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IGERT Trainee Returns From international Rotation


For his COSI international rotation, ECEE student Don Conkey spent three months at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Here he shares highlights of his European experience.

EPFL is a highly ranked Swiss federal institute which focuses on the sciences and engineering. Lausanne sits on the shores of beautiful Lake Geneva and has stunning views of the Swiss Alps to the east and the French Alps across the lake to the south.

Finding a place to go was actually quite easy. My advisor, Prof. Piestun, had talked to Prof. Psaltis about international rotations a couple years prior. During that time I had been following the research coming out of Prof. Psaltis’ lab. The difficulty came in finalizing the plans for the research rotation. After a year in limbo I met Prof. Psaltis at a conference where I presented my research to him and we discussed some projects that I could work on in his lab. Shortly after this I was in contact with his secretary making the final arrangements for the trip.

During my stay at EPFL I assisted another graduate student in building a STED microscope. This was a challenging experience as both of us were initially only vaguely familiar with the technique. The steep learning curve made the experience a rewarding one. I gained experience with new equipment and methods, learned different approaches to optical design, and made new friends as I discussed ideas to overcome the many challenges encountered with many people.

Three months in Lausanne was long enough for me to settle into a daily routine and feel like I actually lived there. Riding the train to and from work, eating delicious cheeses and chocolates, and being soaked from the incessant autumn rain helped me understand a little bit of what it’s like to live in Switzerland. I even learned a few basic French phrases to get around, the most useful being “Je ne parle pas Francais.”

One fabulous benefit of my international rotation experience was living in the center of Europe, thus enabling many opportunities for weekend travel. I was only a few hours from Germany, France, and Italy. Fortunately, my wife, Emily, and our three year old son, Sam, were able to join me in Switzerland. Although most weekends we spent visiting new regions and cities of Switzerland we were able to take longer trips to the French Riviera, the Alsace region of France, and, our personal favorite, Florence and Rome, Italy.

My COSI international research rotation was a rich and rewarding experience that I would gladly repeat. It increased my exposure and appreciation of different cultures and ideas. I was stretched as I worked to understand and implement a microscopy technique new to me. I would encourage my fellow COSI students to seek opportunities for international research experiences.