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Grüezi from Switzerland!

Hello again!!If you’ve been keeping up with the Caltech blogs over some period of time, you might remember me from the Caltech Y Science Policy trip to Washington D.C. about two years ago. Has it really been that long?? Time flies! I can’t believe I just graduated a month ago – yes, four years went by fast.

Kids, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you will get there soon too. At least sooner than you think – I used to feel the days dragging by, but senior year went by like a whirlwind because of 1. grad school applications, 2. visiting grad schools and thus never being on campus during winter term, and 3. trying to get my fill of LA in terms of places and food before I left. Also took a fabulous beach trip to San Diego for a few days after finals week! Side note: I REALLY MISS CALIFORNIA….

Around spring break I thought about what I wanted to do for the summer; though home is nice, I wanted to explore a bit and/or take some rest. Turns out that I have done plenty of the former and hardly any of the latter… I was basically set to rotate in a lab for the summer at Weill Cornell, where I’m currently enrolled in their neuroscience PhD program. I fell in love with New York City (yes, their biomedical and translational life sciences campus is in NYC on the Upper East Side… and not the main campus in Ithaca!) and the people/program when I visited, and now this California girl is moving to the east coast! Anyways, so I had plans to move over there around the beginning of July, settle in and get acquainted with the city, and pick up some more lab skills so I could familiarize myself before school started. On a whim, I applied to a research fellowship in Switzerland – I’d never been to Europe before, and thought that it was worth a shot in a dark. Actually, the process went somewhat like this: ‘Hi Harry!!! (my advisor). I found a scholarship to do research in Switzerland, except we have to find a professor to work for (part of the application was for the PI to write you a letter accepting you to the unversity/lab group). Do you know anyone over there?’ Harry replies, ‘Here’s Jay! (and cc’s his colleague in the email) He’s the head of the Organic Chemistry Institute at the University of Zurich, get in touch!’ After a few rounds of emails, I was set… and though I wasn’t a chemist by any means, Dr. Siegel told me to come on over anyways! I suppose now I can add chemist to the resume. It’s really interesting how far a general science degree can take you from Caltech. I did a SURF on campus my freshman summer in biochemistry, continued a bit of protein work at UC Berkeley the year after that, and last summer Amgen funded my SRTP at UCSF in anesthesia/ultrasound/fluid dynamics work. When I got the ”Congratulations! You have been accepted..” email in late April, I was floored. I never imagined that I would actually be overseas for the summer! I had to scramble to find housing near Zurich, email the Weill professors my apologies for not coming over the summer (and got a recommendation to go to Lucerne for a trip), book my flight, figure out how to pack in order to move to Switzerland and then straight to New York… it was a terribly hectic time. My family came for my commencement ceremony and we packed up/drove home immediately afterwards. The following Tuesday, we were on a plane to New York and saw relatives/went sightseeing for a day before I was on a plane from JFK to Zurich. Crazy story: I almost missed my flight due to horrendous Manhattan traffic and a wrong turn out of the Lincoln tunnel. I had to check my second suitcase because they told me it was too heavy, after I had run to the ticketing counter. A girl who came up five minute after me wasn’t allowed on the plane because she hadn’t checked in the night before. I sprinted through the airport and security, and literally ran onto the plane before they closed the doors. Talk about frazzled! I also hadn’t eaten dinner, but SwissAir is wonderful and fed us. But that wasn’t the worst of it. I landed in Zurich not knowing an ounce of Swiss-German. I had found a sublet from a student in a dorm in a town that was about a 20 minute train ride from the center of the city, but I had no idea how to get there (I also was too confused to find a tourist information center, it seemed). Someone bought a train ticket for me after I tried to explain where I needed to go, and I managed to get on a train heading in the right direction. But in Europe, there are train inspectors who can randomly just come onto any train and ask for your ticket.. which of course, they did to me – and told me that because I had the wrong ticket (the ticket was bought with a half-fare card, which the person who bought it had, but I didn’t) then I had to pay them a 100 CHF fine (about $120 with the exchange rate). I freaked out and basically sobbed that I was a student coming to Europe for the first time, I didn’t know where I was going, etc, and they let me off with a 20 CHF fine and showed me the right track to the town. Then there was actually finding the dorm, and then discovering my charger or phone didn’t work; had to buy a new phone and SIM card and adaptor, plus groceries and other miscellanous items. Switzerland is expensive! Rent and food is about double of what it is in the states. There are trains that run everywhere, hardly anyone drives (and when they do, they are rather nice cars like Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes, but cars are so much smaller here). Though I’ve been here a month, I haven’t picked up on Swiss-German very well; it’s more of a dialect here because High German is the original language. Things have settled down quite a bit, now that I’ve gotten used to the commute to work and what to do around the city. To come later: more about research in Switzerland, Zurich, a trip to Lucerne, a fellowship retreat to Bern and the Alps… and I’m off to Milan tomorrow afternoon for the weekend!

A teaser of my pictures for now (yes, Switzerland is THAT beautiful):

Debbie Tseng