Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Final Post

Switzerland is one of those amazing places that exists in the imagination – a land flowing with cheese and chocolate, guarded by snow-capped mountains, full of international money, and thus rendered immune to the outside world. I had a tiny glimpse into Swiss culture due to the 10 weeks I spent working with a Swiss post-doc last summer, but this did not completely prepare me for the experience of living here. My stay was in no way less than my expectations, but then again, the Swiss only aim to exceed the standard. I had expected to come into an excellent lab full of diverse people, which I did, with the exception that the people were even more diverse than I realized. I also expected to see much of Switzerland and Paris while I was here, and I have done that with the addition of Italy. I feel as if I have visited many other countries, through my many discussions with people from all over the world.

I cannot say enough about the beauty of Switzerland, and I will always remember the awesome feeling of waking up every day to that view! Then when walking to work, I'd come out of the metro only to be greeted by the Alps and Lac Léman again. Furthermore, I was able to get on a train and travel around the region to see more beautiful places. I will also remember how incredible it was to work with such a diverse group of people. Switzerland is a great way to meet most of the world's (and especially Europe's) cultures in one place. The country attracts, almost magnetically, a group of talented and fascinating people, who all get together over coffee to discuss their lives and experiences. Moreover, I could change languages within an hour's train ride. This is such a novel thing for an American, and it really makes one feel as if she is at the epicenter of world activity. Given that, people are incredibly welcoming of other cultures, in most instances, and are usually able to speak English. There were a couple of exceptions, but mostly the language barrier was not an issue. Finally, I have to note the ease of transportation as another of my favorite parts about Switzerland. Coming from the United States, where convenient public transport is really only available in the biggest of cities, and certainly not between them, I was enormously impressed by Switzerland its handling of the system. Lausanne is the smallest city to have a metro system of its type, and it is so convenient. I really did set my watch by Swiss trains, and getting to them, understanding their schedules, and riding on them could not have been easier. I never lacked for mobility, and have now become quite spoiled by all this convenient riding around!

Now that I've stated my favorite things, and you can have no doubt that I truly enjoyed myself, I will comment briefly on the “non-ideal” aspects. Firstly, Switzerland is a very regulated country, which has both its ups and downs. Although I was quite lucky to have mostly free access to washers and dryers, most people I know have “laundry day”. On a person's allotted laundry day, he has a half of a day to complete his laundry on a given day of the week. If you're lucky, there may be a free day. Now, when I say a half of a day, I mean that it could be morning or afternoon, so someone could be assigned Wednesday at 8AM. It is, in my estimation, close to insanity to tell someone to only wash clothing on a workday, during normal working hours. In Switzerland, it is completely understood and really only complained about by us foreigners. Along the same vein, the flexibility in shopping hours is limited, even compared to other European countries. In the US, most cities have a 24 hour grocery store, and if not, your grocery store likely closes around 9 or 10 PM. In Switzerland, the average shop closes around 5 or 6PM, and then is not open at all on Sunday. It came as a complete surprise to me that all Swiss towns turned into ghost towns on Sunday – not only were shops closed, but there were few to no people on the streets. Although in some ways this could be considered good time to relax, as a person who's doing a lot of traveling and working, it makes life rather difficult. Traveling on Sunday is only a good idea if you don't care much about shopping where you're going, and certainly if you then travel on Saturday instead, you better have picked up your groceries on Friday. Otherwise, it's a trip down to the train station, where a more costly, less-stocked, and low-variety store stays open for you. Not even that store is open 24 hours, even though they call it the “24”. Finally, I'll have to note my own, and not Switzerland's, shortcomings. I learned very little French before I arrived, and it was pretty difficult to learn here as well. Had I stayed longer, immersion classes could have been an option, but this was too little too late for me. Although I stated earlier that people often speak English, they do when they have to speak to you. Otherwise, you may be in a conversation over lunch that you only partially understand, because the rest of the table is chattering away in French whilst you sit there confused. In the US, this would probably be considered somewhat rude, but I did not take it that way. It's simply a fact, when in a French speaking country, don't expect the social culture to cater to your language barrier. If I had really known more French, I could have made closer friends and learned quite a bit more from people than I did.

I cannot comment highly enough on the quality of the research lab. My colleagues were excellent, and all very helpful. Their diversity of experiences and ways of looking at the same protocol really helped shape me as a scientist. In figuring out your own way of doing things, as all scientists must do,there is really no better education than observing the habits of others. I had no doubt that if I walked up to a colleague, they would help me, whether they really could spare the time or not. Everyone for the most part was really easy to get to know, minus those, as I mentioned before, that I had a language barrier with. Then again, we would converse on occasion, but not at length. I was very fortunate to have an excellent PI as well, who was very attentive to how I was acclimating, where I was traveling on weekends, and who I had met. I was that “summer student from New York” in a setting where there were no other Americans, nor do they really take summer students. Furthermore, I had a very nice mentor who was there for all the ups, downs, and oops-es of my journey. She was really wonderful to work with, and gave me a lot of room to grow on my own, without being distant when I needed her. This also provided me the opportunity to develop relationships with others in the lab, who were not only helpful but also just a lot of fun to get to know. From these people, I actually gained many new ideas for protocols that enabled me to do new and different things. They taught me to go search out answers from many people, because you never know what will work best for you. The only difficulty in the whole experience was the project, which is really no one's fault. The science sometimes just doesn't work as you expect, and although I got things done, I came out with no new earth-shattering conclusions. But if I had expected that, it would have been foolish to do so. A lot of the connection I formed with the lab was through my traveling. Once people started asking me how my weekend had been, and I rallied back with a wild story of where I had been and what I'd done, the question “So where are you going this weekend?” started popping up on Friday. It was really enjoyable to be able to share my experiences with them, and they definitely enjoyed the crazy, hair-brained adventures of a wild American and her research comrades on their outlandish Swiss adventures. Social life in the lab, though, is associated with three little mental images in my head. I can see myself working in cell culture, laughing with a couple colleagues as a post-doc tries to start singing in the middle of work. Then I have a snapshot of all of us sitting around in the center lab where the Nespresso machines were, talking about our varied experiences. Finally, I recall the Sunday morning I got invited to brunch at an adorable little cafe in Lausanne where a whole bunch of us, Australians, Germans, and an American, sat down to enjoy a real French meal together. These are the memories that last a lifetime.

The research lab, however enjoyable, was quite a difference from what I'm used to. First, as I've mentioned before, it's a little interesting to have German spoken above your head, French across from you, and Italian behind you. This was not an uncommon occurrence for me, and although it was different, I really enjoyed it. Some languages are just fun to listen to, even if you don't understand it at all. Aside from that most obvious difference, the biggest difference was the safety procedure. When one first arrives in an American lab, you go through at least a day of safety briefings, often on- and offline, getting you prepared to handle these dangerous chemicals. Then there's training for working with human cells, and then any extra machinery they consider a little more dangerous. Here, I signed some papers and I was thrown immediately into the lab. Now, I don't consider this unsafe, since I know not to bathe in hydrochloric acid or poke myself with contaminated needles, but I did keep waiting for something to arise (although it never did). Then on the flip side of that, I listened to the stories of those who had to get certified to work with mice here. In Switzerland, the process is much more stringent, as one must attend 5 days of classes, full days with both “theoretical” and “hands-on” training. I have no idea what's so theoretical about holding a mouse, but maybe that's only because I never attended a class. In the US, you have to take an additional training, maybe 2 hours at most out of your time, then you learn from your mentor. We even joked about it here, that so-and-so completed their training, so now they're capable of touching a mouse. Kind of funny, but true. For many people, they don't use enough mice in their research to warrant that kind of time, so others who are trained will handle the mice for them. It seems too that this lab, although very high caliber, was not the “empire” that many US labs come when they are as successful as this one. Often PIs will take the strategy of multiplying numbers of people to keep cranking out the papers, but in this lab, the strategy had more to do with the quality of papers. Then again, there are always other differences one notices among labs, no matter where they are found. Definitely unique to the Swiss environment, though, is the acceptance of vacation. In the US, a week's vacation feels like forever, and you're “under the gun” for weeks to prepare for your upcoming departure. In Switzerland, people plan these two week vacations, and that's not the only time off they take each year. There were weeks when the lab felt so empty, and one week when we canceled the lab meeting because most of us were gone. One would think that this translates to less productive people, but I have yet to find it the case. Additionally, this PI was more visible than I've previously experienced, as he'd come in and chat with people as he took breaks from his office work. In some ways, too, this lab was much more organized, as it had registers of where common reagents could be found (even if the register wasn't completely up-to-date, it was much better than a shot in the dark). Finally, some of the ways in which the people organized to discuss their current research, or even just to shoot the breeze, really aided the environment both professionally and socially. It's taught me a lot about how important it is to get to know one's colleagues, and the summer has left me with many friends I hope to keep up with.

With all the great things about it, I'd be crazy not to have Switzerland on my list of places to return, for any reason! I have been telling my family all summer that we need to come back here for a while, so they can see all these amazing places with me. The hardest part will be picking only my favorites, and then not getting exhausted trying to visit to all of them. I think it would be difficult to come back to Switzerland for a PhD program, given the time stretch required. I am a very independent person, who thrives on change for its own sake, but this summer has given me a new appreciation for the familiar. In a place where people are coming from everywhere, it's impossible to miss the gleam in someone's eye when they speak of the coming of a loved one or their opportunity to go back home for a week. It's okay to miss home, it's okay to want to go back, what's important is enjoying where you are right now for its own merits. It's amazing how subversively stressful it is to be in such a different environment for such a long time. You don't realize it for a very long time, but once you do, you become aware of how hard you have to think to go into a shop or restaurant, how nice it is to experience the familiar culture, and how great it is to have the food you're used to. If anything, it's made me more appreciative of both Switzerland and the US, as now I can not take either of their great qualities for granted. But aside from that, I would love to return for studies as well. If I have the opportunity, Switzerland strikes me as a perfect place for a post-doc (given successful completion of a PhD, of course). Given the research environment, the culture at large, and its central location in Europe, there just aren't any better places to spend one's time.

So in concluding this experience, I want to thank all the people who made this possible. First, let me thank the ThinkSwiss Research Scholarship, who made this summer so much more affordable, and really provided us with so many resources to help us along. The trip to Bern was a great way to cap off my experience, and explain the importance of our presence in Switzerland. I thank Professor Jürg Tschopp for so graciously inviting me into his lab, providing such an excellent work environment, providing a stipend, and being one of the few people that I could converse with about home when I was homesick. I thank Mirjam Eckert for her endless support in the lab, and for Emmanuelle Logette, who also provided me with support and direction during my stay. When giving thought to the lab members I wanted to thank, I found myself listing them all, so let me thank the entire Tschopp lab for their help and companionship. I also thank my “office buddy”, Laura Lighaam, whom I had many great talks with over our incubation breaks about the US, the Netherlands, science, and life. This list would be incomplete without Etienne Meylan, a native of the area and Tschopp lab alumnus who been a fantastic mentor and friend over the past two summers, as well as introducing me to this wonderful group of people and encouraging me to pursue this opportunity here. Also a big thank you to Ishita Basu, Nasreen Shareq, and Hifsa Kazmi, who were all excellent traveling companions and friends, who patiently tolerated my endless questioning about their home countries. I also thank my boyfriend and best friend Dennis, who is an incredible support and encouragement to me. I thank my family, without whom I could not have made it this far, and who have also been with me every step along the way. Finally, I thank God, the enabler of and inspiration for all I have accomplished.

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1 comment:

Ursina said...

Erin,

I hope you arrived well back in NY. Thanks a lot for all your interesting contributions to the ThinkSwiss Research Blog. I'm sure you have been the most active blogger since we started it!

Thanks a lot,

Ursina

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