Category Archives: Visiting Switzerland

Articles about out of EPFL-life. Went to a trip through the Alps or visiting a Chocolate factory in Broc? share your experiences!

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

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

Work-Life in EPFL

It wasn’t until my final day at EPFL when it suddenly dawned upon me — I have been here for 3 whole months, and I am now at the end of my internship. Everything felt (and still feels) so surreal. As I reminisce about my summer break, I thought to penning my thoughts into this blog post.

Ever since I received my invitation letter to the internship at EPFL, I was excited for many reasons. For one, I have been looking forward to visiting EPFL (one of the best research universities in Europe) for years. But apart from the academic/research reasons, it is also my first time visiting Switzerland and Europe.

My weekdays were spent in the BioRobotics Laboratory (BIOROB) in EPFL, under Professor Auke Ijspeert. My task was mainly software development work for the actuators the lab use for their robots. My works are made available online on github, for anyone who uses Dynamixel motors! (Let us know if you find these tools useful!) I worked closely with my supervisor, Dr Kamilo Melo, with other labmates and the robots in the lab. Being new to the field of robotic research did not set me back; instead, I have learned a lot about robotics and animal locomotion from my three-month internship here. Dr Kamilo has been particularly attentive and patient, being always present to answer my questions anytime (“Tell me”, as he always responds). The lab community was also a friendly and close-knit one. We go out to lunch together (often as a large group of 8-10) and talk about anything under the sun, from our research to life in general.

In my weekends, I ventured out, visiting different places in Lausanne, in Switzerland and in Europe. Here’s a few highlights of my weekend ventures.

Despite being a small city, Lausanne has several places worth visiting. Within the city, there are some walking tours through the old city suggested online — try it! The vivarium and the Sauvabelin tower are also some highlights in Lausanne that I highly recommend.

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Trip around Old Lausanne

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The Komodo Dragon in Vivarium

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Sauvabelin Tower

In Switzerland, I visited castles, museums and, of course, cheese and chocolate factories. (Things not to be missed: Tours@CERN, Visit to Maison Cailler [Chocolate]) Getting to these places were pretty convenient with an efficient and comfortable rail transport system.

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Free tours at CERN!

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Maison Cailler – A chocolate house/museum/factory

From Lausanne, it was also pretty convenient to take high speed rails to Paris and to Milan for my “European experience”.

At EPFL, the internship has been fulfilling and meaningful. But beyond that, being in Lausanne has provided me with a fun and relaxing summer break. I guess that’s what one calls “Work-Life balance”!

Gary Lee, Stanford University
BIOROB, EPFL

Switzerland, I Will Be Back

 

 

 

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After coming back to Singapore, all the 6 months I had in Switzerland was like a dream. All the breathtaking scenery, all the crazy things I have done, all the awesome people I have met, they are like existences in a beautiful dream and I finally woke up into the reality, in a hot rain forest with sunset at 7pm everyday.

I was lucky enough to have the exchange program and this summer internship, which made my six months’ stay in Lausanne, an important span of my life.

During my exchange semester, most of my travels were outside of Switzerland. After that I started my real exploration of Switzerland and I regretted that I didn’t find its beauty earlier.

A typical week:

Monday to Friday:  In the morning i rode my bicycle to my lab, went pass the corn field, seeing the Alps, sensing the cozy winds. I was working in the Applied Computing and Mechanics (IMAC) Laboratory under Professor Ian Smith, the Head of laboratory. I was working on a pioneer project that aiming to construct an teaching module about BIM (Building Information Modelling) Technology, which was a totally new area for me. The most challenging part of this project was to design the content and organization of this tech-related module in a tech-irrelevant way, which enables the module to be long-lastingly practical with the fast-changing technology.

I was glad that my lab mates , which are PHDs and scientists, are all very nice and helpful. Everyday we had lunch together and share our appreciations on similarities and differences among our cultures, foods and experiences. After lunch we usually had a relaxing coffee session to have a bit more fun. The work in lab can be tough and challenging but the relaxing time we shared added enough power to us.

Here comes the part of the after-work life. Inspired by my Belarus roommate Stas, I got my subscription of the water sports of our school. Almost every day after work I would just head to the lakeside riding my bike and do some water sports there. Lac de Leman is fantastic, doing windsurfing on the lake could be like flying within the heaven. Laying down and taking a nap on your stand up paddle board after going into the middle of the lake is like being in a place that you were the only existence.

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Sometimes there were BBQ/party/picnics organized by the interns in the evening, having fun and talking to these lovely people from Oxford, Cambridge, Georgia Tech, MIT could be very enjoyable. Knowing how different ways people look at the world was inspiring.

A great thing about summer in Lausanne is that the sunset is always latter than 10pm, hence the time after work was just like the start of the day! we have 5 hours before sunset, and I will never forget how breath-taking the sunset at the lake is.

Weekend: Weekends are the free days that we could take day trips within Switzerland or go abroad. It was my dream to hike and cycle on Alps when I was a child and this summer I really make it. Switzerland transportation system is perfect for traveling with bike and I had took my bike to many mountains of this country. I don’t know how to express my feeling when I sped on the top of the mountain with the sound of the wind sweeping my head, it is like…I could feel that I am live in real.

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What is Switzerland? Crystal lakes, Alps and clear sky? Snow and glaciers? Swans, cows with bells and the fresh smell of the grass? All the nice people? It is all of them, all of them and many memories make the Switzerland for me. Switzerland, I will be back!

 

Recommendations:

  1. Purchase the half-fare and track 7 SBB card.
  2. Explore the Alps by hiking or cycling (buy a second-hand bike in campus)
  3. Get the water sports subscription to have great fun on Lac de Leman (Windsurf, kayak, stand up paddle) and swim a lot!
  4. Have fun with the awesome interns!

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Yuan Zijie, Nanyang Technological University,

Laboratory of Applied Computing and Mechanics (IMAC), EPFL

 

Debating the existence of Switzerland

At the time of application for this internship, I knew of two things: one, it in Lausanne, Switzerland, and two, they spoke French there. Despite the weeks of research I did on EPFL I somehow forgot to google Lausanne.

The acceptance letter arrived at the end of January. To my relief, I was no longer jobless this summer. This time, I was so swamped with technicalities for my exchange in Paris that I again  forgot to look up Lausanne (or Switzerland in general).

It was some time in April that a friend of mine showed me a photo of a brilliantly blue lake framed with snow capped mountains and told me she wanted to go to Lausanne. I could not believe it; I was going to be living there this summer?

Before I knew it, it was two months later and I was standing in front of Lac Léman, seeing it with my own eyes. After living in a bustling city like Paris for 5 months, Lausanne was like a breath of fresh air, literally. The bright blue skies with a fine crosshatch of plane trails brought out the lovely burnt umber of the roofs in the city. My apartment was located between UNIL and EPFL, which meant that it was nestled in a small forested area. Walking to and from work every day I would cross a bridge spanning a gurgling stream. It was tranquil and absolutely perfect.

At EPFL, I had the pleasure of working in the lab of Professor Jacques Fellay. For the last three months, I got to dabble into the world of genome wide association studies and nanopore sequencing of DNA. In other words, I got a taste of the intriguing world of genetics and the mysteries it contains. Coming into this term, the words LINUX and R were completely new to me and a couple of lines of coding might as well have been hieroglyphs. My supervisor, Chris, was amazingly patient and explained anything and everything to me with great enthusiasm, no matter what it was.

Outside of work, every weekend was booked with things to do, places to see. With fellow interns, we made the most of our stay. From hikes in the mountains and swims in crystal clear lakes to road trips to Italy and flights to Germany, we enjoyed every moment of it. Weeknights saw us converging for a drink by the lake and watch the mountains turn pink with the sunset.

There was a running joke this summer that Switzerland doesn’t actually exist but is all a dream. After all, there is no way a country can have this many mountains, cerulean lakes, waterfalls, emerald fields and picturesque towns… can it? Somehow, Switzerland is this beautifully kept secret. Where everyone I know wants to come the Europe to see France or Italy, I would come back to Switzerland in a heartbeat.

3 months gone… now it is time to leave and I do so with a sad smile. I have had an experience I will never forget and this internship has got me thinking about new possibilities for my career. À bientôt, Lausanne, tu vas me manquer beaucoup.

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Jennifer Lin, University of Waterloo
Laboratory of Human Genomics of Infectious Diseases (GR-FE), EPFL

Research and Life in Confoederatio Helvetica

When I first saw the address for EPFL on paper:

Route Cantonale
CH- 1015 Lausanne

I wondered, how C.H. could be an abbreviation for Switzerland? After some research I found that it stands for Confoederatio Helvetica. Which, still made little sense.

Now, after spending the last 3 months in Lausanne, I understand. The latin name preserves Switzerland’s traditions while giving no preference to one of the four national languages. Yes, FOUR national languages. I have learned that Switzerland is a diverse land. In more ways than one.

I have been working as an intern in the BioRob lab led by Professor Auke Ijspeert at EPFL on a project to simulate compliant robotics parts. I have learned an incredible amount from my lab mates about robotics and about work habits. When an experiment in lab interests me, all I have to do is walk over and inquire about the project. In response, I receive a detailed description of what is happening and its importance. In addition, it is greatly comforting to know that any time I am struggling with my project, I can ask someone for help, and the person who responds is probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the given field. And they will gladly sit and talk with me as if they had all the time in the world. Kamilo, my advisor, was especially patient. Though I knew full well that there were many projects he was working, I still always felt like my concerns and my project were a priority. His mentorship has been absolutely invaluable to me.

Besides work, I enjoyed interacting with the people in my lab as friends as well. There is a huge diversity of cultures represented in my lab. I’ve met people from all over the world with different languages, backgrounds, and interests. I really appreciate that despite all these differences, everyone is good friends. As soon as I arrived in Switzerland, BioRob invited me in and I immediately felt as though I had many friends. Besides having lunch, and post-lunch coffee together every day, I learned that every Tuesday the cinema in Lausanne offers two for one price movie tickets, so we went a couple times. We also went to dinner on some Friday’s at this great Chinese place, near the Lausanne city centre, which was always packed.

Another amazing aspect of being here, is the traveling. On a weekend trip to Bern, some interns and I were looking at postcards for friends and family back home. I picked up a beautiful topographical map of Switzerland from the rack. As I ran my fingers over the paper, I was amazed. I always knew Switzerland was known for the beautiful alps. But for the first time I was struck by the fact that the ENTIRE country is mountains. But despite this, the landscapes of Switzerland are also extremely diverse: Mountains, check, lakes, check, valleys, check, old UNESCO site cities, quaint small towns, check, bustling industrial cities, check, ancient ruins, check, rolling hills with wandering cows, check, waterfalls, check. And, all of this in a country about three times the size of Los Angeles County. This means that everywhere I want to travel was a maximum of a 4 hour train ride away.

In summary this summer I have had so many incredible experiences, both academic and not, and I have learned more than I could have imagined. I am so grateful for the experience and I believe I have made many life-long friends whom I will never forget.

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Nina Mohebbi, Georgia Institute of Technology
Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob), EPFL

Swiss Reflections

Switzerland, you treated me so well! Lausanne is really the perfect place to be as a student as it is essentially a city full of young people who want to have fun. You are always meeting new people, which is really great! Although Switzerland can be very expensive for tourists, being here for 4 months means that you can take advantage of the long term deals they have, that make living more affordable for swiss people. This means buying the half fare card (half price on all transport) is cost effective, as well as the track 7 card (free travel after 7 pm), checking out museums in Lausanne on the first Saturday of the month (it’s FREE!!), going to movies on tuesdays (half price if your mobile phone provider is Orange), etc…

The Research Internship:

As soon as I arrived, I felt very welcome and part of the team. Three coffee breaks per day + relaxed lunch breaks with the lab really establish a sense of comaraderie with other members of the lab, something that I think is lacking in North America. I loved how well the Swiss/Europeans incorporated social/relaxation time into their work environment, making everyday life that much more enjoyable. In North America, I have found that personal or leisure time is kept very separate from the work environment.

Working in the Physics of Aquatic Systems Laboratory is excellent because it means plenty of time spent on the boat in the sun! (Measuring reflectance of the sunlight off the water conveniently meant that we could only do fieldwork with clear skies and calm winds 🙂 ).

Measuring reflectance to determine chlorophyll concentration (Who you gonna call?!).

Measuring reflectance with PhD student Vincent Nouchi to determine chlorophyll concentration in Lake Geneva (“Who you gonna call?!”).

Being a part of EPFL’s Research Internship program was very special because you are surrounded by gifted students from the globe’s top universties. All amazing people, from very different backgrounds, very accepting of everyone’s differences; we all got along extremely well!

Life beyond EPFL:

Outside of the research internship, Switzerland has unlimited activities: music festivals, hiking, and all sorts of other outdoor activities. Conclusion?: HIKING IN SWITZERLAND IS AMAZING! Trails are extremely accessible by public transit, unlike anything I had seen in North America. Words cannot express the breathtaking beauty of the swiss landscape. Returning home, exhausted after a day of hiking and feeling accomplished about however many meters of elevation you climbed, is one of the best feelings in the world.

Summit of Schwarzhorn, near Grindelwald, Switzerland.

Summit of Schwarzhorn, near Grindelwald, Switzerland (2928 m).

Amazingly well maintained trails (Yes, the trail is vertical, and yet in impeccable condition.)

Amazingly well maintained trails (Yes, the trail is vertical, and yet in impeccable condition, complete with a chain to assist hikers.)

How has this experience shaped my life?

1. One of the main reasons why I chose to apply to this research internship was to discover if research was something I was interested in. I can definitely say that I am left with a very positive impression, and it has helped me to narrow down my interests. (Although the immediate steps to be taken in research are not always clear and can be discouraging, it is OK, and actually quite a common occurence in research.) I would love to come back to Switzerland for a PhD in a couple years time.

2. I NEED to live near mountains.

3. All of the amazingly diverse people I met during my time in Switzerland reinforced the notion that having a positive and open outlook to the world can is extremely rewarding and the relationships created as a result of this outlook are easily worth 1000 times the effort initially put in. Shout out to all you amazing interns!!!

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One of the last dinners with a majority of the interns. Photo courtesy of Morgan Jackson.

Thank you to EPFL and Karen Undritz for this amazing experience!

Kate Schuler, McGill University
Physics of Aquatic Systems Laboratory (APHYS), EPFL