaurant in Lucerne - my first experience in the German part of Switzerland - and I think it sums up the Swiss culture pretty well. This small city was especially warm and welcoming and there was so much to see! There is a lot of history in Lucern like the old 1400 year old wall and the dying lion carving commemorating the Swiss Guards in 1792 before the bloody part of the French Revolution began. The old city wall is still standing with towers every few hundred feet you can climb up to see a view of the city and lake. Below you can see one of the towers and also a little chalet in Schwyz where we spent the night at my first European hostel! Which was also a great experience.
Finally, Sunday we went to the 15th stage of Tour de France! We went to about 4k before the finish line at the ski resort Verbier and it was simply amazing. The views were breathe-taking and I literally could have touched the cyclists as they passed us by. Check it out! More excitement next week I hope . . .

Monday, July 20, 2009

Unfortunately, a light appears at the end of the tunnel

Salut tout le monde! (Hello everyone!)

With less than 2 weeks of work left, I am starting to realize the brevity of my stay here in Switzerland. I come to this point with mixed emotions, as I miss the people from home (not to mention sharing a time zone with them) but am so loving my time here. The people in the lab are so helpful, nice, diverse, fascinating, and overall great to work with. I think, though, that I will return home with absolutely no regrets. I have pursued this experience, both the science and the travel, with no holds barred.

I realize at this point that I have not said much about my research since I first introduced myself, so I'll take this opportunity to explain. I said before that my work would include UV-induced DNA damage responses. In layman's terms, UV radiation (among many other things) can damage a cell's basic instructions for life, i.e. its DNA. Depending on how these instructions are altered by UV radiation, the cell can make poor decisions that lead to tumors. Cells don't normally figure out that they're damaged until they're about ready to divide and replace themselves. At that point, they are faced with two options, they can either fix the damage or kill themselves (called apoptosis). Inside the cell there are a lot of voices to be heard, and the decision between repair and death is made by committee. I work specifically on one voice in the crowd (a protein called PIDD) that we have reason to believe is quite important, and I get to figure out who its friends are. PIDD's friends influence his decision, so it is important to figure out who he talks to and when in order to understand or control the overall fate of the cell.

Given that, I do a number of different things in the lab to figure this out. One thing I've done much of is irradiating cells in something that looks like a microwave, then seeing how PIDD and his friends react to the change. I also do something called an IP (for immunoprecipitation), meaning that
I break cells open and figure out which friends PIDD is stuck to (and thus talking to) currently. You can see these proteins via something called a western blot, where you put protein into a jelly-like matrix and use electrical force to move the proteins through it. Imagine an adult and a child trying to get through one of those playhouses at McDonald's with all the tubes...the child is
going to go faster because he is smaller and less restricted by the size of the maze. Same goes with proteins, the smaller proteins move faster than the big ones. You can't really see anything yet, because proteins aren't visible to the naked eye (or even under microscopes). Instead, we transfer the gel's protein (using electricity again, but in a different direction) to something easier to work with that proteins love to stick to, which looks a lot like glossy paper. Then we subject this paper to a solution containing antibodies (just like those in our immune system) that sticks only to the protein you're looking for (for example, the antibody recognizes PIDD). You still can't see the protein, so you use another antibody that sticks to the first one. Sounding silly yet? Not really, because the 2nd antibody helps you see where your protein is. The 2nd antibody has something attached to it that will glow in the dark if you put the right chemicals on it, so we basically add the chemical to our protein-containing paper and place x-ray film over it in the dark room. Voila, you get dark bands on the film corresponding to the presence of your protein. And this is how we biologists see things that one can't really see with modern science, at least this is one of the easier ways!

After a week of work, I went out with some other ThinkSwiss Researchers and their friends to the Festival de la Cite in Lausanne. Every year the city puts on this grand event with manycultural and musical expositions. There is food and drink galore, served at one of many temporary carts around the Cathedral in the old town. The Cathedral just shines at night in the green and purple lights they use to illuminate the tower (Picture 2). I had some excellent African food, thanks to the number of African immigrants from French-speaking nations. There was also plenty of Asian and European specialties, all of which looked delicious as well. One of the most interesting Swiss traditions is this rock-stacking, whereby a highly skilled man puts one oddly-shaped stone on top of the other, creating a very stable, but unstable-looking, tower of rocks (Picture 1). It was a great night, and I only wish I had enjoyed more nights of the great food and atmosphere there!

So on to the traveling! I went to Zermatt the weekend before last, a beautiful little valley town beneath the Matterhorn. This is one case in which the Disneyland version is not moremagical. I went with Ishita, her roommate Nasreen, and Nasreen's friend Ifsa. Other than the obvious natural beauty, Zermatt is quite different than other places I've visited in Switzerland. It's incredibly "touristy", and amazingly popular with Japanese tourists whom I have not seen in my previous travels. The town is car-free, and even though I'm told you can drive to the town (although most people take the panoramic train), you would get immediately stopped and fined. They do have buses and small shuttles that run for free throughout the town, as well as some horse-drawn carriages. The four of us girls, however, opted first for a tandem paraglide (Picture 3, taken from the air, me and the Matterhorn). This was a first for all of us, and although a little expensive (150 CHF), it was worth every last cent! After coming down from a "high", both literal and emotional, we finished off our day with a trip to the Gornergrat (Picture 4). This viewpoint (about 3100 m) is reachable by cogwheel train and provides a great view of the Matterhorn (4478 m) and the town below. After coming back down, we strolled down the main street of Zermatt and along the river that flows right through the center of town (Picture 5). This was one of my favorite trips during my time here, but there was more to come the next day!

Although I had mentioned Interlaken as my Sunday plan, we were just too tired after Zermatt to do another active day. We instead decided on the city of Basel, a fascinating, cosmopolitan city situated on the border with both France and Germany. The town itself is full of history, and is the home of the Basilisk, a mythical monster of the Basel fountains and now one of the city's symbols. Walking through the city brings many sights, and like every other Swiss city, it too is cut through by a river (the Rhine in this case). Although it's not excessively touristy, it is very user-friendly, as the city has 5 distinct "walking tours" of old town marked out. You get a map at the tourist center (how I will miss the ever-helpful Swiss tourist centers) that shows 5 walking paths through the center of town each symbolized by the head of a famous Basler and a color. All walks start from city hall (the Rathaus) and are marked out with the head and color of the trail. One of the neatest things about Basel was the Tinguely Fountain (Picture 6), a large, shallow pool containing iron machines that just move water around in awesome ways. After walking through the city, seeing the bright-red Rathaus (Picture 7) and the historic Munster (cathedral), we walked through a park and into Germany. All we did was cross a creek, and we were standing in a wheat field in another country. It is so very unusual for me to pass over a border without any formality, but here it's an every-day occurrence!

This past weekend was also a whirlwind of amazing travel. I spent Saturday in beautiful Lucerne, the "gateway to central Switzerland". It sits at the foot of the Alps and right on picturesque Lake Lucerne. It is home to the "once-oldest" and oldest bridges in Switzerland, the Kappelbrucke (Picture 8) and Spruerbrucke, respectively. The Kappelbrucke, or Chapel Bridge, was built in the 14th century and is made entirely of wood. Attached to that bridge is the Wasserturm (water tower), the symbol of Lucerne and a prison/torture chamber/treasury during early city history. The Kappelbrucke was partially destroyed in the fire of 1993, so the Spruerbrucke (built in the early 15th century) then became the oldest. It is a similar style, but by the crowds on the bridge, you know the Kappelbrucke is still everyone's favorite. The old town is completely pedestrian, so you can wander through the streets freely and visit one of the many shops in the town. Lucerne is also home to the breathtaking "Dying Lion" Monument in memory of the Swiss guards that died in the Tuilleries during the French Revolution (Picture 9). Lucerne is home to many other natural wonders, like the glacier garden (a tourist attraction where you can see marks in natural rock from receded glaciers) and the mountains (notably Titlis and Pilatus). There was more to do here than time to do it in, but I would definitely go back to this beautiful city on the lake.

Sunday, however, was one of the best days in the entirety of my stay. Nasreen and I went up to the Jungfraujoch, the so-called "Top of Europe" (Picture 10). At 3454 meters, it is the highest cogwheel train station in Europe and is home to a famous glacier and ice palace (Picture 11). It's a 2+ hour train ride from Interlaken to the top, so our entire trip to Jungfraujoch from Lausanne was more than 4 hours. It is also one of the more expensive trains in Switzerland, but again, it was worth every cent. Up at the top, you stare over beautiful mountaintops covered in eternal snow and glaciers that stretch to the far distant peaks. You can even walk along the glacier and admire the below-freezing temperature at the top (it was -3.5 C when we went). The ice palace is really an unforgettable experience, as you walk through these tunnels made only of ice (you're even walking on an ice floor) and passing by many ice sculptures. This was probably also home to the most diverse set of tourists I've seen yet, with many Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, American, and European tourists. The number of languages and cultures walking around the top of this mountain just made the experience that much more interesting.

So I think that's all for now, and I've only one more weekend to go. I'm trying to enjoy every last minute of this experience, as there are so many things I'm going to miss. Hopefully I will be able to visit wine country this week or weekend, and then I have decisions to make about where to go this Saturday. Au revoir!