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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

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

What an amzing country

This summer, I went to EPFL as a Research Intern. And no surprise, it has been one of my best summers ever!

Working at EPFL has been a great experience. I worked at Automatic Control Lab under Mechanical Engineering Department. As a Mechatronics student, it has been a extremely valuable experience to me because the projects here are really innovative and advanced. From bio-robots to UAV, there are robots that you have never imagined. I believe that you will always find a lab that interests you whatever your professional specialization is.

Apart from EPFL, Switzerland is also a beautiful country to visit. Switzerland is not big and transportation is super convenient thanks to SBB ( the Swiss Train company). Its cities are also small enough to just walk around, including the big ones like Zurich and Geneva. And how beautiful is Switzerland? Whenever you pull out your phone/camera, take a picture, and it can me breath-taking.

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(sunset by lake Geneva)

If you are a football fan like me, Zurich is a must on your list. And in Zurich, you have to go to FIFA Museum. Here, the REAL Rimet Trophy is displayed.

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What’s my favorite Swiss city? It has to be Lucerne. Everything is blended well together. The cloud, the river, the bridge, the swans. Perfect.IMG_4223.jpg

There are also great hikes you shouldn’t miss. Pack your toblerones, take a train ride up to Matthorne, eat them before the lake. The experience will make you never forget.IMG_5061.jpg

Also, probably the most legendary hike ever, is the ridge of Interlaken. With the cliffs beside you, every move has to be careful. The view? Astonishing.IMG_5344.jpg

There are just too many things to name,. chocolates, cheese, chess and on and on and on. You have to be there to check it out. If you love to see it by yourself, I would say, EPFL research program is great. And do not miss it. This is life time experience. You will fall in love with this amazing country.

Maxwell

University of British Columbia

Third Year Mechatronics Student

Stuck in the Swiss Alps

So it’s summer break, and you know you should get an internship, but you also want to travel before settling into that 9-5, 20 vacation days per year work regime. Why not both? The best part about interning in Switzerland is that during the week you gain valuable professional experience, and during the weekend you get to travel Europe.

A lot of the other posts give great summaries and tips for this program, and it’s hard to say anything about work since each lab is so different, so I’ll focus on some of our hiking adventures.

Switzerland is known for its gorgeous mountains (second to its cheese reputation, of course),  and we had our fair share of hiking. First stop was Mont Salève, which overlooks Geneva (the mountain’s actually in France). The trail is a grueling 1.1km vertical ascent, with a consistent ~40 degree slope all the way. It’s well worth the effort though, for this great view of Geneva. If you want you can also take the cable car, but where’s the fun in that?

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Round two, hiking by the Matterhorn near Zermatt, the iconic Toblerone mountain. We planned a nice panoramic hike: cog train to Rotenboden to get a nice picture with the Matterhorn reflected in the lake, hike down to Rifflealp and over to Blauherd on the 5-Seenweg, a trail that passes by 5 mountain lakes (map). From there, we could take the cable car down to Sunnegga, and a cog train back to Zermatt.

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So we thought. Turns out the last cable car from Blauherd leaves at 5pm, and we got there at 5:20pm. No problem, we can just hike down to Sunnegga, and take the cog train from there. Except the last train from Sunnegga leaves at 6pm, and according to the trail map, we were 70 minutes away! So began an epic race down the mountainside to make the last cog train–if we missed it, we’d also miss the last train from Zermatt back to Lausanne. Hope was not in our hearts, but we ran all the same, suffering from dehydration and fatigue. Ahead of us was 3.8 km in horizontal distance, 300m of vertical descent. And we made the entire thing in 35 minutes, just in time for the cog train.

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Lessons to learn: Read the timetables! And bring lots of water! Also, be warned that the trails around there are at ~2500m in elevation. This means the sunlight is super strong, so pack up on sunscreen and reapply it often.

Not done yet. Next was Interlaken, and the infamous Hardergrat trail. The trail is “spent on a sharply defined ridge, with significant, even airy, drops on both sides, in some places, 1500 meters of drop” (info here). Excited?

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The full trail is 27km long, which takes around 10 hours. We only walked about a kilo along it, following trail 4 in this map for the most part, since we didn’t want to get stuck on a mountain again.

If walking on a foot-wide trail with 60 degree drops on either side of you sounds like a nightmare, you can still get your adrenaline fix at Creux du Van. It’s a nice pleasant hike that takes you on top of a giant, horseshoe cliff. No danger of falling if you keep your distance from the cliff, but you’ll probably take a risk or two for that perfect Instagram shot.

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Overall, this summer has been a great experience, and one that I would highly recommend. See you soon, Switzerland!

Riley Xu, Carnegie Mellon University                                                                                         Laboratory for Quantum Magnetism (LQM), EPFL

Summer Internship at EPFL

My summer at EPFL was perhaps one of the best summers I have ever had! If you wonder why, here is a bit of my story:

At EPFL, I worked in the Laboratory of Renewable Energy Science and Engineering (LRESE) and I worked there from July to September 2015. My project was about maximizing the performance of water splitting device, using sunlight as the energy source to form H2 and O2 as the valuable products. This technology has a very bright future in the next few years, and I am proud to be part of its development.

During my internship, I learnt so many things, both in academics and socially. From the academic point of view, I learnt how to structure my approach in doing the project. I learnt how to manage my daily timetable and split the tasks wisely so that I could finish the project in a very limited amount of time — I learnt how to multitask. I had the chance to use some sophisticated laboratory equipment such as Scanning Electron Micrograph (SEM) and Metal Sputtering Machine – to use these machines I had to enter a chamber called cleanroom and wore an “astronaut-like” outfit! But more importantly, I learnt that in research, 75% of your time is spent trying to explain something that you did not expect to happen in the first place! Apparently, that’s what science is about.  This experience will surely help me succeed my 4th year project in Oxford which I am currently doing – the internship seems like a head-start!

For my social life, I have also gained a very unforgettable experience. I had the chance to meet and be friends with brilliant students coming from top universities around the world – MIT, Cambridge, Stanford, you name it! Building a network and friendship with these people is surely something that is priceless. We had several trips together, once was to CERN, Geneva. The largest scientific lab on earth, a place that is second to none!

In overall, I would undoubtedly recommend this programme to anyone who wants to have a great AND productive summer. Not only those who have passion in research, but also those who are considering it. You won’t waste your time being here. The FUN part is guaranteed!

Cheers!

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Interns’ trip to CERN!

 

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Boat trip organised by the lab!

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Me at Lauterbrunnen!

Samuel Putra, University of Oxford

Laboratory of Renewable Energy Science and Engineering (LRESE), EPFL

My Summer in Switzerland

Last year, my friend came back from an internship at EPFL in Switzerland.  She was ecstatic about her time there.  So, I decided to look into EPFL as well.  And in the end, even though our experiences were completely different, after having spent my summer in Switzerland, I only wish that I could have stayed there for longer. I met amazing people, and I worked in an awesome place, the Biorobotics Lab, led by Professor Auke Ijspeert.  What more could one wish for from a summer?

The Typical Weekday:

Every day I would wake up in my dorm room in the Marcolet dorm complex (part of FMEL Housing), which is in a little town called Crissier, a suburb of Lausanne.  After getting a delicious, freshly baked croissant au chocolat at the local convenience store, I would get on the metro and be at EPFL within 20 minutes.  Often I would walk to work, which would take a little over half an hour.

One of the main goals of the Biorobotics Lab is to design biologically-inspired robots in order to better understand the biomechanics of the animals that they are based off of.  As such, a principal direction of my research in the lab was to determine which scaling relationships should be conserved when maintaining dynamic similarity between robots and their respective animal of inspiration.  In short, I was working with this guy:

PleurobotIn the middle of the day, the whole lab would go together for lunch at one of the EPFL cafeterias (most of which make quite good food).  A coffee break with interesting discussions would always follow this.

After work was over, I would rarely go straight home.  On some days the interns would get together and hang out on Lake Geneva.  On other days (aka whenever there was wind) I would get my swimming gear and go windsurfing at the UNIL dock, either with my friends from the lab or my Singapore roommate Rodger (see his post below).

The Weekends

The workdays were great.  The weekend was just as exciting.  This would be the time when I traveled throughout Switzerland and Europe, such as going to the Rhine Falls to see the fireworks celebrating Swiss National Day, or exploring Montreux, the setting of the famous song, “Smoke on the Water.”  We also had numerous picnics with the team.  In keeping with the American spirit, the interns and I even threw a Fourth of July party on Lake Geneva for our labmates.

Conclusion

I will never forget my time in EPFL.  I met so many great people.  I participated in awesome research and experimental work.  I went to new and beautiful places.  I just hope one day I will come back.

Stanislav Tsitkov, MIT

Biorobotics Laboratory, EPFL