Bikes and Hikes

It’s 2:00 AM on a hot summer Monday, and I’m still editing bits and pieces of a 70+ slides Powerpoint presentation. I need to present my results from the past 6 weeks of work to a team of 15 biologists including the lab’s head, each of them keen on scrutinizing the data I’ll be presenting. I’m facing barely more than 4 hours of sleep, and the thought that comes to my mind at that moment is that I wouldn’t trade this for anything else in the world.

It won’t be easy to describe this summer’s experience in this short blog post, but I’ll try. For my thirteen weeks stay in Lausanne, I worked in the Laboratory of Molecular and Chemical Biology of Neurodegeneration at the Brain Mind Institute of EPFL’s School of Life Sciences. I focused on Huntington’s Disease, the most common brain disorder with monogenic inheritance in the developed world. My project focused on the post-translational modifications of the huntingtin protein, the mutated gene product associated with HD pathology.

Even though our lab counted 25+ post-docs, students and technicians, I rapidly integrated into the team and got to know a variety of brilliant minds from various parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. All the while, I lived in student housing near the center of Lausanne, a bustling city with a surprising (and refreshing) level of multiculturality and a fantastic, vibrant atmosphere. The public transit system, namely the underground subway system, is extremely reliable and had me from Lausanne to EPFL in 25 minutes. I was thus able to enjoy both the inspiring working environment of EPFL and the bustling city-town feel of Lausanne. Furthermore, EPFL has a great e-bike system which allows you to use electric bikes for free for up to an hour. This made some of my trips back home that much more enjoyable.  Of course, a stay in Switzerland wouldn’t be complete without hiking trips. I’ve included a picture of a ‘regular’ hiking trip in Switzerland. I think it speaks for itself.

Also worth mentioning is the great plethora of events and seminars held at EPFL. In my stay, I’ve attended an institute-wide Research Day, a PhD symposium, three barbecues and several lectures and seminars held by outstanding researchers from all around the globe. This made my stay that much worthwhile, all thanks to the opportunity given to me by this internship.

Lastly, since I was ‘across the pond’ as the saying goes, I could not pass on the opportunity to visit neighboring countries. Before the start of my internship, I spent ten days in Italy, starting from Rome and gradually went to the north of the country before taking a train to Switzerland. Bit by the Italian bug, I’ve gone back towards the end of my stay and spent a weekend in Venice. Having the freedom to change countries and visit an entirely different culture in the matter of a few hours by train is perhaps the thing I liked most of my stay in Switzerland. This internship will remain in my memory as a professional and personal opportunity of a lifetime.

Shadi Hadj-Youssef, McGill University

Laboratory of Molecular and Chemical Biology of Neurodegeneration (LMNN) , EPFL

 

 

A summer among mountains

I have been once to Switzerland before this summer, but I have just realised now how amazing it is. Lausanne became one of my favourite cities from the very first days spent here.

I have been working in the Laboratory for Quantum Gases, being supervised by Professor Jean-Philippe Brantut and Kevin Roux. The current goal of their experiment is to analyse the properties of strongly interacting Fermi gases – these could then be used in other fields, such as astrophysics. Such a gas is cooled down to very low temperatures and trapped using a magneto-optical trap. My project involved the imaging part of the experiment; the first task was to test the performance of a custom made aspherical lens that compensates for spherical aberrations. The lens was then incorporated into the imaging system, which acted as a band-pass frequency filter, after which numerical (and sometimes analytical) simulations were performed and compared to the experimental results. For the last part of my time in the lab, I have been designing the objective holding system, trying to maximize its mechanical and thermal stability. Everyone in the lab was very friendly so I found it easy to accommodate to this new experience.

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Switzerland is a great place to be in summer, to say the least; Lausanne itself offers some amazing sceneries from its beautiful parks and gardens or from the Sauvebelin park – where a 35 meters wooden tower is. Lausanne is also known as the ‘Olympic capital’, so one can do all kinds of sports around. The Swiss national team was involved in this year’s World Cup and big screens were placed all around the city for football fans to support their favourites during the tournament. The lake is probably the best part of the city; swimming in its crystal-clear water with the mountains in the background is something to look forward to; one could also rent pedal or motor boats (and perhaps try not to drop your keys in the water!). There are also a lot of places to visit around Lausanne, Bern and Geneve being only about one hour away by train. If you go to Switzerland don’t miss out on trying some of the local cheese and chocolate!

If you want to spend a summer studying physics in a great place, then EPFL is your destination.

Horia Magureanu, University of Oxford

Laboratory for Quantum Gases, EPFL

Work hard, hike harder

Three months have never flown by so quickly. From the first day I arrived, I began my busy summer of exploration, work, and adjustment to life in Switzerland, supported all along the way by my fellow interns and boxed ice coffee from Migros.

Let’s start with my lab. I interned this summer in the Medical Image Processing Lab under the supervision of Professor Dimitri Van De Ville and Elvira Pirondini. During my time, I aided the efforts of a largescale project investigating stroke recovery in monkeys following a brain lesion. In my work, I recreated a processing pipeline from literature designed to preprocess primate fMRI and MRI data. I also employed mathematical tools based on graph signal processing theory to find coactivation patterns in the resting brain activity. Throughout my work, I had to do plenty of literature reviewal, both to learn the theory behind everything and in order to solve the many issues that came up trying to accurately process the MRI data. The process definitely required a lot of creative thinking. But the lab was super helpful with any questions I had and it was a lot of fun to meet such a group of people with diverse backgrounds. What was also fun was being a part of such a large scale project. Although I lived in Lausanne, the lab was located in Geneva at Campus Biotech and all of the monkeys were in a lab at the University of Fribourg! I even got to go there and help in the collection of new MRI data, where I was able to see the monkeys firsthand. A lot of commuting was involved, but the costs were covered and the comfort and reliability of Swiss trains meant that I didn’t mind it at all.

Speaking of trains, that brings me to the rest of my summer for I spent an uncountable number of hours on those trains. There is just so much one can see and do in Switzerland. First off, there are plenty of touristy things to do. From visiting cities like Lucerne to wandering the picturesque vineyards, learning some history at the Chateau de Chillon, or eating cheese in Gruyeres, one can never go wrong. But there is also so much more, especially hiking. Although many things are closed on Sunday, hiking trails certainly aren’t and if you aren’t a hiker, you should become one anyway. One could spend a lifetime exploring the trails of Switzerland, getting lost in the beauty of the rolling hills and water so blue it looks fake. From a leisurely group hike up Dent de Vaulion followed by fondue to catching a 6am train and running the 25km Hardergrat trail in time to catch the last train home, there are hikes for everyone. Definitely check out the amazing trails of Interlaken and recover with a dip in one of its lakes. There is nothing like swimming in the shadow of the Alps. Regardless, it’s hard to go wrong spending a summer in Switzerland.

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Ronan Perry, Johns Hopkins University

Medical Image Processing Lab (MIP:Lab), EPFL

Improving solar cells for a brighter future (pun intended)

“If you want to change the world, even if you can’t, at least you die trying.” – Such were the words emblazoned above the door of my office at LIMNO (Laboratory for Molecular Engineering of Optoelectronic Nanomaterials – led by Prof. Kevin Sivula), which was the lab I spent my 3 months of summer at. EPFL was one of the universities I had always wanted to visit, largely due to its location in the French-speaking part of Switzerland (cheese + chocolate + views!), as well as their prowess on new generation solar cells. New generation solar cells such as perovskite photovoltaics have the advantage of being produced via solution-processing methods, which means a cheaper and less energy-intensive fabrication process compared to the standard silicon solar cells currently dominating the market. For my project, I looked at the impact of various factors on the morphology of quasi-2D Pb-based perovskites, and how the different treatment methods could affect solar cell performance. Working on this research at LIMNO led me to realize how lucky I was to have gotten this opportunity. The lab environment was really like an embodiment of the quote; my lab mates were all very motivated, passionate and eager to help each other out. Thanks to their welcoming and friendly nature, I had an amazing and fruitful time with my lab!

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Dinner with my wonderful lab

Other than the lab work, I spent a lot of my time in Switzerland hiking. Since most shops are often closed on Sunday, and close quite early on Saturdays, I ended up going hiking and sight-seeing at various places with the other interns. Although this has been mentioned by the previous interns as well, I would definitely recommend purchasing the Half-fare card as you can easily make the money back within several weeks. Also, downloading the SBB app is useful as sometimes they will have ‘supersaver’ tickets, which are discounted tickets for certain journeys available when purchased earlier online.

Places I would recommend visiting (despite the distance) are the Rhine Falls for the Swiss National Day firework celebrations, Aletsch for the glacier trail (before global warming gets to it!), Oeschinensee for the beautiful lake, Gruyère for the chocolate and cheese factories, Creux du Van for the ‘Swiss Grand Canyon’, Lugano for the risotto and gelato, Montreux for the Jazz Festival, and Zermatt for the almighty Matterhorn (on a clear day!). In particular, for those who like water sports, taking a dip, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking in Lake Geneva (or any of the other lakes) are all definitely recommended. Switzerland also has some wonderful thermal baths for relaxing in, such as Brigerbad and Lavey-les-bains, which are nice for when you want to wind down and chill during the weekends.

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Overall, I had a brilliant time in Switzerland thanks to all the fantastic people I met.

I’ll be back!

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Matterhorn, Zermatt

Narumi Nagaya Wong, Imperial College London
Laboratory for Molecular Engineering of Optoelectronic Nanomaterials (LIMNO), EPFL

A Wonderful Summer in Switzerland

   My first impression of Switzerland came from reading one of Einstein’s biography books. The greatest physicist ever lived, went to school in Zürich and worked at the Bern Patent Office, and developed his theory of relativity. Since then, the impression that Switzerland is a land of science was imprinted on my mind. So as an aspiring physicist, when I first learned about the EPFL internship program my freshman year, I knew I had to apply. Luckily I successfully became a part of this program in my junior year and got to visit this incredible country.

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   The project that I was working on was called “MuSCADeT”.  If you’re an experienced wine taster you’ll know that this is a very famous white French wine, and will probably wonder if my research was just drinking wine. Well I wish. It actually stands for “Multi-band morpho-Spectral Component Analysis Deblending Tool”. The basic idea is that when our telescopes take pictures of galaxies, the light coming from the blue and the red stellar populations in the galaxies are mixed together, and doesn’t tell us much about the composition and properties of the galaxies. So using this tool developed by my graduate student advisor, we could deconvolve the images into different stellar populations, which helps us better understand the structure and compositions of galaxies. For the limited time I had, my goal was to test the algorithm on simulations and real data, with the addition of a point-spread-function that serves to better resolve source objects.

   My advisors Prof. Kneib, Prof. Courbin and PhD student advisor Rémy Joseph are working in the Geneva Observatory associated with EPFL, which was where I worked over the summer. Public transportation was the biggest challenge for me due to the secluded location of the observatory. But on the other hand, it was also very serene and picturesque, which helped me concentrate at work and also relax off work. Though I didn’t get many chances to talk to Prof. Kneib who oversees most of the researches, Rémy was more than helpful. The project was very well thought out, and I was given various useful resources and recommendations along the way. My colleagues were also very kind, I joined a group of people who gathered on every Friday to play football, which was great fun and also helped me fit in and and make friends.

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   While I didn’t commute often during weekdays, I took the time to explore the country and the countries surrounding Switzerland over the weekend. The cities were incredibly lively with all the music festivals and wine tasting events; the hiking trails and the mountain views in Switzerland were some of the most beautiful and magnificent I’ve seen. Public transportation within the country and between Schengen states were very convenient, which enabled me to visit Zürich, Paris, Venice and Barcelona over the weekends without much haste. Switzerland is a place where work-life balance comes naturally, because even just resting alone by the beach, you’ll never bore yourself with the beautiful sights in front of you.

 

Minghan Chen

Carnegie Mellon University

Laboratory of Astrophysics, EPFL

To the Land of Cheese and Chocolate – and Science!

After living, studying, and working in Lausanne for 8 months (on two separate occasions), I consider the city of Lausanne as a second home. In 2016, I had the opportunity of studying abroad for one semester of my undergraduate degree at the Université de Lausanne. Evidently, these five months in Lausanne weren’t enough for me. The international research internship offered by EPFL seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit a sentimental city, while working on cutting edge scientific research in my field of interest.

For my research, I worked in the Laboratory of Environmental Biotechnology (LBE) under the supervision of Dr. Julien Maillard and Professor Christof Holliger. LBE works on dehalorespiring bacteria such as Dehalobacter and Desulfitobacterium – bacteria that are able to use certain chlorinated environmental pollutants, such as tetrachloroethene (PCE), for growth and energy. My project was focused on presumed chaperone proteins, specifically flavin-transferases (Ftp), involved in the electron transport chain of Desulfitobacterium. The two aspects to this project were (1) to measure transcription levels of ftp genes in Desulfitobacterium under various growth conditions, and (2) to develop an assay to characterize the Ftp proteins biochemically.

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One of my first SDS-PAGE gels

I was lucky to be working on a project I am passionate about, and with an extremely hands-on supervisor. My technical lab skills skyrocketed in these three months thanks to helpful guidance, and good facilities. My lab was a friendly and positive environment, however upon arrival I was surprised to find out that everyone in my lab was French/Swiss – which is quite rare for an international institution such as EPFL. My supervisor was fluent in English, so work was carried out primarily in English, while social events were in French. Fortunately I speak French, however having never worked outside of Anglophone-Canada, the initial culture/language barrier was a bit of a shock. Regardless, it was an enormous learning experience to work in a new culture and language, both on an academic and personal level.

Now for the “life” part. One thing I appreciate about the Swiss/European lifestyle is their ability to separate work life from home life – something that is often overlooked in North America. This allowed us interns to thoroughly enjoy our evenings and weekends. For any future interns, here is a list of must-do’s when living in Lausanne:

  • Swim in the lake – as much as you can!!
  • Rent a pédalo
  • Have a BBQ by the lake
  • Participate in Tandem to learn/improve your French, and meet locals – tandem is a program offered by UNIL/EPFL where you can find partner students that want to learn your native language, and that are willing to help you learn theirs
  • Hike! Hiking in Switzerland is majestic (potentially more majestic than the Canadian rockies :O ). You’ll cross herds of cows and sheep mid-mountain, and most hikes are above the tree-line, so you can see the vast mountain ranges for days
  • Do an overnight hike and stay in a mountain hut
  • Tour the wineries in Lavaux – participate in les Caves Ouvertes if possible!
  • Try a via feratta
  • Raclette, fondu, and chocolate! – take advantage while you can!!
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Sunset on Lake Geneva (taken from la Jetée de la Compagnie)

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Hike around Lake Oeschinensee

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Home-style raclette and wine night with interns

Overall, Lausanne is a calm, beautiful city, with a ‘joie de vivre’ atmosphere. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity of working and learning at such an esteemed school, while living in such a friendly and picturesque country. Without a doubt, I would go back in a heartbeat.

Until next time Lausanne,

Isabel Jankowski, University of British Columbia

Laboratory of Environmental Biotechnology (LBE), EPFL

The Hills are Alive

I have dreamed of visiting Switzerland since I discovered that The Sound of Music was filmed there in sixth grade. The endless, rolling hills, the majestic snow-capped peaks–even as an 11-year old, I couldn’t conceive there to be any other place in the world quite as stunning. By the time I received my internship acceptance letter nine years later, I had set tremendous expectations for my time in Switzerland. The research, the people, and the mountains I experienced this past summer, however, simply surpassed them all.

To start off: my research. My internship was in the Powder Technology Laboratory, under the supervision of Dr. Irena Milosevic and Professor Heinrich Hofmann. I worked on two projects, the first of which was measuring hyperthermia of iron-oxide loaded injectable implants to find an optimal heating formulation. My results were handed off for in vivo studies, with the ultimate goal of attaining more effective use of hyperthermia in cancer therapy. My second project involved physical and chemical characterization of bisphosphonate coated iron-oxide nanoparticles to investigate their potential as a multifunctional nanoplatform for cancer theranostics. Like much of wet-lab research, the labwork sometimes felt mundane or repetitive, but it was incredible to work with such state-of-the-art equipment and to know the impact my research could eventually have.

Next, the people. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Professor Hofmann and others in my lab. They showed such evident passion for the projects they poured their time and effort into, yet often made time to have coffee or barbecue together, and to make me feel welcome and supported. Similarly, other interns I met were fascinatingly invested in whatever they studied, whether it be astrophysics or microbiology, but were so friendly and easy to explore the region with. Taking an overnight train to Berlin, windsurfing on Lake Geneva, having homemade fondue nights, hiking in the alps–there was always someone up for the adventure.

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And finally, this leads us to the mountains. In the 2.5 months of my internship, convenient transportation in Europe allowed me to travel to Paris, Zurich, Bern, Milan, and a myriad of other cities. While I truly appreciated the opportunities to see so much history and culture, nothing can beat the time that I spent in the Swiss Alps. During weekends that I spent surrounded by snow in the Jungfrau region, backpacking with a fantastic view of the Matterhorn, or climbing a via ferrata to a chorus of cowbells, I said the word ‘wow’ unsarcastically far more times than I’m willing to admit because every turn and summit revealed view after astounding view.

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An internship abroad inevitably comes with its fair share of trials. For me, it was troubleshooting problems while my supervisor was gone for five weeks, managing the time difference between Switzerland and California, adjusting to living completely independently, and trying not to eat too much chocolate. These, however, only served to give me a touch of reality in a summer otherwise filled with dreams come true.