Monday, November 23, 2009

November Is Gone

Hello all!
My time here has gone by very quickly and my parents flew in to visit me yesterday. They are staying for the week and then fly home on Sunday. I hope to be able to show them around the city and introduce them to some of the best museums. I know I could not convince them to go to Pilatus despite the beautiful view because of their fear of heights. But at least I was able to share this with my husband when he was here. They seem to enjoy the local cuisine and they have had an easier time adjusting to the cost of living here than I have (think of the true cost we'd pay at home as half of the cost in CHF). It's still a bit hard to swallow if you're not making a decent salary. I have been able to save some money by bringing my own lunch to work and only eating out once a week or so.

I have gotten used to some Swiss German, but I still only speak High German since this is the only dialect I know. Although they know right away that I am American, most interactions are reasonable. Sometimes they become frustrated if there is a line in the grocery store and you cannot understand what they are telling you, but that is a commonality just about everywhere. Everyone here walks very fast and is always (seemingly) in a hurry. I think that this just may be in part that it is a city--where I am from people are rarely ever in a hurry to do anything, but that's the South.

My father and I got to go to several free concerts at the Prediger-Kirche near the university. We first went to a vespers service there which was great because I understood all of the lyrics in the hymnal (high German) and the choir was wonderful. We also saw the Meilen Orchestra performing Dvořák's "Aus der Neuen Welt," which was spectacular. There was also a classical guitarist performing with them. We found a good cafe on the way home and all in all it was a great day.

I look forward to making the most of the time I have left here. I will post again once we make the journey to Basel!

Already November!

I was able to make a new friend in my apartment building named Lara. She is from Cologne, Germany and is also new to Zuerich. We went for coffee at a local cafe and talked about our respective jobs. She's in business and we were discussing the fact that many careers here in Zuerich are still male dominated and it can be difficult to break the glass ceiling even in a progressive city. I also feel similarly about science in some regards as some PIs prefer to take male students rather than female due to the perceived potential for females to take more time off to have a family (men don't have to come to work pregnant when they want to have families). I do know some pretty progressive scientists, though, and I think that soon enough this will be less of a factor in education because of the growing number of women entering the sciences.

The weather here has been beautiful, even when it is a bit rainy. It has been unusually warm for this time of year according to some of my labmates. It seems normal to me since I am used to Georgia's very mild winters. I have found a little time on the weekends to explore, but Zuerich is a very expensive place to live so this has limited my ability to travel much due to the cost of train tickets. I plan to visit Basel when my parents come to visit near Thanksgiving because I haven't been there yet and I'm sure it has some amazing museums. It is also conveniently located in the corner of Switzerland between France and Germany and is only about an hour from Zuerich by train. I am excited to see it. I wish that I could go see the glaciers here in the Alps, but my time here has been going by very quickly, so I do know if I will be able to fit it into my schedule.

I have not learned much about NMR experiments themselves, but I have learned a great deal about the preparation of solid state samples, so I hope to use this when I get home to my own lab. I have made a few friends here in other labs as well. Italians mostly, but they seem to be a fun and spirited installation here in Zuerich. The city is starting to be decorated for the holidays and I am looking forward to the Christmas storefronts and lights in the Bahnhoffstrasse. Hopefully I will be able to post pictures soon. I will most likely put them into a public access gallery so that you all can see some of my adventures!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Final thoughts


Now that I am back in the US and have reflected on my visit to Switzerland, I have some final thoughts:

Overall impression – Did your stay meet your expectations?

This was one of the best experiences of my life! I had a great time exploring different regions of Switzerland, learning about the cultures and languages, and seeing such beautiful landscapes. I was also very productive, as I worked on two projects with Prof. Jukka Jokela and completed two of them. In fact, I will write manuscripts based on these two projects and submit them to top journals in my field.

Three positive points?

(1) Quality of work conditions – My experience was that the Swiss invest a lot in scientific research. The necessary equipment, high-tech or otherwise, is available whenever needed, and there is little shortage of supplies. There are few limits when the research is well-funded.

(2) Communication – There were several opportunities available to communicate science with graduate students and professors at Eawag. Everyone was willing to ask for advice, share ideas, and listen to comments. This may be because the environment is not overly competitive, even though Zurich is one of the top places for evolutionary biology research in the world. As a result of this collegial, friendly, and highly intellectual atmosphere, I learned more about my field, as well as how to improve my research projects in the US.

(3) Mobility – The transit system here is amazing!! I don’t have a car in North America which makes it very difficult to get around. In Switzerland, however, one can easily travel the entire country, to new cities or even remote villages in the Alps. Although travel is somewhat expensive, much of the cost is removed when you obtain a half-tax card. I recommend this card for anyone who will stay in Switzerland longer than one month.

Three negative points / challenges?

(1) Cost of living – Being paid a North American grad student salary and living in Switzerland was rather difficult due to the high cost of living. Although the funding from the ThinkSwiss organization helped, support from the institution was crucial.

(2) Language barriers – At times, it was difficult to communicate with Swiss Germans outside the Eawag institute. This was completely expected because I am in a different country, and English is not an official Swiss language. This was NOT a negative point, but an interesting challenge. This language barrier encouraged me to learn some basic phrases in Swiss German. Learning a new language is always a good thing!

(3) Leaving! – I was very sad to leave the research group and my new friends in Switzerland. I had an amazing time, and I look forward to visiting again.

How well were you coached and integrated in the research team?

The professor and students in the department were very kind and welcoming to me. I met with Prof. Jokela almost weekly to discuss my projects, and these meetings were always helpful and useful. Because of his mentorship, I am more confident in my abilities as a scientist and the projects on which we collaborated are of high quality.

The research team immediately included me in their lab meetings, seminars, and social functions. Students and post-docs here took me hiking in the Alps, for Swiss meals (e.g., fondue and raclette), to seminars at various other Swiss universities (e.g., University of Lausanne, University of Zurich), and to different field sites throughout Zurich and the surrounding cantons.

Comparison (advantages and disadvantages) between your Swiss and your U.S. research lab, research mentality and team.

Both labs are similar in terms of the quality of research and publications. One difference is that student research projects in the US are more individually-based. For example, a PhD student’s project may be completely independent from all others in the lab. In Switzerland, however, a PhD project may be part of larger project with several post-docs and grad students. The trade-off is that US students have more independence, but require more time in the degree to design a unique project. A PhD degree in the US generally takes longer than one in Switzerland.

Do you consider going back to Switzerland for studying, a Ph. D. program, work or on vacation?

I will consider returning to Switzerland for a post-doctoral position or for work as a research professor. Evolutionary biology research is well-funded and some of the best labs in my field are in Switzerland. The beautiful landscape is reason enough to return for a holiday. Nothing compares to hiking in the Alps!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Third and Fourth Weeks in Zurich

So we have made a good bit of progress in our project at the lab at ETH-Hoenngerberg! We were able to isolate our labeled protein and get them into liposomes (one of the goals of the project), so now we can move on to optimizing the signal to noise in the NMR spectrometer! I have also been able to get to know some members of other labs, which has been nice. There are so many types of people here: Swiss, Italian, Indian, American, etc. ! The only nationality that I do not see much of that is much more common at home is Chinese. I work with many Chinese at home, so seeing whole labs without an Asian component is interesting. Perhaps there of more of them in physics or architecture?

I have been able to find some interesting restaurants here, though the high prices often keep me cooking for myself. I don't mind this so much as cooking is one of my favorite pasttimes. There has been almost no sign of Halloween at all here in Zuerich, but then again I am used to the American explosion of Halloween this time of year! A few shops carry novelties and fake teeth and wigs, but it is very quiet here for Halloween. I have heard from lab mates that the Festival in February is much more exciting and many people dress up for this event. I suppose that Christmas season is the biggest holiday here that I may witness. I look forward to seeing how much they dress up the city!

I have enjoyed my Saturday exploring--I often just meander around the city to see what I haven't seen before. I have enjoyed the Aldstadt (Old City) most because of the multitude of churches and bridges. The river is beautiful, but so is the lake. I have walked down far enough to see the ships at the docks on the Zuerichsee. It is beautiful! We turned back our clocks here for Daylight Savings last week, but the U.S. doesn't do this until today, so I have enjoyed having only a five hour difference between here and home. I am anxious to learn the correct way to cook roesti, so I will be starting my experiments tonight with a fresh batch of potatoes! I will let you all know how this goes, maybe even with pictures!

I will write more soon!