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!