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

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