Monthly Archives: July 2014

Des Aventures dans le Monde Francophone, or Why I Love French Switzerland

Saturday morning at the open-air market in downtown Lausanne

Saturday morning at the open-air market in downtown Lausanne

I began my study of French at the same time that I began completing my undergraduate studies in Civil Engineering. Thanks to my French courses, I learned to respond to essay prompts, dissect passages from French texts, and present on cultural topics as assigned by my professors.

Then I moved to a French-speaking city, and realized how little practical French I actually knew.

Sure, I could write a solid analysis of the character development of the protagonist in Marie N’Diaye’s Mon coeur à l’étroit. But my ability to discuss Francophone literature in writing wasn’t helpful when I interacted with people in everyday life. Reading a French novel in its original form is rewarding and challenging, but won’t help improve casual conversational skill with French-speaking neighbors over a glass of wine or small talk with polite strangers in line at la Gare.

Overall, I have found that through the study of French in a classroom, my comprehension of the French language has grown tremendously, but that the ability to speak and express ideas clearly in French takes a lot more work. For example, here at EPFL, while lab work and publications are completed in English, seminars and talks take place frequently in both French and English. Not long after arriving here in Lausanne, I attended a presentation by an EPFL graduate student of his research in the application of electrical networks to leak detection in water networks (closely related to my own work), which was given completely in French. With the exception of a few technical terms, I understood his discussion in its entirety. When asked to comment on part of the subject matter and its relevance to my own tasks here in the lab, however, I stuttered through a few words in French before swapping to English to complete my response.

I have since tried to use that incident as motivation to push myself to really practice spoken French, even when it may delay the communication of an idea somewhat. I always manage to muddle through a thought if I am patient and give myself enough time to think it through. And thanks to the patience and help of my French-speaking colleagues here at EPFL and the rest of the French speakers of Lausanne, I am improving. The people here are always willing to gently correct my mistakes or help me remember a particular word or phrase, and love to hear that I am trying. Oftentimes the learning experience goes both ways – in trying to express an idea in French, I will ask for a translation from an English word or phrase, and find that my conversation partner does not know the French equivalent. We then turn to the ever-helpful Internet and, when we find the answer, we both come away with some new knowledge of one another’s language.

I feel strongly that this exchange of ideas and knowledge, linguistically, really resonates with the importance and significance of the exchange of information and expertise that takes place here at EPFL every day. I have learned a lot about my specific field of research, and picked up some new technical skills that I know will be valuable to me in the future. But equal in value to my professional and technical development has been the development of my linguistic abilities, and I am so thankful that I have had the opportunity to practice and improve my French both at EPFL and in the rest of French Switzerland.

Merci aux gens de Lausanne pour votre patience et gentillesse!

Diane Jlelaty, Georgia Institute of Technology
Applied Computing and Mechanics Lab, EPFL

The EPFL Laboratory Experience

Despite the many challenges of living on a new continent and living in one of the most expensive places in the world, I am very happy about the most important aspect of my entire research internship: my work!

Operating the Transition Electron Microscope (TEM)

My lab (the Powder Technology Laboratory) is very spacious and well-equipped. It is very nice to have a lab secretary take care of the work that the professor and students often have to bare at other institutions. Further, the campus is beautiful and architecturally interesting (re: Rolex Centre), and the views to the French Alps and Lake Geneva are a real treat. The EPFL has been a very positive experience so far and has made me feel like I have joined a world-class research environment.

This physical scenario is the best money can buy, but it would be worthless if it was not animated by amazing people. And it is!

The people of my lab are warm and inviting and have made me feel like a member of the team in no time at all. Lab lunches are fun and time in the office often feels like hanging out with friends. Professor Heinrich Hofmann, the person at the centre of it all and my research supervisor, is the best part of the whole experience and I’ll explain why.

When resources are so plentiful and when skilled researchers are attracted to the same place, I think intelligence and curiosity concentrate and this is certainly the case for the EPFL. In this sort of environment, a culture of trust and respect exists because everyone is a strong link in the chain, so instead of acting like a boss or a manager, Prof. Hofmann has helped me as an advisor and collaborator from the very beginning. I don’t think he has once told me what to do, and the way we interact has been very much up to how I want to communicate my research.

Instead of telling me to deliver reports, I’ve immersed myself in the research and sent him my thoughts when I am ready and I give him my best work in personalized documents. Instead of telling me to accept things and deal with them, he works with me to help me understand the situation and to do the best I can. I feel that I am treated like a human being and I believe this is a result of the EPFL’s culture of respect.

I look forward to the rest of my stay here to get good results with Prof. Hofmann, and possibly to publish a scientific paper!

Alex Grant, McGill University
Powder Technologies Laboratory, EPFL

Sending postcards to the world

Well, before we get into academic topics…

10434317_10203608650249223_6341609133012829245_nI’m always a big fan of postcards. I send several of them to my close friends and family members each time I arrive at a new place. Because I’m staying at this gorgeous country for 3 months, I decided to write more this time to a wider audiences. For the past 6 weeks, I’ve travelled all around Switzerland and collected many postcards with beautiful photography on them. Also, collecting others’ addresses is enjoyable. I believe this is a good way to share my research internship & travelling experience, bonding with friends, and of course showing them how amazing this country looks like.

Here are some practical information that I found useful for those who have the same habit. Generally, a postcard in Switzerland costs around 1.2 CHF, and the postage for international is 1.9 CHF. It’s kinda expensive (as always) compare with other countries around here. For example, the postcard itself costs around 0.5 Euros in France, Italy and Germany. And in those countries the international postages are 0.98, 0.85 and 0.75 Euros, respectively. Therefore it’s a good idea sending a big amount of your best wishes during your trip in those countries 🙂

(important update: as I travelled to Italy, I realized that the price for the stamp is in fact 2 euros, even more expensive than here in Switzerland)

Jiayuan Chen, Georgia Institute of Technology
Telecommunications Circuits Lab, EPFL