ZWO, ZA, OYEF

The things I do for blog post fodder.

I’m mostly kidding, but sometimes I do look around me at whatever weird Swiss antics I’m up to this week and think that I need to write this up. A couple weeks ago (I’m a bit behind on, oh, everything in life), I spent a snowy Sunday afternoon in a tiny town in the Swiss countryside selling lotto cards at a Bingo convention.  Or at least that is the closest English translation my tired brain can come up with for what I did.

How did I end up in the middle of nowhere watching a bunch of seniors aggressively shush anyone breaking the deadly silence while trying to win sausages and chocolate? Well, Benno is as per usual the culprit.  Once a year his shooting club organizes a Bingo fundraiser in a gym hall in his hometown, population 9,000.  This year they needed someone to man the moneybox at the front, and Benno’s friend asked if I could help out.  I was halfway flattered to be asked (sometimes it is not immediately apparent whether a Swiss person likes you or not, especially given I am the strange foreigner bungling grammar and confused half the time), but was apprehensive about my level of German being sufficient for dealing with hundreds of old people who have probably not spoken to a foreigner in years communicate about their specific Bingo needs.  However, Benno and his friends are definitely aware of my limitations so I thought I’d give it a go.

So, I’m all set up with a buddy at the front door. The first person hobbles in with their walker and makes some rapid fire Swiss German joke and I am immediately lost.  I decide to enter onto firm, non-small talk ground, “Lotto card 20 francs,” plus a 100 watt American smile (a good replacement for small talk).  This continues on repeat for around an hour and hundreds of people.  Luckily my desk buddy and occasionally Benno step in to help me with the small talk, but this is just WAY above my Swiss German level.  It’s one thing to have one on one or even group discussions with Benno’s friends, who know I’m a foreigner and more or less which things will go over my head (sidenote: I never realized before how much of language is based on habits or previous knowledge.  For example, when we say, “When in Rome…” that actually makes no sense unless someone contextualizes the rest of the expression.  Benno’s friends will usually explain the rest of the expression to me after they say it.  Old people from the countryside just repeat the same thing again, louder, and then conclude that I am “special” when it is clear I still don’t understand).  Adding to my confusion is the fact that every single person seems to be speaking a slightly different dialect, so I’m sweating it out a bit as I’m trying to figure out exactly HOW MANY cards they want and then count out the change while keeping up with whatever these people are asking me, which usually has to do with explaining the rules of a game I’ve never even heard of before.  It was a fun mess, which pretty much describes a lot of my life now that I come to think of it.

There’s one thing I can say- if you want to learn the numbers in a million different Swiss German dialects, manning the moneybox at an old person event + playing Lotto (what they call it) is A++ for learning. By the end I was a pro, even with 2 (high German zwei, Schwiizer Duutch ZWO), 10 (H.G. zehn, S.D. ZA), 11 (H.G. elf, S.D. OYEF)- I am convinced every Swiss person says these numbers differently.  Anyway, because of the bad weather there were fewer people than expected, and I was actually able to play a little under the watchful eye of Benno, with whom I verified my understanding of the trickier numbers because God knows a false Lotto would cause a riot. You could practically cut the tension in that room with a knife, I’ll tell you.  The Swiss take their recreational gaming seriously.  I did win a box of chocolate, though!  And Benno won some sausages.  So overall a complete win in the Swissness contest.

After about 4 hours of relentless concentration and silent giggling (on my part) the crowds dispersed promptly at 6pm and we broke down the tables and decorations with typical Swiss efficiency. Plenty of money was raised for Benno’s club and I confused many many Swiss seniors, so I count the day as a win in the life of Andrea in Switzerland.

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ZWO, ZA, OYEF

Reboot

Today felt like a big day, my friends! I dropped 3,860 Swiss francs on a yearly unlimited pass for public transport and headed merrily off on the first day of the next three years.  After a little wrangling with the administration, I finally settled into my new desk, a quiet little spot on the ground floor with a view onto a garden where cats seem to be constantly pacing past.

Adding to my general sense of excitement is the ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE 2.5 weeks in Japan that my grandparents just showed me. Japan really deserves its own post, but I’m not sure I’m ready to capture it yet (or ever).  I couldn’t think of any better way to mark the end of three years of hard work, and am endlessly grateful to my grandparents for sharing with me this place that they love so much.  And in what I’ve decided is the true mark of absolute post-holiday relaxation, I’m not feeling the slightest inkling of jetlag.  Mind over matter is a lot easier when your mind has just been pampered by Zen gardens and peaceful temples for the last little while.

But back to today- in a way I feel like I am now embarking on phase 2 of my life in Switzerland. I’m living in a new town and working a new job in yet another new city, something not quite so different than when I first moved here three years ago.  But now the challenges are different.  Instead of moving to a big international city (by Swiss terms), I’m living in a quaint small town.  Instead of struggling to speak basic German, I am aiming to graduate to Swiss German.  Instead of struggling to find my own flat or roommates with minimal German, I am learning about how to cohabitate and live my life with a deeply Swiss person.  Instead of signing up for random meetups or filling my endless friendless spare time with things like baking bread (disaster, don’t ask), I am trying to learn how to balance the circle of friends I have, a circle that is becoming increasingly widely flung as a natural consequence of academia.

I find all of these things exciting, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that also come with a tinge of anxiety. I am committing to Switzerland heavily in a way that my initial PhD jaunt didn’t involve.  Also, a lot of things are just changing quickly in general.  All good things!  But I always do need to process change in my own way.  Japan was a wonderful opportunity to catch my breath- I will always be in agreement with the European idea that holiday is essential for the soul.

Reboot

On Finishing a PhD

This past week, 3 years and 4 months after moving to Switzerland, I defended my PhD.  It was a pretty great day, I have to say.  Better than any of my other graduation type days.  I’m still flying high and it feels somehow cathartic to write about it.

I didn’t think I would be nervous, given the many other much more nerve wracking presentations I’ve been through.  I had to count it up for an award I’m applying for, and I’ve presented on my study 20+ times over these past years, most of those to international researchers much less disposed to be kind to me than my own institute (not even counting internal presentations).  In fact, I was feeling cool as a cucumber until I woke up the Wednesday before my Friday defense in the midst of a nightmare about failing and getting booted out of the building.  I then had to stuff these fears away and hurry off to Basel for my orientation + a day of work there, but I devoted all of Thursday to rereading my dissertation and reviewing my slides.

Friday morning I went on a jog to let off some energy and Benno and I had lunch together.  He really generously took the whole day off from work without asking me, and MAN did I end up being grateful.  He was able to keep me calm and grounded.  At that point there isn’t much more to do to prepare, but true to my usual form there is plenty of overthinking to do.  Every university seems to do it somewhat differently, but here’s how it went at University of Zurich:

2pm-3pm: I present my work (40ish minutes) and then field public questions.  Around 30-40 people came (my supervisor took a picture of the left half of the room).  There was a spirited discussion.  One thing I really enjoy about my study is that it is easy and compelling for many people to understand, so there is always an interesting discussion when I present.  I really appreciated that my new supervisor and also two of the PhDs on my new project came to watch as well!

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3-4pm Private closed questioning by my PhD committee members and any other faculty members who want to join.  This was not nearly as scary as I was anticipating- they didn’t ask me tough statistics questions, but instead focused on methodological approaches.  Given how much I’ve thought about the study over the years, it seemed pretty straightforward.  They then sent me out of the room, which was a bit awkward given that all of my friends and acquaintances were milling about outside waiting for the apero.  They then summoned me back in and told me that I passed, and with no revisions!  That means I am totally done!

At 4pm the fun part started.  The institute hosts an apero (champagne and food event) to celebrate after a PhD defense.  First my two main supervisors gave 2 very very nice speeches about me (it was strange to get SO much positive feedback at once, as this is not at all the usual style of my Swiss supervisors), then I gave an impromptu speech.  It was hard not to cry at this point, but I kept it together.  I was also presented with the traditional hat, which your fellow PhDs decorate with symbols that represent your PhD.

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A few highlights:

Swiss, US, and Thai flags: my adopted country, my home country, and my study country

A tree: I used regression trees in the main paper of my dissertation

Beach chair and umbrella: study is about Thailand

Pumpkin: this one made me laugh.  two years ago I hosted a Thanksgiving celebration at my apartment with a good 15+ people.  One of the dishes brought by an American friend was this traditional sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top.  My friends were so surprised by this combination that they remembered it two years later for my hat!  Except they thought it was pumpkin and not sweet potato 🙂  Also I didn’t make it, haha.

Plane: both because I like to travel and my study is about travelers?

Skiing and mountain photos and paraphernalia: obvious for anyone who knows me 😛

Swiss cheese, chocolate, and prosecco: duh.

 

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All of my Swiss supervisors past and present are in this photo. 

 

We had drinks plus snacks for a couple hours at the institute, then headed to the bar where I had reserved apero part 2 for the evening.  I was so so amazed by how many of my good friends in Switzerland, from work, from running, from every other sort of place, stopped by to wish me well.  Benno covered our first round of drinks and made sure I ate (I have a tendency to forget to eat when I am drinking long term like that) and was overall just the best.  We celebrated until around 11pm, when I hit a wall of exhaustion and we headed home.

THANK YOU AGAIN to everyone who wished me well or congratulated me.  I am so happy to have had a successful conclusion to this last chapter of my education.

I’ve had mixed feelings about the whole PhD process over the years, but I have to conclude at last that it works and I feel overwhelmingly positive about the experience.  It has truly made me into a scientist.  I complained sometimes about the salary, and don’t get me wrong- I am excited to have a full salary again this month.  But in terms of life goals, it is so rewarding to have the luxury of asking your own questions and finding your own answers, to be given years to ask a question of the world and get the answer back.  This week wraps up a period of intellectual growth and freedom to indulge my curiosity that I will always remember with gratitude.

 

On Finishing a PhD

A new challenge: the countryside

You know, sometimes I think the big cultural difference in the world is really city people vs. country people, not any of this different nations business.  People in cities are remarkably similar worldwide.  Until recently I didn’t even identify myself as a city person, but I guess I am.  I’ve lived in Chicago, Boston, and NYC for the bulk of my adult life, and now Zurich for the past 3 years.  I actually think of Zurich as a cosmopolitan small city, really.  It’s half a million in the actual city, and something around a million when you consider the burbs (or what Switzerland considers the burbs, which is a whole other topic).

Lately, though, thanks to Benno New(ish) BF, I’ve been hanging out a lot in the countryside of Switzerland.  And I realized that to them, Zurich is a MAJOR CITY.  I also realized that, just like in the US, every region of Switzerland has a very distinct culture.  Zurich culture is sort of like Switzerland Lite.  Sure, they eat a lot more fondue than the average world citizen and they have their own dialect, but oh man does Swiss countryside culture go a lot farther than that.  I almost feel like I’m going through a whole new form of culture shock- city mouse meets the countryside.

Friday, for example, was one of those days when I felt myself in a totally different world.  Benno has been part of a rifle distance shooting club in his home village since he was a young teen.  He is quite good, even qualifying for the kantonal semifinals (sort of like US states).  But more than anything it’s an important tradition, and interesting for a foreigner to watch, even if at first I was a bit fearful.  After all, we have our own gun traditions in the US.

Back to Friday.  The club has a big season ending award ceremony + dinner + massive lotto, all in a big traditional old chalet-style restaurant.  The shooters bring partners so I came along to cheer on Benno.  We sat at a big table with many of his childhood friends, chatted with Swiss locals ranging in age from early teens to 70s, drank tons of beer, ate lots of sausage, won some grill implements, listened to lots of accordion music from “Fritz and Heinri,” and then stumbled home to Benno’s parents’ house under the shadow of the medieval monastery in his home town.  I still find magic in these things that are so foreign and so far from the suburbs of Chicago where I grew up.  I have always had wandering feet, but recently I find them wandering more and more away from big cities and towards these small moments.

 

A new challenge: the countryside

No mountain pictures this time

It’s been a long hiatus. Partly because I’ve been busy finishing up all this PhD stuff and starting my new postdoc position. But also partly because I never intended for this to be an academic blog and well…see the last sentence. My “cultural ponderings” and private life doings have taken a back seat to staring at my computer willing more publications to appear under my fingertips. Here is Some Other Stuff in no particular order.

  • I wrote a pretty deliriously happy blog post a few months ago. I wish I could say that it has been a steady stream of upbeat doings since then, but turns out that dealing with lots of change is always a bit overwhelming, even if they are mostly good changes.
  • Flew off to my good friend Alex Lavers’ wedding in Sweden for a big time ladyfriends reunion just moments after sending off my dissertation into the ether. THAT FELT GOOD. Seeing a big stack of my three years’ worth of work bound into a book and stacked up impressively on my desk? ALSO FELT GOOD. But the most awesome thing of all is seeing my friends settle into new life stages and places and looking so happy doing it (we’re a little slow on the settling down front, what can I say).
  • I have come to the decision that finishing a PhD (as in the very end stages) is largely an exercise in persistence. I keep waiting for it to sink in that I’m at the finish line, but it kind of feels like those trick birthday candles that never go out regardless of how long you huff and puff.
  • Dating a Swiss guy from the countryside is a TOTALLY different experience than dating a city Swiss guy. I feel like I’ve done more acculturation in the past five months than the past three years. I have learned about shooting clubs, Carneval bands, festivals, every variety of Swiss dish I’ve never heard about, Swiss sumo wrestling, and spoken WAY more German than ever before. Yesterday we had brunch for a few hours with a couple of his friends and I had to take a nap afterwards I was so exhausted. One on one German is OK but following a conversation among a bunch of people that I am simultaneously trying to impress…woof.
  • My new colleagues are the best. Really, they are a smart, supportive, and ambitious team, and I can’t wait to see what we will accomplish. I feel really lucky that I found such a great project and team.  However, I am eager for this part time postdoc part time PhD phase to end.  ASAP.
  • Just had a week back in Trump’s America for the first time and it was…really fun. Turns out Trump’s America is not so different on the everyday level from Obama’s America. Whew.
  • NYC no longer feels like home. Chicago is not really home. Switzerland feels like home. That feels a little scary sometimes. Is this going to be a lifelong move? Will I have little Kinder running around someday speaking Swiss German? What have I done?

Things not included on this list: much hiking or running or…anything in the mountains. Trust me, I plan on fixing that soon.

No mountain pictures this time

How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned

I still remember the feeling after finishing my master’s thesis, 5 (!) years ago.  I felt like I had made my way through a trackless wilderness of data and literature searches and SAS code and finally organized that big heap of data into something coherent, a process during which I had little confidence in my own ability and was somewhat overcome with amazement when the file sat completed on my laptop.  I sent it off gleefully and went out for drinks, glad that I would be able to return to a normal job with normal deadlines and defined tasks and endpoints.

Well, that didn’t last long.  Five years later, I sit here with my fifth manuscript accepted for publication, about to submit another and starting to daydream about the next couple.  And I’m proud of how they’ve turned out- one has been cited 32 times by other scientists per Google Scholar and even been quoted in the New York Times.  And all of it with literally a fraction of the stress of that first masters thesis.  So clearly something has changed.  Part of it is just the confidence factor.  I really do believe in myself and my ideas now, and I have oodles more training and experience, thanks to wonderful supervisors and trainings.  But I’ve also learned a few hacks that I am thinking about now, at the tail end of my PhD.

  • Always have a plan.  At any given moment, I have a yearly goal and milestone spreadsheet, a monthly one, and a weekly one.  They are revised almost every week.  This type of organization is so, so key for a scientist.  No one is watching over your shoulder or telling you when something is due, making it far too easy to get bogged down for weeks in tasks.  My personal tactic when I realize that I’m getting stuck is figure out someone I can ask for help (such a great part of academia is the depth of the friendly brainpower around us!)  If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to brainstorm some new tactics.

 

  • The Pomodoro Method.  A productivity manager that has really helped me partition my time effectively.  Essentially, I divide my day into 25 minute intervals, with small 5 minute stretching breaks between each block (read more here).  I don’t adhere to it religiously, but find it especially helpful with writing large documents and other tasks that require high focus.  I put my phone in airplane mode during each block and don’t allow myself to stop writing/brainstorming/coding/whatever during that time.  I don’t use it at all for things like checking email or meetings so it keeps me really conscious of when those less productive things are eating up too much of my day.  It also tells me when I can quit- when writing something like a dissertation it can be hard to know when you’ve done “enough” work for the day.

 

  • Keep your storyline in mind.  We did a multi-day training the first year of my PhD that I have found endlessly useful.  It was a training on how to give an effective presentation, but I have found some of the things apply to almost every aspect of my job.  For example, what do you want your audience to remember when they think of your talk days later?  If you want them to remember anything, you had better make a compelling story out of your research, and even then they will at most remember 1-2 things overall.  What do you want those 1-2 things to be? Now, when I prepare for another talk or begin to write up a new analysis or design a new data visualization, I first sit down with a pen and paper and brainstorm 4-5 bullet points of how I want my “story” to go.  If I can’t distill my story down to a few bullet points that make a logical story, I know I’m not quite ready to start drafting.

 

  • Make time for networking.  No one does science in isolation any more.  Well, probably they do, but you have never heard of them because they don’t get the grants/write the papers/join the collaborations.  And it’s super fun!  I mostly apply for things like consortiums and workshops and conferences and join R Users Groups because they sound like fun, but I have learned so so much, widened my scientific horizons, and made so many great connections through them.  I’ve gotten really comfortable with emailing random people to ask them about their research, etc, and it can have big payoffs.  Also, it makes it much easier to find a position after graduation 😉

 

  • Set boundaries about your time.  This directly contradicts the last point, and I admit is one that took me a while to learn.  But people are always going to be asking you to help with writing grants and teaching classes and giving talks, stuff that is an important part of science but not the part that is most important during the PhD specifically.  During the PhD the most important thing is to build your track record by publishing.  Learning how to say no diplomatically has been a big part of my PhD.

I am curious if others have the same experience as me.  I’ve learned that everyone has a different PhD experience- I had very hands off supervisors in a lot of ways, which comes with a very specific set of challenges and also opportunities.  Like this week I’ve had a bad summer cold and decided to just work from home, a decision I don’t have to justify or run by anyone.  In fact it would probably take at least a month before my supervisors noticed I wasn’t coming in, no joke.  My friends certainly notice, so don’t feel too sorry for me 😉

P.S. Summer colds suck.

How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned

My Top Ten Hikes

I am back this weekend from my very first Alps hut hike of 2017!!  You might think I’m lazy, waiting till mid-July for my first one, but the high alpine season is really only July-Septemberish, too snowbound outside those months. There is of course, the lower, quieter stuff, but those don’t steal my heart the same way a dramatic icefall or scrambling, butt-flopping marmot do.   This weekend was a great hike- relatively easy by alpine standards (only 900m/3,000ft), but with huge scenery payoffs.  It got me thinking, though, about my all time favorite hikes, and since I have a thing for a good listicle, thought it’d be a fun top ten.  I included via ferratas, even though they are half climbing, because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I wanna.

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  1. The Haute Route.  It’s not quite fair to cite this as one hike as it’s really 14 days worth of different hikes.  But man- this was incredible.  If I could pick out a couple days, the walk from Cabane du Mont Fort to Prafleuri was out of this world (we stopped to take so many photos that we almost ran out of sunlight, even after departing around 7:30), as well as the hike from Prafleuri to Arolla, where I ate a burger I still think about.  The hut at the Moiry Icefall still stands out as probably the most incredibly situated huts I’ve ever been in- I literally sat and listened to the glaciers for hours.  But overall it was just so cool to be propelled by my legs all the way from Chamonix to Zermatt, two of my favorite places. I don’t think I can overemphasize how physically exhausting this trail can be, though.  An uphill climb of 1600m/5200ft plus a usually more tiring amount of downhill was typical for a single day…now imagine days on end of this.

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2. The Inca Trail. Totally different thing- what made this the coolest was the cultural experience of hiking down this stony path made centuries before by a mysterious culture.  And of course the amazing crown of Macchu Picchu.  I think the right word is otherworldly.  Actual hiking was pretty easy and only made challenging by the fact that the passes sometimes hit 16,000 ft.

3. Via Ferrata Braunwald. Not too nerve wracking Via Ferrata with really incredible views.  And quite close to Zurich!

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4. Grindelwald to Schreckhorn Hut. This is another tough hike, one of the few T4s I’ve done (T4-T5 occasionally require specialized climbing equipment, but in this case only meant some extra ladders and exposed sections).  I think the signage said it would take 9 hours (remember without rest, normally I am above the markers), but I was with some strong hikers this day and I think we did it in 7.  I was dead afterwards though.  Much better to stay overnight at the hut and relax a bit.  Incredible views of the Eiger Glacier and the famous Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau peaks.

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5. Seealpsee Hike in Appenzell. Proof that it doesn’t have to be hard for me to like it 🙂  A beautiful hike to one of the most iconic lakes in Switzerland, together with a necessary visit to the Ascher hut tucked against a cliff.  Must have their famous rösti and a cider (moscht).

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6. Schynige Platte to First. Another epic (but easier) Bernese Oberland hike high above Interlaken, one of the most breathtaking views of the same Eiger/Mönch/Jungfrau mountains, in my opinion.

7. Franconia Loop Notch. Alright, it’s about time I threw some US in.  There’s less of it because I’ve had less opportunities to hike it!  While I’ve hung out a ton in CO, there’s not really one specific trail I’m thinking of right now that blew my socks off- I’m going for really dramatic views in this list.  The Alps, in my opinion, do have a bit the edge here, with dramatic differences in elevation instead of the gradual ones of the Rockies. But this ridge trail part of the Appalachian Trail has stuck in my mind for years.  I wonder if it would still hold up.

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8. Olympic National Park. I’m gonna lump all these together, too- although my memory is fuzzy of the names of the hikes.  Hurricane Ridge was beautiful, Hoh Rainforest, the coastline…I just remember that a lot of them looked like below.  There were also the most incredible beach trails- I remember us running for dear life to catch the most amazing sunset off the coast.

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9. Franz-Senn Hut and the Tirol in the Austrian Alps. Hut culture is THE BEST in Austria.  Maybe even better than Switzerland.  I definitely give them the edge on food- I think about käseknodelsuppe all the time.  Please bring that across the border.  The views are also incredible, and it is cheaper.  I need to explore more!

10. Aletsch Glacier Hike from Bettmeralp. OK, I ran this as a half marathon and almost died.  But this is truly an amazing view of the largest glacier in Europe.  It was surprisingly hard to come up with this last one- there are so many other things!  I’m still thinking about the Maroon Bells in Colorado, and the entire Engadin area in Switzerland, and Ticino…but this is my spontaneous, might change tomorrow list.

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Number 1 on my hiking desires list, though…the Hardergrat!  This is a trail that must be trail run, however, as it is 27km of knife ridge high above Interlaken with nowhere to descend if you get stuck.  But just look at these views:

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On a more distant scale, I am also dying to see the Himalayas.  Let me know if you want to apply to be a hiking buddy (I promise it’s an easy application- you want to go and are somewhat fit)   🙂

My Top Ten Hikes