Monday, September 14, 2009

NCCR Climate Summer School: A US Student Perspective

Bess Koffman
PhD student in Earth Sciences, University of Maine, USA

I just finished a week of NCCR Climate summer school, a yearly course for about 70 students from around the world. I was one of the lucky five American students who got a grant from ThinkSwiss to attend the summer school. I feel so fortunate to have studied with superstar scientists like Thomas Stocker, Heinz Wanner, Jurg Beer and Bette Otto-Bliesner. They all taught me a lot and helped to put what I have learned so far in graduate school into perspective—the “big picture” of global climate research. I do not doubt this week will influence my thinking about my own research and will help my career through all the relationships I have made this week.

I found the twelve keynote lectures to be clear and relevant; they followed a progression from big-picture paleoclimate understandings (how we know what we know) to current and future impacts of climate change. The structure of the week facilitated the absorption of lots of information, both from the lectures and from student poster sessions. These led to engaging and helpful conversations and possible future collaborations. In addition, we participated in workshops and a field trip where we got to see the area’s glacially carved landscape and the receding Grindelwald Glacier.

In addition to the clear scientific benefit of this summer school, it provided a forum for cross-cultural exchanges among students from all around the world. The very first night at dinner, I found myself at a table of eight women students from almost as many countries. After we exchanged pleasantries, we got into a lively conversation about common issues we face as graduate students and as women. We discussed our program requirements, teaching and publishing expectations, male/female faculty ratios, childbearing, and the so-called “two-body problem.” It was interesting to hear that problems at US institutions such as very few women faculty in the physical sciences and subtle discouragement of having children in academia were virtually the same in many European universities. While I am certain that the situation for women scientists has improved over the past few decades, it is also disappointing to see how far we have to go in terms of gaining equality in academia and finding a workable balance between family and career. I hope my generation—both male and female—can help make some important changes.

This was my first visit to Switzerland, and I am so happy I have not put it off any longer! My impressions of Switzerland are of a modernized, clean, punctual country. I am impressed by Swiss engineering and the care taken to details as simple as a showerhead and as large and complicated as a national train system. I found travel here to be very easy, and everywhere I went, people spoke English. While this makes things convenient for me as an American, I feel rather embarrassed that my educational system does not require the knowledge of more languages. In high school and college, I studied Spanish, probably the most useful language for travel in the western hemisphere. I think that unlike the US, Swiss people’s mastery of languages (and the four national languages of Switzerland) speaks to a culture where travel and communication are valued.

Grindelwald, where I spent the week, is a gem. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is surrounded by snowy mountains with sheer cliffs and steep grassy pastures inhabited by cows ringing bells as they graze. I felt that I had stepped back in time as I watched farmers cut and rake hay by hand. They worked hillsides so steep that one could easily tumble down them if not careful. Everywhere, flowers grew, both wild and cultivated. Geraniums are the cultivated flower of choice, and window boxes throughout the town overflowed with red and pink blooms. I enjoyed in particular the vegetable gardens, tucked into backyards and onto steep hill slopes and packed with large, healthy-looking greens, squash, beans, berries and, of course, flowers. I appreciated the variety of salad greens in particular—cultivars of chicory, endive, escarole, radicchio and lettuce that I have just started to grow in my home garden in Maine. I’m sure I could learn a lot from the old gardeners of Grindelwald.

In addition, I have noticed not a single obese person in Switzerland. People here seem to have a much healthier perspective on food than us Americans. I don’t know if it’s portion control, or simply living in such a mountainous country—but there must be something about the quality of food eaten here that promotes health. Unfortunately, I noticed a much higher rate of smoking in my travels here compared to the USA. I think by now, smoking is outlawed at all restaurants and most bars/pubs in the US. Some states, such as Maine where I live, have banned smoking in cars with young children, and my university just became smoke-free this year. I hope that Switzerland can follow suit by limiting smoking in public places.

Overall, I feel exceedingly grateful to have had this opportunity to visit Switzerland and to study with leading scientists in my field. I am impressed with the Swiss research program and the breadth of research conducted at institutions such as ETH Zurich and the University of Bern. I would certainly consider returning to Switzerland for a postdoctoral position or to do research in the future. Thank you, ThinkSwiss, for bringing me to Switzerland!!


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