Friday, August 28, 2009
Although there were many more, three prominent positive points are: First, the opportunity to learn and implement a very different research culture from the one I got exposed to in my home institution. Research work and pace at my Swiss lab was of a very individual nature, yet all researchers involved adhered to a structured conduct, where they met weekly to discuss each other’s research and offer assistance. This is of course was done in addition to frequent meetings with research advisors; Second, being an open ended program that is subject to personal interpretation, ThinkSwiss offers participants to truly craft a research stay that is tailored to their specific interests, be them industry oriented or purely theoretical. Speaking with fellow participants, I realized just how wide the spectrum of opportunities allowed by the program is; And finally, I found Swiss universities (especially EPFL and ETHZ) to be very English-friendly. Going to a French speaking region, one of my concerns were that a foreign language (non-French, that is) may pose a problem. I was surprised to find that all researchers in my lab (including most of the faculty) almost did not speak French at all. This was not the case anywhere else in the French speaking part of the country. In Lausanne or Geneva, lack of adequate French skills proved to be a substantial obstacle in any situation.
Focusing on some of the challenges encountered during this research stay, here are three: First, I feel that if the professor that accepted me to work in his lab would have been better informed by ThinkSwiss about the nature of the program and its general objectives, possibly my research stay could have been much more organized and enriching as a learning process; Second, except for our meeting in Bern in late July, which was very well thought through and precisely constructed, I feel that the program lacked real content, in addition to our experiences in our respective labs. More frequent meetings where knowledge would have been shared among participants might have had a greater and more coherent impact; And finally, this has nothing to do with the program itself, but one must admit that coming from the U.S, Swiss cities tend to over time be…well, boring. As beautiful as cities in Switzerland are, the fact that nothing is open after 6 pm (6:30 if you’re lucky) or on Sundays turns any city into a ghost town when you would most like it to be lively. I had a hard time getting using to it, even after staying in Switzerland for a couple of months.
Comparing Swiss and American Research, as I mentioned earlier, I found Swiss research mentality to be very different from the American one. The clear advantage in Swiss research as I see it is the relaxed atmosphere. The lack of apparent competitiveness, as well as a true importance to free time, make the research process much more focused and obstruction free. On the other hand, it also slows down any discoveries or development processes that would have been expedited in a more intensive and competitive environment.
In light of the wonderful time I had and the numerous positive experiences I encountered, I would definitely consider returning o Switzerland. Having said so, this would probably be limited to working rather than studying. I find that the importance of having leisure time in Swiss mentality is very beneficial in a job context, but rather hindering in a research context.
Thank you so much for allowing me to experience Swiss research and culture. This was for sure an unforgettable summer that will undoubtedly have a substantial impact on my future research and professional career.
May you keep assisting fortunate students in exploring new intellectual territories.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Fate had different plans for me of course. When I arrived in Airolo at the end of my train leg of the trip, the weather had gone from bad (in Zurich when I left) to worse (when I arrived at the last stop). I expected the opposite because it was supposed to get nicer the further south I went, so my potentially glorious train ride through some amazing territory was ruined by incessant fretting about the weather and an obsession with looking over each hill for the bit of blue sky that never came. The trouble is that it’s not smart to just go for it, especially when you’re an inexperienced hiker like I am, so I was really concerned that I’d have to just come home.
As luck would have it, the two Italian speaking women at the information desk of the train station proved extremely helpful and made it their mission on the slow rainy day to help this soaked and distressed traveler. It actually turned into a fun 45 minutes because I got a chance to speak some Italian in a real conversational setting as opposed to a last resort in Zurich trying to get a Swiss person to understand me. In the end, I changed my route to accommodate the weather delay and chose a shorter safer pass in case the rain returned to ‘downpour’ mode. Luckily, by the time my bus left to take me to the new trail head, the rain had subsided and was replaced by a misty haze with a few pockets of blue trying desperately to make an appearance.
I was bummed about the change at the beginning because my Saturday hike turned from an epic 5 hour 1200 m climb to a modest 300 m ascent up a gentle path. I arrived at the new hut around 5 pm not tired and not ready to relax, so I decided to do a little mini roundtrip hike to a small lake that was up another 400 m from the hut. GREAT idea I must say—though not my own as my Italian friends suggested it—because that little lake made the entire weekend worthwhile and immediately rectified my planning errors/bad luck .
Lago delle Pigne is an amazing place. It sits at 2250 m hidden on a tiny plateau amidst the ridgeline and neighboring alps. With the sky as it was, the lake resembled a pool of almost black ink with only the shallow edges reflecting a less sinister greenish blue. The surrounding ridge and slightly elevated adjacent pastures protect it from the prevailing winds that course through the valley. For my hour spent there, Lago delle Pigne was frozen in time, totally still and perfectly silent. The amount of snow that falls in this region makes for epic summertime melts. There was water all over the place throughout every leg of the weekend hike, which was a new Swiss mountain phenomenon for me. My previous hike, though beautiful and breathtaking, was dry and almost arid at the upper reaches of its peaks. Not so in Val Bedretto. On the way to Lago delle Pigne I crossed the first of many alpine streams and waterfalls, which do their part to create these little lakes like Lago delle Pigne. To be near water changes everything somehow. The constant feeling of motion brought on by the water and the melting of the snow reminds you of the seasonal transition there that never has enough time to complete, as the approaching fall’s temperatures and the following winter’s snowfall begin an entire new cycle of precipitation.
Back to the mountains! Well fed and fairly tired, I hit the sack only to battle the ruthless snoring of a guy in another bunk who I immediately found myself hating more than anyone else in the world. How he did not wake himself up from the heinous symphony of decongestion I do not know. With nowhere else to turn, I listened to some Harry Potter and finally got to sleep to the comforting sounds of Jim Dale.
The first leg of my hike rolled through green pastures in the valley accented by the odd cow here and there. The trail began around 1900 m and went up and down a fair amount, ending around 2000 m at the base of the climb towards the mountain hut at Corno Greis. That climb was short and enjoyable, with lots of fun and friendly hikers along the way. I met a dog named Scott and tons of Italian speakers, which put me in a great mood. Scott actually found another dog to play with, got distracted, and completely lost his owner, so I helped lead him back down the trail until he heard the distant familiar cry of the man yelling “Scott!”.
Capanna (mountain hut) Corno Greis is new construction and I must say boasts some pretty impressive architectural characteristics considering its location and function. I was immediately inspired by its materiality and I think that when I renovate my mountain hut I will recall Capanna Corno Greis. The people there were really hospitable and offered suggestions for the next leg of the trip. Because I was moving really quickly, my original plan didn’t include enough distance, so I added an extra 3 hours to the day by continuing deeper into the valley past Corno Greis and then returning back to that point to continue my original route.
GREAT IDEA. I found so much snow, another beautiful lake, and a massive reservoir that looked like something out of a James Bond movie. The trail was absolutely spectacular. I really like long generally flat trails where you can eat up distance without struggling with too much up and down. Ascents are great, but I really liked being able to get a lot of mileage on that stretch. I even did some trail running through the pass, which added some excitement and got the heart rate up. I reached another mountain pass to the south that opened up into another adjacent valley that was entirely Italy. The mountains in the distance there reached a much higher elevation and the lake at the base was even further towards sea level in the opposite direction. The wind was howling through there. It was just epic.
The view from this part of the day was majestic. On my last hike I was just shocked at how varied the textures of the Swiss mountains are, with trees, lakes, pastures, rocks, and the odd patch of snow. Here that condition was amplified a thousand fold. The valley began 800 m below my perch at 2200 with a river that receives all of the water from the waterfalls and streams coming down from the mountains. The area around the river at that elevation is lush with foliage: green fields with dense pine forest sretching part way up the adjacent ridgelines to the north and south. At the end of the tree line, the green pastures stretch up another couple hundred meters and disperse in various paths and patterns until the terrain turns almost completely rocky, with patches of green and color interspersed seeping out from the lines cut into the ridge by the many water flows. Eventually the rocky terrain turns nearly vertical and transitions to the dominant ridges and snow covered peaks. In between the peaks, instead of the grass turning to rock, the green pastures wrap into the space between the mountains and add another amazing element to the scene: huge rolling sections of luscious green that wind through the snowy peaks. When you add the sky, which was that brilliant Italian blue sky, the resulting palette gets your attention.
The walk that offered the view of what I just described led me to one of those flat areas in between two peaks. The path from there takes you to Passo San Giaccomo, which is the pass that sits right along the Italian-Swiss border. This was of course an exciting moment, even though the view from that junction paled in comparison to some of the other places I'd been over the weekend. It was fun to have one foot in Switzerland and one in Italy. Even though the last place I was in Italy was hours away and over 2000 m lower in elevation, it still felt good to be home.
Unfortunately, my glorious return to Italy was cut short as my hike continued back through Switzerland. I then had to descend 800 m into the valley to the bus stop that would start my journey home. It was 3:25 at that point and the descent was supposed to take 1h 25min. The bus I wanted to be on was at 4:11 and the next one wouldn’t come until 6:30. I had no idea where the path led and how long it would actually take, so I decided to not watch the time and descend at a comfortable but slightly quicker pace than usual. The walk down was technical for the first half and absolutely fantastic for the second. Once I got past the disorganized rocky terrain that was kind of a "take whatever path you want" situation, the trail began to level out as it wove through the pine forest. It was so neat to be lost in the humid and hot forest after being up with snow covered mountains only an hour before.
I was absolutely exhausted at that point. I did not know it at the time, but I was heading into my 15th mile of the day by the end of it all, and I was definitely beginning to feel the burn. I had no idea what time it was and I figured that I would miss this bus and try to find out another way to get to the train station. Just as I had basically resolved to follow that plan, the road came into view from the trail. About 2 minutes after that I saw the bus fly by and with my heavy pack on and my tired legs below me I burst into a full on sprint, bouldering through the forest past other confused hikers. Finally, the riverside path met a bridge, and I crossed over and up a staircase to the road, where the bus was in sight, stopped in the town of All'Acqua. Sure that it would leave at any second, I kicked in the afterburners. Just as the right side of the bus came into view I saw the doors close. I was within range of flaling my arms and yelling something useful in Italian, so I ripped off the t shirt that was wrapped around my head to protect my neck from the sun and started waving it while running down the street with my pack flying all over the place. That combined with "ASPETTA ASPETTA ASPETTA", which means "wait wait wait", saved the day. The bus driver opened the doors and I stumbled into a cabin filled with senior citizens who appeared to have just finished a leisurely 12 minute guided tour.
When a car overheats and you pull over to the side of the road, the disguising wind is gone and you recognize that the engine is spewing smoke and emitting strange odors. I definitely experienced the human version of that as the world that was moving so fast for the previous 8 minutes halted to a dead stop inside the bus cabin, where all the sweat that didn't have time to escape during the frantic sprint just dominated my situation. I can't imagine I was a welcome addition to the bus, but man was that a clutch effort. A perfect sporting end to a physically challenging and spectacular day.
All in all, I traveled over 30 km that weekend, doing about 7 on Saturday and 25 on Sunday. I started at 1500 m, reached the highest point at 2550, and finished again back at 1500, with too many ascents and descents in there to calculate. Let's just say that I'm still exhausted and when I woke up in Zurich on Monday morning, I felt like I had been hiking for a week. That's just unbeatable baby.
Firstly, the Berne trip was one of the highlights of the summer. It was a nice way to mingle with other scholars as well as to enjoy the Swiss capital. I had actually never visited Berne before, so I was very excited for the trip. I was delighted to meet many of my fellow scholars and it struck me how diverse our group was; there were architects, biologists, chemists, engineers... The city historical tour and at the US embassy was very instructive and interesting. At the end of the day, we swam in the Aare river, which was quite an experience due to the strong flow from melted glacier water.
Secondly, I traveled to many places and discovered new hiking trails in the Alps. Every Swiss boasts about their public transportation and how Swiss's location in Europe is ideal for traveling. I now understand such national pride because I have personally experienced the convenience of traveling on Swiss public transportation. I jumped on the train to Geneva to see my family; jumped on the train to go hiking. I hopped on the train or the bus wherever I needed to go, it was just quick, reliable and easy.
Thirdly, my mentor, Susan, is probably the person who most positively influenced my internship. I was able to work, plan and progress in my research project independently, yet she would often give me feedback and challenge my critical thinking skills. I was able to not only become proficient in new biomedical research techniques, but also to learn how to interact and work with different people in a large lab setting. I hope to work again with her in the future
I very much enjoyed my research experience and have had no issue integrating in the lab, in fact I felt entirely immersed in the team from the first day of my internship. Everybody was very hospitable and welcoming for example almost every week we had a lab barbecue or festivity taken place.
The Swartz lab is primarily comprised of scientists and students from North America, however there are a fair number of students from Europe and Asia. The research mentality was thus not too different from my previous research experience.
I was astonished by the immensity of Swiss labs in contrast to US labs. My Swiss lab almost occupies an entire floor building and dozens of major cutting-edge projects are being undertaken there. At least for bioengineering and biotechnology research, one big advantage Switzerland clearly has over the US is in research operating budget. With large research budgets and great working conditions, Swiss research labs are highly regarded and sought by scientists worldwide.
At a barbecue, a fellow ThinkSwiss scholar said to me that Swiss (or Europeans in general) are too laid back in life and are too relaxed at work. People in the US have a lot more competitive mindset than in Europe, but it was interesting to notice such difference in mentality.
During my stay, I encountered several drawbacks mainly due to my ill-considered planning. Firstly, I should have planned to stay longer for my research stay. Although time is always an uncontrollable issue for summer students, I could have perhaps further contributed to my research project had I stayed for a few more weeks.
Advice for future ThinkSwiss scholars: I would encourage you to stay as long as possible, because TIME FLIES when you're there! Trust me!
Secondly, I did not balance my work and leisure very well. Many a time being carried away by interesting experiments, I found myself stuck in lab until midnight on a Friday night. In the future, I need dedicate more time to actually enjoy life.
Advice: Unless you are a 100% lab rat or take no pleasure in exploring one of the most beautiful country in the world, please plan you weekends and traveling time well in advance. Preferably, allocate and plan your time before even arriving there.
Last advice I want to say is be prepared to meet and connect with as many people as you can during you stay.
Overall, I am beyond satisfied with the research experience Thinkswiss has provided me. Although I am quite familiar with Switzerland, I discovered and travelled to more beautiful places. More importantly though, I not only visited family and friends, but also met many of my fellow aspiring researchers and interacted with scientists from the Swiss community. In the future, I certainly consider returning to Switzerland for studies and work. I highly recommend this research opportunity to anyone. Thank you very much ThinkSwiss!
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Varzasca Bungee Jump
Alicante, Valencia Region
Let me share with you for the last time my experience which I hope would help the future participants in preparing themselves.
• Overall impression – Did your stay meet your expectations?
This was my first time in Europe and I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to the most beautiful place in the world for 3 months. The experience was far beyond what I had expected.
The stay in Lausanne for 3 months was superb and exceeded my expectations. The time flew really fast and even before I realized it, I was packing my bags to fly back to Chicago. Work at EPFL was very productive and I learnt new stuffs. Moreover it opened up a new approach to what I was already doing. The lab I worked in is very well managed and has some excellent faculty as well as phd and post docs.
• Three positive points?
At EPFL I got a chance to work in a lab (the biomedical imaging group headed by Prof Michael Unser) which has produced some of the pioneering works in the field of biomedical image processing and houses a very multi-talented gamut of leaders as well as students. I worked with Dr Dimitri Van de Ville which was an enriching experience in itself and I hope to be in touch with him in future and we plan to publish some of the results that we got out of the work I did there. Although I do not work with images, but analyzing a problem from a different perspective can potentially produce fruitful results.
Working in the lab, I learnt new techniques in the field I am working in, I got to interact with people from different countries in Europe(which is not very common in the US) and I was exposed to a new culture. Apart from work, I visited some very beautiful places in Switzerland over the weekends and it was a perfect balance between work and vacation. I was amazed to see how well maintained the country is and how precisely the trains are on time. The public transport was well above my expectations. I fell in love with the coffee, the cakes, the pizzas and the paninis which I am terribly missing out here in Chicago.
Finally I would say that this was the best summer I have ever had and I would take this opportunity to thank Thinkswiss for giving me this wonderful opportunity.
• Three negative points / challenges?
I would not say that there were any negative points, rather shortcomings on my part as I was not aware of them before.
Firstly I had a some problem in communicating with people for the first couple of weeks primarily because I didn’t learn any French before going which I should have and secondly because I lived in Crissier, which is a small town and most people did not speak English. However, I overcame this problem once I knew my way around and where to find stuffs and managed to skill the art of communicating without actually speaking the language. The first few days I would go around with all the maps I could find and writing down stuffs and asking people to read that and help me as they would not understand my accent even if I tried speaking a French word.
The second challenge I faced was the financial scenario. I was not aware that I could actually ask my lab for extra funding as I thought the thinkswiss funding would be sufficient. But its quite expensive out there and I would spent atleast 1500 CHF per month just for my living and then I spent another 500CHF or a little more per month for travelling. Getting a demi tariff was a wise decision on my part as it cut down train,bus and boat fares by 50%.
The third challenge which was not that big an issue for me was the closing times of the stores. If I had to do groceries, I would have to leave the lab early. Every store would be closed on Sundays, so that made groceries impossible on weekends as Saturdays were mostly devoted for travelling. However its not very difficult to get used to the system.
• How well were you coached and integrated in the research team?
I worked with one of the project leaders of the team. As far as research was concerned I primarily interacted with him. However that did not bar me from interacting socially with the other team members. I joined them for the lab aperos as well as a barbeque on the beach. My supervisor, Dimitri was extremely helpful and a great person to work with. I learnt a lot from him and we would still be corresponding for publishing some results of the work I did there.
• Comparison (advantages and disadvantages) between your Swiss and your U.S. research lab, research mentality and team.
I really didn’t find a lot of differences between the research lab here in Chicago and at EPFL. The lab at EPFL was much bigger than the one here. People are more relaxed in their work and would go out for lunch together almost everyday and spend some time over coffee which is not that common here. I didn’t find any notable differences in the research mentality. I would love to work in either place.
• Do you consider going back to Switzerland for studying, a Ph. D. program, work or on vacation?
I would definitely apply for a post doc in EPFL and ETH Zurich, if I plan to do one. I would also certainly love to go back for vacation with my family if I get a chance to.
I spent several hours writing out several postcards that I have been collecting throughout my journeys here. Writing the cards helped me remember the highlights of my summer. I enjoyed seeing snow in July on top of the Rothorn when I went with another family I know to their holiday apartment in Sörenberg. I loved swimming and taking in the views of the Bodensee (
When I was not on a train taking in the sites, I was busy spending time in my village, enjoying the Swiss life. I visited all my friends and neighbors, some of which I hadn’t seen in four years. I knitted a sweater for the first time thanks to the knitting Queen Doris, who always knew how to help after dropping a stitch or some other knitting failure. I took advantage of the fresh raspberries by adding them into several Birchermueslis, cakes, sorbet, and a raspberry cheesecake that I was rather proud of. I also took several bike rides around the village with my Swiss parents, experiences that I keep close to my heart despite my inexperienced biking skills that allowed me to crash twice (I now have a nasty blue bruise above my knee). Unfortunately, I am leaving before I can help harvest the Zwetschge(plumes), Mirabellen, grapes, kiwis, and pears but I got to taste one or two this week as well as fresh pear sorbet…..yum.
Since posting last, I have learned a lot as well from some hard experiences. The worst of all was discovering that USB sticks can completely die on you the day before, within-hours-of turning in the final version of your paper. I lost several hours of work and did not have a backup due to the several times I had been moved from computer to computer while people were on holidays. So I learned not to give full faith to USB sticks and to have a backup no matter what. Amongst other things I have learned how to properly structure 30 page plus research paper and how to manage my time better. I have learned an incredible amount on climate change policy and shocked myself when I started explaining to people how cap and trade systems work, the CDM, and the proceedings at the UNFCCC.
I am both devastated and excited to go back to the States. It is now time to share with others what I have learned and to apply these lessons there. This summer has been extremely successful and productive, it is just a pity that it has come to an end so fast.
Monday, August 24, 2009
One of the best parts of our trip was our tour through Bern (organized by ThinkSwiss). From reading other posts, it seems that others agree! We had a great presentation about the Swiss healthcare system...very interesting to hear and compare to the U.S. given our current healthcare issues. We then had a scooter tour through the city and a lot of fun at dinner there that night...
We loved swimming in the Rhine!! Apparently, this happens all over Switzerland...(though this particular photo is from Bern)