Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lessons from a summer in Switzerland

Spending time abroad can really change your viewpoint. It is humbling to be, despite my college education, essentially illiterate here in Switzerland. Most people in Zurich do speak some English, but I still cannot read signs or labels. Grocery shopping turns into a guessing game when you don't understand any of the three languages the label is printed in! One of the amusing differences I have found is that those red-and-green vegetables we can "peppers" are known as pepperoni here and in several other European countries. The type of meat called pepperoni in the US is just "sausage" here--they don't use different names for each variety of sausage like we do.

The research I am doing here is also fairly new to me. As a chemistry major, I have a fair amount of experience in the lab--but not the kind of experience you need in a biology lab! It is a bit disorienting not to have numbers and equations to predict the outcomes of my experiments. Biology is more like cooking: there is a recipe, but in general it does not have to be followed exactly. And like trying out a new recipe, it is difficult to predict whether the outcome will be successful if you are not an experienced cook! Despite the uncertainty, it is a relief not to have to be painstakingly precise in my measurements. The sterile procedure however I will not miss....

A full bucket of lab waste....yuck!

Outside of lab, I have had the opportunity to see a great deal of Switzerland. The public transport here is excellent--the trains run smoothly, are almost always on time, and cover virtually the entire country. Of all the places I've been, I must say that Lauterbrunnen and Kandersteg have been the most beautiful. These small valley towns surrounded by the Alps have amazing hiking trails easily accessible by cablecar. Although the trail was exhausting, seeing Lake Oeschinensee in Kandersteg was well worth it.

Reflections off Lake Oeschinensee

Not being fluent in another language, I never expected to have the chance to spend a summer abroad. In addition to having something exciting to do every weekend (rather difficult in the US when you don't have a car), spending two months in a German-speaking country in a biology lab has truly been mind-opening. Spending time abroad has been one of the most educational experiences I have ever had, and I must recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity.

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