Switzerland research trip

I spent 2 weeks in Switzerland to analyze samples from the experiments I conducted last summer. It was my first time in the country and I was pretty impressed! Switzerland is full of international people and flavors and the Alps are visible from practically anywhere. It’s a very small country with just under 8 million people, but is a little crowded due to the majority of cities being located in the northern 1/3 of the country – the Alps take up the rest! Trains and buses here are all top notch and it is very easy to get around, which was perfect as I spent time in 3 different cities.

View of Zurich from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

I arrived on Saturday morning, Jan. 27th, in Zurich. This city was settled by the Romans over 2,000 years ago and has buildings that date back to the 11th century. The city is known as a world finance capitol and fashion hub, with the Bahnhofstrasse shopping district hosting many of the world’s top designer brand stores. It was a lot of fun to walk in the Altstadt, or Old City, neighborhood and wander through the twisting, narrow streets that are too small for car traffic. Zurich sits at the north end of Zurich Lake and straddles the Limmat River as it flows from the lake. Of all the places I’ve traveled to, Zurich was the first place I really noticed how fashionable everyone was! I tried some “marroni” (fire-roasted chestnuts) and drank gluh wein (mulled wine) on the banks of the river as the church bells chimed on the hour.

Xuyang and I collecting really neat data at the Swiss Light Source. We spent a long 4 days in that room.

But the reason I was in Switzerland at all was to analyze my samples! I met my collaborator, Xuyang, in Zurich and we knew we had a long week ahead of us. Xuyang is a PhD student at Laurentian University in Ontario. On Monday, Jan. 28th we had the chance to visit the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which is a major science, engineering, and math university in Zurich. This institute has produced some amazing advances in geology and is one of the leading institutes in the world. Xuyang and I met with some of the scientists we’ve read about, toured the facilities where they do research, and each gave a short seminar talk to the department. Lunch was taken on top of the huge library building with fantastic views of the city.

The next day we traveled by train to the smaller city of Villigen, Switzerland, about 40 minutes north of Zurich near the German border. This is where the Paul Scherrer Institute is located, which is the largest research institute for natural and engineering sciences in Switzerland. One of the major facilities there is the Swiss Light Source, a synchrotron facility where very bright light is produced for research. Xuyang and I were there for 4.5 days of beamtime to use this high power light to analyze our samples. Synchrotron facilities are located throughout the world, and the reason we came all the way to Switzerland was because beamtime in the US is very competitive and difficult to obtain. I applied to the Swiss Light Source last fall and was granted time and was really looking forward to collecting the data needed to move forward on my first PhD project. Over the course of the 4.5 days, Xuyang and I worked very long hours to ensure we didn’t waste any hour of our time and had amazing help from the beamline scientists. The location of PSI helped, too, as it is located on the banks of the Aare River in the foothills of the Alps. We got some great and exciting results despite the beam being down for 32 hours during our session!

The laser ablation system at the University of Bern. My samples were blasted with a laser and the exploded particles were carried to a plasma to be separated and analyzed by mass. I measured trace element concentrations in this way.

Xuyang and I left the Swiss Light Source on Sunday, Feb. 2nd, and went our separate ways: Xuyang back to Canada and I to Bern. Bern is the capitol of Switzerland and located an hour west of Zurich by train. It is known as “The city of bears”, and is built along a crook in the Aare River. Bern, too, has a historical city center with architecture that dates back to the 12th century. Walking around on a Sunday afternoon, the city center was quiet and had a medieval feel given the gray, cloudy day when all the shops were closed. I went to Bern to work with a professor at the University of Bern to do laser analyses on my samples. Over the five days in Bern I collected trace element data on my experiments to add to the data I’ve already collected in Michigan for part 2 of my first PhD project. These analyses were much more relaxed than those at the Swiss Light Source and I was happy to work regular hours to get these data!

View of the Old City of Bern, Switzerland.

My two weeks in Switzerland were full of rainy days, long hours in the lab, old architecture, real cappuccinos, and Swiss chocolate. I got a lot of high quality data that I will be busy processing for a while and will hopefully get published in a couple papers over the next few months. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to explore a new country and a couple cities in the heart of Europe, but was happy to be back home!