At the University of Calgary, I work with a protozoan parasite called Giardia duodenalis, which infects the small intestine of animals and humans. My work in the lab focuses on the pathophysiology of Giardia – how it interacts with the host and how these interactions cause disease. This summer, I was given the incredible opportunity to go to Zurich in Switzerland, where I was able to work with Giardia researchers, Dr. Adrian Hehl and his laboratory, and learn some of their techniques. Back at the U of C, I mostly work at the cellular level, so when I stepped foot into the Hehl lab at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Parasitology, I knew I was going to be up for a challenge. The Hehl laboratory works with the same parasite as we do, but they’re experts in the field of molecular biology, specifically in the cell biology and biochemistry of the parasite. Instead of looking at the cellular level, they dive much deeper, into the genome and the DNA that makes up the parasite’s biology. My mission for this trip was to learn everything I could from the Hehl team, to discover the world of DNA, and to learn the process of knocking out a gene. I worked hard over the two months and learned more than I ever thought I could, but I also got to experience the wonderful country of Switzerland all at the same time.
One of the best parts of the trip was just getting to know the city of Zurich. It didn’t take long before I fell in love with the city and didn’t want to leave. I spent many hours walking through the city and exploring the streets. I always felt very safe in Zurich and loved how easily I could find my way around. The tram system (unlike Calgary’s C-train) runs throughout the city and is very easy to navigate, allowing me to make my way around the city with no problem. I got to explore the shopper’s paradise of Bahnofstrasse, the beautiful architecture of Old Town, the many hangout spots around Lake Zurich, and many more. I also got to experience a traditional Swiss meal of raclette cheese, even though it’s not normally served during the summer time. The Limmat River, running right through Zurich, is also a beautiful sight and is lined with many stores, restaurants, and parks that were a common stop for me. The river culminates in Lake Zurich, which is also a highlight of the city. On hot days, of which there were many, we hung out at the lake where we got to lay out in the sun, do some swimming, paddleboating, and even sailing! The night scene around the lake was also a ton of fun, always a lot to see and do! The city, in itself, was a highlight of the trip and I would recommend a visit there to any traveller.
Another highlight of my time in Switzerland included a networking trip with the ThinkSwiss team. ThinkSwiss is a program set up by the Swiss Government that provides undergraduate and graduate students in the United States and Canada with scholarships to participate in research at Swiss Universities, and I was lucky enough to be one in 23 individuals that were offered one of these scholarships for 2015! The networking trip was an opportunity to meet some of the other ThinkSwiss awardees and explore more of the Switzerland geography. The trip started in Bern, which happens to be the capital of Switzerland (not Geneva as what I first believed). I took the train from Zurich to Bern and met the rest of the group at the central station. We introduced ourselves and headed out right away, to the parliament buildings in Bern, where we had an information session regarding the Swiss government and educational system. It was here that I first learned about the “Dual Education System” in Switzerland, which includes vocational education and training. The Dual Education System allows students to bypass the typical version of post-secondary for an apprenticeship program directly in their career of interest. Students participate in practical training (an apprenticeship) 3-4 days a week, supplemented by theoretical classes for the remaining days of the week. The system then allows students to gain training and an in-depth understanding of their career choice without the disadvantages (time, cost, etc.) of the typical post-secondary university training. I learned a lot of great things about the government and education in Switzerland, which left me feeling privileged to have an opportunity to study in such an empowering country. After our information session, we took a quick tour of the city of Bern and then hopped on a train to our next location, Lucerne. Once I got past the vast amount of tourists in Lucerne, I was blown away by the beauty of the city. Lake Lucerne is a prominent mark in the city and is a sight to be seen with the Alps in the backdrop. Speaking of the Alps, the next part of our networking trip was the highlight of it all. We took a train to Engelberg and started the 45 minute-long journey to the top of Mount Titlis. This involved three different gondolas, including the “Titlis Rotair” – the world’s first revolving gondola! The sights from the top of Mount Titlis were indescribable, and even though I’ve grown up in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I was still astounded by the breathtaking views and the feeling of being on top of the world. Some of the awesome activities we were able to do included a walk through a glacier cave, the Titlis Cliff Walk, which is the highest suspension bridge in all of Europe, and even taking a ride down part of the mountain on a snowtube! To say the least, Mount Titlis was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget!
In addition to all the sightseeing and fun in the sun, I also did some work in Zurich! I learned from the Swiss, where their motto is to both work hard and play hard. We did play hard, but it came after we dedicated long days and even weekends to the lab. Coming from a pathology lab, entering into a lab of molecular biology was a big stretch for me. I had a lot to learn. The Hehl lab was very patient with me and taught me everything I needed to know. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to collaborate with experts in the field, and I was blown away by how much I learned. In my two months at the Institute of Parasitology, I went through excessive amounts of restriction enzymes, a surplus of PCR and agarose gel supplies, countless orders for primers and DNA sequencing, and an immeasurable amount of my labmates’ time as they tried to help me understand the concepts of molecular biology. When I questioned Dr. Hehl about the benefit for him and his team, he gave me two simple answers. First, the importance of collaboration. In science, we often get so carried away with the pride in our work that we forget how important the collaboration of minds can be in solving a problem. In Zurich I learned a world of new scientific techniques and elements that I never considered before going there. This information will go forward and help me throughout my PhD thesis and I will hopefully be able to share it with others back here in Calgary. The second answer Dr. Hehl gave me was that it was a pride in his country. He said that he has been offered great opportunities as a professor in Switzerland, and he was grateful to be able to share these opportunities with others and be able to share his country. I felt fortunate to be able to experience the pride that the Swiss people have in their country and was grateful to be a part of it.
Some other highlights of my time in Zurich included the surplus of carbs and caffeine I was able to ingest – I ate my weight in pastries, chocolate, and cheese on a daily basis. I also enjoyed Openair festivals, which were outdoor music festivals that took place almost every weekend, where we could eat, drink, meet new friends, and listen to new Swiss music out in the open air. And while I had great difficulty picking up on the Swiss German language, I did learn some important phrases, such as the popular phrase “Alles klar”, simply meaning “everything’s clear”. It was often that my labmates or supervisor would pop their head around the corner and ask “Alles klar??”, in which I could respond “Ja, alles klar”. I also learned to appreciate the punctuality and efficiency of the Swiss culture – I came to believe that everything works perfectly in Switzerland and everything works on time. We ate lunch at 12:30pm every day, and we all made the time to be part of the daily gathering that was lunchtime. I really grew to love the Swiss way of life!
It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to Zurich and the friends I had made there. It was an incredible experience, to say the least, and I am so grateful for the group of people that allowed me this opportunity, including the HPI team, the ThinkSwiss scholarship team, my Supervisor Dr. Andre Buret, and my supervisor in Zurich, Dr. Adrian Hehl.