Sunday, September 20, 2009

Back in USA - Final Report for ThinkSwiss 09

It's been about 2 weeks since I've left Switzerland for Chicago, the city as busy as usual and stands as a stark contrast to the summer scene in the peaceful Lausanne.

Reflecting back upon the past 3 months, I found my experiences in Switzerland probably some of the most eye-opening and rewarding ones. The stay in Lausanne was pleasant - the peaceful city provides the luxury of a peaceful European summer, as well as the academic rigours of doing research abroad. It didn't only meet my expectations, but more importantly demystified some of the false impressions I had for Europe in general.

The three biggest gains for me from this trip would probably have to be the experience to research in an international setting, hiking in the Swiss Alps & experience the European wilderness, and not to mention the experience of doing research full-time and immersing in the (before this) seemingly far-fetched "academia".

Researching with an international team at EPFL not only made me realize how individuals from difference backgrounds bring to the table different perspective in research, but also catalyzed interesting cultural & philosophical discussion. My stay with the Laboratory of Computational Systems Biotechnology certainly has been an intellectually rewarding one. Being here certainly enabled me to take a glimpse into the life of a graduate student, and - in a good way - provoked me to think about graduate school options while deciding whether it is academia or industry I'd like to get into upon graduation.

Also, being in Central Europe for the first time, I've learned to realize the beauty that lies within the Swiss Alps, as well as the European countryside. Hiking in Europe (Switzerland & Germany, in particular) absolutely quench my thirst for nature, not to mention keeping me in shape - something not easy to do as a rising senior in an American university.

On the flip side, three largest challenges that I had in Switzerland has got to be interacting with the people (general public), language, and culture. Being in Switzerland actually made me realize how much I'm used to the American lifestyle. Having adjusted to shops closing at 7pm, I slowly realized the true meaning of "work-life balance". However on top of that, not being able to speak French and only proficient in High German has been one of the most challenging experience living in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Boy are the Swiss-French proud of their language - in a good way, certainly. But perhaps having intensive language courses for us ThinkSwiss researchers will be a good way to transition into this beautiful culture. One largest regret that I'll have is not being able to immerse in the local culture during my time in Switzerland, just because I don't speak the language.

To talk in depth about my research experience, it would probably be best to start with my interaction with my fellow lab-mates. As I mentioned about the international research team that we have in the lab, everyone seems eager to get to know one another and their cultural background. This made integrating into the lab easier for me, a cultural enthusiast. My mentor was actually from around my home country, and we share very, very similar culture. It was personally motivating working with someone so dedicated, and who is also a good mentor.

The research setting and the mindset of researchers at EPFL seems to fall into the sheer focus in science and the passion of understanding the world around us, and less diverse as the American experience of gaining a broad experience in science, applications, and business. For me personally, I love the focus of the Swiss research experience, but at the same time miss the application & business mentality commonly found in American institutions. I'm not sure if I would come back to CH for my PhD studies - language barrier to integrate into the social life is a big impediment - but would absolutely love to come back for research again for a short period. In fact I'm already planning my Winter 2011 ski trip to back in CH and the Europe already!

Overall however, my experience in Switzerland really is one that I will never forget: The determination & enthusiasm of researchers at EPFL certainly further consolidated my intention to pursue graduate studies; the amazing people I met introduced me to new ways of seeing the world; the Swiss culture taught me the importance of work-life balance; and more importantly, the European countryside & scenery inspired me in ways never before.


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