Thursday, July 9, 2009

Time flies when you're having fun...

Hello again from Switzerland! It's been quite a busy week for me in the lab, but I'm finally getting the chance and energy to sit down and write about my latest adventures.

In the research world, my independence continues to grow. I am starting to understand more perspectives on the same thing, because in biology we have so many. There's always a great spectrum of needs in any experiment, it's just a matter of knowing what protocol to use to get what you need (if you even know that much!). Everyone has their own way of doing things that they're pretty sold on; it works for them, and the cost of changing is just not worth the potential benefit. So when you talk to someone else that says it's "better this way" or "it's fine this way", and you're still young enough to be flexible, you start modifying what you're doing until you reach your own perfect medium. But just about everyone, no matter how inflexible on their own protocol, understands this as just the way it is. We say it all the time here in my lab, "I will try it to see if it works in my hands," because so often what works for you does not work for someone else. You never really get to the bottom of the difference, like maybe the cells were a little strange, the conditions not quite the same, maybe your mood was different, but it's quite impossible to know what matters. All you can really hope for is that every time YOU do it, it's consistent. I am just very fortunate to be in a great lab, with very qualified and helpful people that are fantastic to learn from. The diversity of experiences really makes for a great place to fine tune your own methods.

Once you gain this methodical understanding, you start being able to plan your own things. You know how much time it takes you, what steps are involved, how controlled about it you want to be. Especially important to me is knowing when the long incubation times are, as they are helpful for either multi-tasking or taking a good break. Here, people take breaks with coffee. Right after lunch usually there's this crowd of people all standing around the Nespresso machine waiting for their cup from a pod. In fact, Nestle, the maker of these Nespresso machines and pods, is headquartered not too far from here. Once, my PI even told me the exact number (in millions) of pods a year they turn out, but as I didn't write it down, it now escapes me. But it was big, so you know. I'm really going to miss the Nespresso machine, and the culture of taking breaks around it. They have told me I should just make my own culture of taking communal coffee after lunch in my next lab, and possibly I will have to institute some version of this. I will also miss the ease of getting good Swiss chocolate to take with the coffee during breaks. And the pastries - oh the pastries. Pain au chocolate is my very favorite here in Switzerland - it's all of a simple croissant with chocolate in the middle. But it's awesome, and impossible to describe to the unenlightened (check wikipedia for a picture!). I will also miss the cafe culture, where you can just take dinner slowly, sit out on the terrace, and enjoy a nice meal by yourself. It's not that popular to eat out in the US by oneself, I always pitied those who had to in days gone by. But not anymore, and certainly not here. I am one of those parties for one many times here, but I am of all people to be envied - Switzerland has taught me to just absorb my surroundings and enjoy those quiet meals by myself. But then again, you have to have a good atmosphere for absorbing, so take that into consideration before trying it yourself and just deciding I'm crazy (to do research I have to be a little crazy, but this penchant for quiet meals is not an example).

So on to the adventuring! Last week was a much quieter week in the lab, as so many experiments are a "hurry up and wait" affair. When you're just preparing, you may dawdle along, checking and doublechecking, maybe even get out early one day or two...but if you're in the middle of something, you're rushing around like a chicken with your head cut off doing too many things at once! This is what keeps me feeling alive and thriving in science, this constant ebb and flow of activity. But that brings me to my more ebb than flow week last week, wherein I took a couple of early afternoons to go to Geneva and Montreux.

Geneva was not really all that I had expected. It's a very different feel than other Swiss towns; I really enjoy that quaint Swiss feel with the gems of the city so close together and coupled to a fantastic view. Geneva, though, is much more of a big city feel. The shopping is superior to anything I've seen here so far, and Lac LĂ©man actually cuts directly into the city. Right after crossing over the lake from the train station side of town, you hit one of the main attractions, the flower clock (picture 1). There's a very nice old town, surrounded by an equally old wall. The University of Geneva was founded by none other than John Calvin himself, and a church he used to preach in still stands. The 450th anniversary of the university is this year, and so they are doing a huge historical tribute to John Calvin, which is how I know many of the previous details. I didn't even know until I arrived that the UN was also in Geneva! Unfortunately, I spent the last of my battery on this gorgeous sunflower in the botanical gardens (picture 2, and a very well done garden, I must say) and then didn't have enough left for taking one shot of the UN building. It's not that impressive architecturally, but it's the spirit of the place, you know? Especially interesting was being around there when people were leaving the building, you could tell it was a highly international crowd by their appearance, clothing, and language. It was well worth seeing, even if I couldn't capture it on camera.

Going back to Montreux was such a good idea! I think that Montreux will go down as one of my favorite places in Switzerland. It's just quaint and beautiful, yet sophisticated all in the right places. The walk along the lake is marvelous, and it just strikes me as a great place to relax, stroll, and swim in the ridiculously blue waters of the lake. This time, though, I spent more time hiking, and I mean hiking, up to the top of the city near old town. I discovered the series of small waterfalls in a stream that runs down the hillside, all the way to the lake (picture 3). I got to see some beautiful scenery just walking back down towards town, then took one of those leisurely "me-time" meals on the lakefront. I then discovered I was here, fortuitously, on the opening night of the famous Montreux Jazz Festival. People from all over had come for this night, and I could hear the many English speakers in the crowd (which is unusual for me here). I got to press my way through the crowds behind the main concert hall, and saw some outdoor performers as well (picture 4). Just a great night to be there, and a neat thing to say I've seen!

Finally, my big trip over the weekend was to Milan (or as the Italians say, Milano). We Americans seem to have this "glow" surrounding all of Europe, but especially Italy. I knew that if Milan was only 3 hours away, and thus do-able in a day, I was going to go there if for nothing else than to see Italy. It was a great idea, but I had my fair share of discouragers along the way (all of whom were either Italian or Swiss-Italian). They all said "go to Venice, it's only 6 hours"; in fact, the last person to tell me this was a girl I met on the train to Milan, about 20 minutes before our arrival into Milano Centrale station! It's a very large city, and it's incredibly easy to get lost. Unlike my wonderful Swiss trips, where you get off the train and there are signs everywhere to helpful tourist offices, Milan is not built this way. I had to find my way to the center of town, but once I got there, WOW. The greatest thing, in my opinion, about Milan is the Duomo (picture 6). City life has revolved around this site since Roman times, but the construction of the current cathedral began in 1386. It's the first cathedral I've been to in Europe that has actually installed an elevator to get visitors to the roof to see the view. I took the 250 stairs up, because I've decided that climbing up the stairs is just part of the experience and I wasn't missing it!

Milan is a fashion capital, housing the great Galeria Vittorio Emanuele II (picture 8), a great shopping center bridging the Duomo to the famous La Scala Theater. The weirdest thing about this Galeria is the bull mosaic on the floor in the center (picture 7). It may sound strange to some, but spinning on the bull's testicles is supposed to bring good luck, so you can see many people standing around waiting for their turn to take a swirl. So many people have done this that there is only a hole in the floor where they used to be drawn. Surrounding the Galeria are many shops for the most exquisite tastes. All of this came in handy for me, however, when I was denied entry to the Duomo for having worn shorts on a 90 degrees F (or 30 C) day. I was not going to miss out on this amazing place just because I put on the wrong clothes, so I ran down the street, entered a shopping mall I soon exited for the price and throngs of people waiting in mobs to get up the escalators, and finally found my way to a reasonable H&M. I found my 15euro pair of capri pants I couldn't even try on because of the lines for the dressing rooms, bought them as quickly as possible, and ran back down the street to find a bathroom I could change in. Ironically, I waited in line for that, too, but it was all worth it. The Duomo inside and out is really a sight to behold.

I also did this bike sharing program in Milan called BikeMi. The bikes are stationed everywhere around the city (every couple blocks or so), but you have to go to a central station to get a username and password. You can use the bike for 30 minutes without charge (other than the price you paid for the day, which is low) or 2 hours total. You have to leave the bike for 10 minutes before taking another one, but I think this is the optimal way to see the city as well as get around it. The metro is great transportation, but not great sightseeing. I rode my bike around the city, seeing the Porta Romana (an old arch that unfortunately was covered for renovations), the Navigili (the oldest canals in Italy), the Santa Maria delle Grazie (another church that houses Leonardo's Last Supper), and the Castello Sforezco (once home of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan prominently featured in Machiavelli's The Prince, and picture 5). But don't get all excited, I did not see the Last Supper, as one must book well in advance (which I didn't know until "well in advance" no longer applies), but the church was still well worth the visit. At the end of this crazy day of biking around Milan, I returned to the Galeria for dinner at a nice little restaurant where I had osso bucco (veal shank) with risotto, a Milanese specialty. It's one of my favorites at this nice Italian place in Albany I've visited, and so I knew I had to try the real thing here, and it was well worth it!

But the adventure didn't end there, I met these really wonderful Swiss Germans from Brig on the train ride back to Lausanne. We spoke only in French, our common language, but I did learn the Swiss-German word for rainbow, which sounds like "ragenbogel". It's "regenbogen" in high German, but they definitely say it differently here! The ride back was really beautiful, too, as we passed by the alps and Lake Maggiore of northern Italy.

On Sunday, I rented a bike from Lausanne Roule, a city-run enterprise available in many other Swiss cities that lends free bikes for the day. You show ID and give a 20 CHF deposit, which you get back at the end of the day. I even got a free soda, so it was a pretty neat deal. Lausanne makes it easy to bike around town with its many bike lanes, but the uphill battle is really daunting! I took the bike down to the lakefront to go watch a professional beach volleyball match (picture 9), showcasing two of last year's Swiss Olympians from the Beijing Olympic games, as well as many other European stars. Best of all, it was again, free (sponsored by our local supermarket, the COOP, so not so free if you count the price of some of the food here!). I even took the bike the other direction back towards Montreux (east), but then headed back and even climbed up some of the hillside on my way. Overall, it was just a fantastic way to spend a day.

So that's really all for now, but this weekend will be quite an adventure. As Ishita mentioned in her blog, we are off to Zermatt this weekend (home of the REAL Matterhorn of Disneyland fame) and I plan to go to Interlaken on Sunday with Ishita's roommate. It's crazy to think that I've really only got 3 weeks left here. The time has really flown, but it's all been so worthwhile. Until later!

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