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.

 

 

Life, Study and Work in Switzerland: A Sweet Mid-Summer Dream

Between June and August, I was part of the EPFL Research Internship Program. At the time, I was studying physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, United States of America. Specifically, I was doing research on Computational Condensed Matter Physics at Institute of Theoretical Physics of EPFL, being advised by Prof. Oleg Yazyev. It was also the first time I have been to Switzerland and everything I have experienced in the past two months becomes my virgin memories of this beautiful country. Retrospecting, I feel so lucky of having such thorough experience as my first encounter. In the rest of the article, I am going to share my impression of Switzerland in three aspects: life, study and work.

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Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen, Bern

 

Life:

My first day in Lausanne did not go as easy as I had expected. Being completely new to the city, I was at a loss at the very beginning. Everyone speaks a different language than I  speak back in the US. Although I’ve had quite many study on French, such a first-handed and immersive francophone environment still made me so nervous. Luckily, I quickly realized how good at English the Swiss people are, which reduced my anxiousness lot.

It did not take a very long time before I totally forgot about the discomfort of my first day, especially when I realized how convenient the public transit of Lausanne is. My living place was only ten minutes’ walking distance to the Metro station, as well as the train station, which literally enable me to visit any town in Switzerland as I pleased. Thanks to such well-developed transit systems, I managed to travel to lots of places in Switzerland, such as Zürich, Bern and Geneva.

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Rheinfall

Study & Work:

The moment I stepped off the Metro station of EPFL, I was attracted by the intellectual mural paintings on the entrance of the campus: I saw endless famous mathematical for physics formulas being painted on the underground tunnel leading to the entrance of the campus. Even before entering the campus, I could already feel the devotedness of this polytechnic university towards the study of science and technology. The architecture of the campus is a combination of modernism and utilitarianism, which reminds me of the young age of this institute.

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My interaction with the research group went along pretty well. The enthusiastic welcome from my advising professor and his secretary made me feel so warm and helped me so much with my settling down to the new study and working environment. The research group I was working with is the one of international compositions. I met with people coming from at least five different countries, some in Europe, some at the other side of the world. From this, I could catch a glimpse of the extent of international participation of Switzerland in academia, a feature that renders this country competitive in the world for decades.

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Map of Rolex Learning Center

 

Ziheng Cai, Carnegie Mellon University

Institute of Theoretical Physics (ITP), EPFL

 

Research and Raclette: A Superb Swiss Summer

Between May and August of 2016, I was a part of the EPFL Research Internship (RI) Program. At the time, I had just finished the third year of Mechanical Engineering at the University of British Columbia. I had never been to Europe before, so I was both excited and nervous for the opportunity to work abroad. Looking back, my time there ended up being one of the best times of my life, and to summarize, I’ve included a list of the top five things I found about Switzerland, the RI program, and life in general.

Number 5 – The Infrastructure

One of the nicest things about Switzerland, and Europe really, was the efficiency of their transportation systems. Despite living quite far from EPFL, my commute was under 25 minutes thanks to some conveniently located Metro stops. Outside of Lausanne, the trains were both a feasible and affordable way to get across the country on the weekends. In terms of passes, I highly recommend buying the annual SBB Demi-Tarif (Half-Fare Card), the annual SBB Track 7 card, and the 3-month Mobilis pass. These were pricy to pay for up front, but I think I made my money back within the first month.

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Lausanne-Gare Train Station

Number 4 – The Culture

Having taken French in elementary and high school, I was eager to see what it would be like to be immersed in a French-speaking city. Naturally, I was extremely rusty, which made things difficult at the start when trying to get my housing, cell phone, transit passes, internet, and food situations organized. Eventually though, things went much more smoothly and I was running errands without too much difficulty. Beyond the language, it was really interesting to notice just how much people valued their healthy eating, hiking, and of course, soccer (or football, sorry). All of these factors helped make Lausanne feel so unique.

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Place de la Riponne, Lausanne

Number 3 – The Work

At EPFL, I worked in the Biorobotics Laboratory under the supervision of Dr. Auke Jan Ijspeert. As someone who is interested in both biology and robotics, I couldn’t have picked a better lab placement to suit my academic interests. I got to work with really cool cheetah and salamander robots and the workplace was filled with super friendly and knowledgeable researchers. I always appreciated that, within my work, it felt like there was always someone I could ask when I was struggling on a problem or wanted to learn something new entirely.

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Cheetah-cub looking good as always

Number 2 – The Scenery

My hometown is known for its mountains, forests, and rivers, and boasts some very impressive trails, many of which I have been lucky enough to hike over the years. Perhaps I had just become accustomed to the nature back home, but nothing I had seen previously could compare to the magnificence and splendor of hiking through the Swiss Alps. I tried to get outdoors as much as possible just to see the country and the mountains for what they are, and would recommend any potential visitor to do the same. There were so many panoramic trails and views, but if I had to choose, my favourites would be in the Engelberg, Zermatt, Interlaken, and Ziegelbrucke regions.

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Hiking Mt. Titlis, Engelberg

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Hiking near the Matterhorn, Zermatt

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Hiking the Hardergrat, Interlaken

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Hiking in Ziegelbrucke

Number 1 – The People

Last but not least, the best part of my adventure in Switzerland was the people I met there. Doing this internship alone would have still been great, but being able to have this experience alongside a dozen other interns from across the world was something else entirely. I loved having people to explore and adventure with on the weekends, play foosball with at lunch, watch Game of Thrones with every Monday, or to just chill out by the lake in the evenings after work. While my time in Switzerland lasted only three months, I know that the memories we made together will last a lot longer.

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Awe, look at us!

Cheers, Switzerland. It’s been fun.

Jonathan Marr, University of British Columbia

Biorobotics Laboratory, EPFL

Chemistry, Nature, and Everything Else

My three months of summer were spent living in an AirBnB room in a pretty Swiss house hidden somewhere in the peaceful town of Préverenges, a five-minute walk from the shores of Lac Léman, and working in a small inorganic chemistry lab tucked away in a corner of the CH building in EPFL, where many toxic/radioactive/flammable/pungent, but not in any way less colourful and fascinating, chemical reactions were carried out and studied extensively. It was, perhaps, one of the best summers I could ever remember.

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Préverenges: a pier (I think) on Lac Léman

Inorganic chemistry is a vast field of research, for it covers the syntheses, structures and behaviours of compounds based on virtually any of the elements found in the Periodic Table, except for carbon. Of course, it would be a Herculean task for any one research group to work on all of these elements, so each group tends to choose to focus on a collection of elements that behave similarly to one another, for it is then easier to classify and rationalise any trends and anomalies discovered. For my three months in EPFL, I was attached to the Group of Coordination Chemistry led by Professor Marinella Mazzanti, whose main interest lies in the rich chemistry of lanthanides and uranium. The project to which I was assigned involved an investigation of the structures and reactivity of several lanthanide Schiff-base complexes: the goal was to try to store electrons in these complexes using a strong reducing agent, making them much more nucleophilic, thus enabling them to become very reactive towards the activation of small molecules such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and even molecular nitrogen. This could potentially open up new avenues of research for other fields such as catalysis and synthetic chemistry.

A day-to-day routine in the lab would involve setting up new reactions, analysing on-going reactions using various techniques such as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, Mass Spectrometry, etc. and attempting to isolate pure, crystalline products from completed reactions for further examinations such as single-crystal X-ray diffraction and elemental analysis. Almost everything we do in the lab is air-sensitive, and so special techniques to handle these chemicals under an inert atmosphere must be used to ensure the safety and integrity of our experiments. Of course, the actual picture was somewhat less rosy as very often things never really worked out the way we expected them to, and here came the ever-insightful discussions with more senior members of the group: with their experience, they were able to give very useful advice which helped me get out of the bottleneck and move forward by interpreting the data more precisely and improving on the experiments. I cherished these discussions, for through them I not only gained more understanding of my project in particular, and of f-block chemistry in general, but I also became more bonded to my lab-mates (it is all about forming bonds in chemistry, is it not?).

But my Swiss experience was not just confined within the four walls of the lab. Even though I am not a fantastic fan of travelling, the scenic beauty of Switzerland still managed to compel me to get out of my room every now and then, with some reluctance at first when I had to get up early on a Saturday morning to catch a train, but with full bliss and marvelment by the end of the day after having been immersed in the fresh air and the breath-taking views of nature. That was the time when I walked up the vineyard terraces in Lavaux on a rainy day, hoping to steal a grand look on the many arrays of vines, the wavy surface of the lake and the grey Alps fading into the distance behind the clouds and the rain. It was such serenity to just let myself get lost amongst the cute little houses, hidden staircases and secret streams of water flowing down into the lake. There was no sunlight on that day, but everything still somehow managed to glow up so vividly… Then there was the time I took a vintage train to go up to Rochers de Naye, a mountain of the Swiss Alps with an elevation of around 2000 m above sea level that promises a mesmerising panorama of nearby valleys and of Lac Léman. It was cold and windy up there, so after walking around to absorb as much of the view as possible, it was perfect to just sit down in a local bar and slowly enjoy a cup of hot chocolate.

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Lavaux Vineyard Terraces: a grand view after the rain

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Lavaux Vineyard Terraces: pretty houses

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Rochers de Naye: a panoramic view from the summit

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Rochers de Naye: a botanic garden at ca. 2000 m above sea level

And then there was the time I went to a festival called KleinLaut based in Riniken, which was literally in the middle of nowhere. However, thanks to it being in a small town and hidden among the woods and mountains, it did not get overloaded with people and noises. There were fun activities for everyone — children and adults alike — to engage in, all food was home-cooked, and the bands played handsomely. It was relaxing to just wander around and enjoy the food, the music and the people, in a place far away from crowded and rowdy city centres.

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KleinLaut Festival, Riniken: people having fun

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KleinLaut Festival, Riniken: cute signs making the festival feel a lot homier

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KleinLaut Festival, Riniken: Turbostaat playing — and of course everybody enjoyed the music!

My three months in Switzerland have been a wonderful experience: I have made new friends with my lab-mates and with the other EPFL interns through work as well as through the various picnics and BBQs we organised, learnt a great deal of new chemistry, and been thoroughly amazed by the enthralling beauty of nature. It was hard to say goodbye to my lab-mates, my housemates, and anybody else who has been part of my experience, but I hope that one day I will be able to come back, be it for something long-term, or even just for a short visit, and relive some of the best moments I will always treasure.

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Ouchy, Lausanne: the onset of dusk

Bang Cong Huynh
Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, UK
Group of Coordination Chemistry, EPFL, Switzerland

Switzerland Withdrawals

Sion is a homey town where bus drivers greet pedestrians on the streets, the capital of Canton Valais Wallis, and the site of the EPFL Energypolis campus where I had worked for the past summer. Energypolis consists of seven research laboratories that focus on renewable energy, health and environmental sustainability, lead by professors affiliated with the Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering (ISIC) from the main EPFL campus. The various exciting projects include gas separation, hydrogen storage, solar-to-fuel conversion, carbon dioxide capture and storage, and what I worked on: vanadium redox flow batteries (VRBs).

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Dual circuit redox flow battery demonstrator in Martigny

Redox flow batteries is an interesting field of research as it provides a rechargeable electrochemical energy storage system that may be useful in large-scale utility applications, to compensate for the instability of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. I was very fortunate to be a part of this project in the Laboratory of Physical and Analytical Electrochemistry (LEPA) where I learned a lot about flow batteries in practice: the concept, assembly, and of course the intricacies to improve its efficiency. My task was to test how different membranes and temperatures affected the batteries, but it was much more work than it sounds: setting the correct voltage limits to avoid anodizing the electrode, determining the optimal amount of electrolyte for each set of tests, finding novel ways to keep a constant temperature for the entire apparatus… But these troubleshooting experiences gave me great insights to what a PhD experience would be like. Overall, it was a very fruitful experience!

And of course, traveling! Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and it’s also in the center of Europe, which makes traveling very convenient: it takes less than 4 hours to go to Paris and Milan by train, less than 2 hours to fly from Geneva to Barcelona, Munich, Prague, etc., and of course Switzerland itself is simply breathtaking! As many posts have mentioned, Half-fare cards, Track 7, and your fellow wonderful interns will make your trips even more fantastic! Also, many attractions offer significant discounts if you are with a group of 10 or more.

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Jungfrau – “Top of Europe”!

Every weekend was a different adventure. Even though I had to occasionally get up as early as 4 am to catch the train, very frequently run after all forms of transportation, and my leg muscles sure became much stronger after walking an average of 20 miles every weekend, it was worth every moment. Whether it was hiking by the Matterhorn, taking the world’s steepest cogwheel railway up to Mt. Pilatus, or simply strolling by Lake Geneva in Montreux, words cannot express how breathtaking the scenery was:

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hiking by the Matterhorn

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flowers by by Lake Geneva in Montreux

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Mt. Pilatus

After I came back to the U.S., a friend asked which city was my favorite during my three months of interning/traveling in Europe. I could not give a clear answer to this question, but Switzerland was most definitely my favorite country.

Carrol (Qiwen) Xia, University of California, Berkeley.

Laboratory of Physical and Analytical Electrochemistry (LEPA), EPFL