Friday, August 28, 2009

Final Report

In general, I feel that my research stay has been a very successful one. I worked for the last two months on industry-sponsored applied research projects in the field of composite fabrication for construction at EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering. The research work itself met my expectations and exceeded them greatly. My knowledge of the field has increased significantly through hands-on experiences that would have been harder to come by in the U.S, where research in this specific area is not as developed. My stay in Switzerland has been a very pleasant one, and I managed to travel quite extensively during weekends and explore many hikes, cities and villages across the country. Needless to say, the locals were always eager to assist whenever and wherever needed.

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.

No comments: