Monthly Archives: September 2021

EPFL and Switzerland – A Place to Work and Live

I am Jakub Lála, studying at Imperial College London, but originally from Prague, Czech Republic. I worked in the Computational Sciences and Modelling Lab with Professor Michele Ceriotti. Below, I am giving you some of the most influential points I learned this summer, hoping to persuade you that EPFL is a great place to spend summer at!

Note, that before coming into Switzerland, I had no expectations whatsoever about both the internship or the Swiss life. It was, therefore, a wonderful surprise to fall in love with the mountains, the lake, the work, the university and the people – both the colleagues from my lab as well as the other summer interns from across the globe. So although I will hype up everything about EPFL/Switzerland, remember to keep your expectations low in order to truly appreciate the beautiful aspects of the experience only later on.

The visualisation tool Chemiscope

Firstly, in terms of my work in the lab, I have spent the first five weeks working on a visualisation tool called Chemiscope, improving its website and implementing a Jupyter Notebook integration. For the rest of the internship, I worked on a PyTorch model to optimize coupling parameters, which can reduce the amount of elemental information required for material structure datasets, and so improving the learning rate of machine learning models afterwards. Such a diverse combination of tasks showed me the key juxtaposition of software engineering and actual modelling science in the arena of modelling computation.

A schematic diagram of the PyTorch model

Although this will vary depending on the lab, I am extremely grateful that my direct supervisor was a PostDoc, who was almost always available, meaning whenever I felt frustrated, or I was stuck in terms of progress, he would easily step in and helped me with valuable guidance. Posing stupid questions to him was not an issue, giving me the potential to learn a lot and advance fast. On the other hand, when he went on a summer vacation, the internship highlighted that one also needs independence during work to develop the necessary problem-solving skills without there being someone senior fixing his problems for him.

People at the lab

Secondly, the Swiss way of living is just a delight to look at; and a delight to live. Coming here has truly allowed me to taste both the work and societal culture of Switzerland. This has not only given me important insight that may become helpful once applying for future jobs or PhDs abroad, but it also widened my perception of global opportunities by demonstrating that it is conceivable to get involved in impactful work all around the world, in all sorts of fields. More importantly, by talking to PhDs or PostDocs in the lab, you are getting invaluable information that will help you decide on your future career. For me personally, I realised that an academic career is definitely something I do not want to pursue, but going for a PhD interlinked with industry might be somewhat lucrative and exciting. Moreover, as EPFL hosts a very international community, one gets an immensely diversified portfolio of perspectives on life. During various chats I became aware of key insights into issues posing our global society nowadays including the mental health crisis, the current health of the population, or the effect of gender roles in the workplace.

All in all, it’s amazing how an internship spent at a university turned into a relaxing, yet meaningful summer vacation. I have met many new people and seen many new places. The weekends have become a completely separate instance of life, where one can truly enjoy the luxuries of the modern world, taking a train to the other side of the country and hiking in high mountains with an app that leads the way.

Ode to a Swiss Summer

When I found out that I had the opportunity to come perform research at EPFL this summer, it seemed like a miracle. After so long without traveling, the hopes and expectations I had for my summer were outrageously high. Somehow, it turned it out even better than I could have imagined.

Hiking around Interlaken

I spent 3 months performing research at BioRob: a laboratory that focuses on biomimicry and bio-integrated robotics. I had the opportunity to design novel motion-mechanisms for an increased mobility wheelchair. I loved being able to follow an idea from initial sketches, to CADing, to prototyping and testing. One of my favorite parts about being at EPFL was that everyone around me was always working on something amazing. It was so easy to get coffee with different lab members each day and feel inspired to go back to work afterwards. The research gave me the autonomy to make design and manufacturing choices and taught me that things often can go wrong during research (but that’s okay): sometimes the 3D printer refuses to work, or that part you spent weeks designing just does not fit how it’s supposed to. While these problems sometimes seemed impassible in the moment, they taught me how to seek creative solutions and to look at a problem from different points of view.

When I wasn’t working at BioRob, I was meeting people and exploring. Switzerland has quickly become one of my favorite places because of its diversity: the mountains and lakes, the thousands of adventures that are often only a 20-minute train ride away, and the opportunity to learn foreign languages. This summer I was able to go on my first mountaineering trip, learn how to make “real” carbonara sauce, and most of all, meet amazing people. It’s the people of my lab who gave me confidence, ideas, and affirmations when I wasn’t sure what to try next. It’s the people of my apartment building who shared their morning coffees with me and the Mountain Club members who showed me that it’s important to laugh sometimes when you feel lost.

My first mountaineering trip

My advice to future interns would be firstly to not be afraid to sound silly in a foreign language (having an accent makes you more interesting anyways). Go to the events you’re invited to, even if you don’t know anyone. Get up early to go on that hike, eat way more chocolate than you should, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you missed your train or you melted your only plate on the stove. Those are the memories you’ll look back on most fondly.

My summer at EPFL was all I could’ve hoped for, and then some. The skills I learned, the people I met, and the experiences I’ll take away are invaluable. I can’t wait to go back!

A sunset paddleboard on Lac Léman

Olivia Plumb, Georgia Institute of Technology

BioRobotics Laboratory, EPFL