My experience in Switzerland has managed not just to meet, but to exceed, everything I had hoped for in a summer internship in Europe. Let me preface my explanation by saying that I had already spent a year studying abroad in the UK before starting my internship at EPFL. When you come from the U.S., which is relatively homogenous, to a place where commuting is so convenient and the destinations so numerous and diverse, you take advantage of the opportunity to travel the first chance you get. As such, I had already packed my bags to see the world during my time in the UK, Eurailing from France all the way to Slovakia, and even flying to Turkey. So, by the time I arrived in Lausanne, I just wanted to unpack my bags, kick off my shoes, and unwind.
However, things started to pick up very quickly. Upon arriving in the Neurodegenerative Studies Laboratory, I realized that I would be able to work on my own project with the mentorship of a postdoc supervisor (shoutout to Dr Pamela Valdes for all her expertise and patience!). I was to engineer and clone my own plasmid of DNA to inject into mice, which would allow us to observe the aggregation and propagation of tau, a key protein involved in the pathogenesis of Alzheimers as well as many other forms of neurodegeneration. In all my undergraduate experiences in research, this was the first time I had the chance to take ownership of a task so open-ended, with so many design points where my decisions and insight were crucial to a successful outcome. I immediately jumped at the chance to do so, treating this project as if it were my baby (I do really call it that out loud sometimes!). Every day, I woke up excited to go to the lab to continue my work. It was like falling in love, only instead of writing letters, I wrote protocols, and instead of picking flowers, I picked colonies of E. coli.
So there it was, my summer experience in a nutshell. Or so I thought. And I would have been perfectly content with just that. What I didn’t expect, and was pleasantly surprised by, was how friendly and welcoming my lab mates were. Without fail, everyone took the time to exchange greetings in the mornings. There would often be organized group outings, such as aperos in the afternoon or, even once, paddleboarding on the lake. Lunch hour was sacred, and the socializing that occurred would often be continued over a coffee after the meal. It made no difference if you were a graduate student, a technician, a postdoc, the secretary, or even a lowly summer intern; everyone ate together and talked to one another, whether to complain about an experiment or share their weekend plans. There was a real sense of community. The diverse international representation within our lab– a reflection of EPFL as a whole– made our conversations all the more interesting. I formed fast friendships with another fellow intern from Mexico and a graduate student from China, and also got to know some of the postdocs really well, including Pamela, who is from Chile, and Nathalie, from France. The technicians were also very friendly, but oftentimes would speak together in French, which everyone except me understood fairly well. So, to listen in on their lunchtime conversations, I decided to hit the books. Although I’m far from fluent at the moment, I can certainly understand a lot more than I did at the beginning of the summer. Sometimes I even find myself laughing along to their stories and jokes!
While life at EPFL was already wonderful and fulfilling, I also got to know and love the city of Lausanne its surroundings. Travel is expensive in Switzerland, and I had no intention of doing another grand tour of Europe, but I managed to have fun all the same. The key to sticking to a tight budget is to look out for deals, such as supersaver tickets, and to visit the local scenery. One weekend, I booked a discount ticket to Turin to visit a friend. Another time, I went hiking in the gorgeous terraced vineyards of Lavaux, only a 10 Franc ticket away from my apartment. A third time, I hitched a car ride with some of the grad students and postdocs and went rock climbing in the Swiss Alps. And some weekends, when it got too hot to go outside during the day or when I was in a lazy mood, I passed the time reading papers until the evening, when I would maybe take a break and walk down the streets of my neighborhood, or turn on Netflix to catch up on my favorite TV series.
I am about to leave Switzerland and Europe for good, and as I reflect on my experience, I know that my time here both in the lab and out have allowed me to grow immensely. I’ve made new friendships, learned a huge amount of practical and theoretical knowledge, confirmed my passion for neuroscience, become more independent both in research and in personal matters, developed a sense of confidence in my ability to adapt to other cultures, and… well, the list goes on and on. It’s a bittersweet farewell since I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to come back, but before I step on my plane back home, I want to say thank you to Switzerland and EPFL for one amazing summer.
Rock climbing in the Alps
Visiting a friend in Milan
Hiking at Zermatt
Montreux Jazz Festival
Au revoir, jusqu’à la prochaine fois!
Xueyin Wen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Neurodegenerative Studies Laboratory, SV LEN, EPFL