Monthly Archives: September 2015

Adventures in Switzerland

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

Rock climbing in the Alps

Visiting a friend in Milan

Visiting a friend in Milan

Hiking at Zermatt

Hiking at Zermatt

Montreux Jazz Festival

Montreux Jazz Festival

Au revoir, jusqu’à la prochaine fois!

Xueyin Wen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Neurodegenerative Studies Laboratory, SV LEN, 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.

Trip around Old Lausanne

The Komodo Dragon in Vivarium

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.

Free tours at CERN!

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

Homage to Switzerland

There is a river running through the Swiss city Basel that is a popular place for a swim in the summer. The locals all have waterproof, floatable bags to store their belongings while they swim down the river but another intern and I decided to swim the river with our backpacks – stuffed with clothes, towels, and books – which were quickly weighed down with water. We dropped the bags off behind a tree on the riverbank and continued down-river through the town, with just our shoes floating alongside us. My time in Switzerland was characterized by these adventures. I was so excited to get out, explore and experience the country that my weekend trips were usually poorly planned and I almost always had to run to catch the train home at the end but the spontaneity of it all is part of what made my summer in Switzerland so exciting and memorable.

I arrived in Switzerland from Montreal on a weekend in early May for the start of a four month internship. After spending a day recovering from jet-lag I went to EPFL for the first time where I was met by Dr. Lamirand and Dr. Frajtag in the Laboratory for Reactor Physics and Systems Behaviour (LRS). The entire lab group was extremely welcoming and much of my first day was spent getting to know my coworkers over a few cups of coffee. At LRS, my main task was to make a 3D CAD model of the on-campus fission reactor CROCUS which is used for teaching and experiments. I went in without much knowledge of nuclear engineering but after several tours of the reactor and countless hours analysing the different systems for the computer model I learned a lot about the reactor safety and detection systems and I really improved my knowledge of CAD and finite element analysis software.

I really enjoyed the tight-knit work environment at EPFL. Every day our lab group would go for lunch together at one of the many cafes on campus and we would sometimes go for drinks after work as well. As they knew I was learning French they encouraged me to speak it as often as possible. If you are practicing your French I recommend finding a language tandem partner through the UNIL tandem site that matches learners with native speakers.

My accommodation in Lausanne was a residence operated by EPFL in Malley, halfway between downtown and the university. Living there was a great way to meet other students and interns and I highly recommend one of the EPFL residences if you’re in Lausanne for a short stay.

My summer as an intern at EPFL was really one of the best times of my entire life. I learned a lot about nuclear research and had a very fulfilling work experience, made some life-long friends and got to spend four months in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. À plus, Switzerland!

IMG_2125Michael Chadwick, McGill University

Laboratory for Reactor Physics and Systems Behaviour, EPFL

To Switzerland, or not to Switzerland?

I’m going to break with convention. I’m not going to devote very much time to sharing the narrative of my summer, nor am I going to spend very much time discussing my research. Instead, I’m going to talk about good reasons for doing such a program, and understanding what you can hope to accomplish if you come.

Let’s start at the beginning: who are you, if you’re interested in this program? Ideally, you’re a (recent) undergraduate, with an interest in research who thinks they may want to do a PhD. What can you get from coming? Well, you can answer the following professional questions for yourself:

  1. What is it like to work in a graduate laboratory in my space?
  2. What is it like to live as a graduate student?
  3. Am I cut out for the nature of research in my space? (E.g. for computer science, progress is very bursty – would that bother you?)

If you come with a mind to work, and get a bit lucky, you can achieve the following professionally:

  1. Contribute to some cutting edge research (and potentially be co-author on a paper).
  2. Impress a professor, earning a letter of recommendation for graduate school.

And regardless of how much you hope to achieve for work, you can definitely do the following:

  1. Meet people unlike any you’ve met before.
  2. Travel around Switzerland, exploring the nature and culture.
  3. Travel around Europe, exploring the nature and culture.

As some context, I’ll share with you my take-away from this program. I did some neat research on scheduling, made friends with people from the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Italy, Ecuador, Switzerland, France, and Belgium, all while exploring Europe. At the end, I knew what it meant to be a graduate student (even my lab forgot I wasn’t one). When I came back to the United States, I didn’t have to imagine what graduate school would be like – I’d lived it, writ small. The scenery is incredible: look at some pictures.

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And seriously, if that doesn’t sell you, just think of the people and places waiting for you:

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The work is worth doing, the places worth seeing, the people worth knowing, and the questions worth answering. You should probably do it. And if you’re not sure, or even if you are, drop me a line. I’m happy to chat.

Elias Szabo-Wexler, Carnegie Mellon University
Discrete Optimization (DISOPT), EPFL

A Summer in Lausanne

I was excited to receive my letter of invitation to spend the summer after my bachelor’s degree in the beautiful city of Lausanne, working at EPFL to improve my research experience and exploring Swiss culture.

Coming from London, it was particularly nice to enjoy the scenic landscapes of the countryside, as well as the beach of Lausanne. I would often go for a run in the morning after hopping out of bed and it was great to be able to enjoy the rising sun at the seashore. In addition, my fellow interns and I went to CERN near Geneva and got to know how the most famous particle accelerator of the world works, whose popularity increased dramatically after the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2013. So in contrast to Sheldon Cooper, I have been there! Later during my stay we went to the Gruyere cheese factory and the Cailler chocolate factory in Broc, where we found out about how these products are produced and got to taste different varieties as well.

I had the pleasure of working under Professor Stephan Morgenthaler in the Mathematics department on two different projects. One involved the application of stochastic processes to genetics and cancer development, while the other was concerned with robust statistical estimation of binary data. Fortunately I was not alone in my lab, but shared it with two PhD students. By the way, all you need for a Mathematics lab is a desk, pen, paper and laptop…

One of the perks of doing this programme was definitely spending time with interns from many other places, such as the US and Canada, as well as my housemates at the FMEL Rhodanie building, which is close to the Montelly metro station. As I spoke English almost all the time, I did not get to improve my French as much as I had hoped to, but fortunately everyday communication was mostly fine, apart from one or two awkward situations at the supermarket in the first few days…

Concluding, I have found this a really rewarding experience as I was able to strengthen my international experience as well as academic ability. My thanks go to the organising team of this research programme, my supervisor and the fellow interns I spent time with exploring Lausanne and Switzerland.

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Arijit Gupta, Imperial College London
Applied Statistics Section, EPFL