A Summer of Learning

I almost didn’t apply to EPFL’s Excellence Research Internship Program (ERIP).

In my mind, working abroad in a laboratory in Switzerland for a summer was a distant dream. But with encouragement from my family, I applied despite my doubts. Looking back, I’m glad I stepped outside of my comfort zone as this past summer at EPFL was one of the most formative experiences of my undergraduate degree.

I was an intern in the Lemaitre lab and dove into the field of Drosophila immunology for the summer. Fruit flies may seem simple, but they are powerful model organisms as they share many similarities with mammals, have a short life cycle, and have genetics that can be easily (relatively speaking!) manipulated. I started with a literature review and learned about fruit fly genetics, development, life cycle, anatomy, and important immune pathways. After developing essential wet lab skills such as conducting Drosophila dissections, I worked closely alongside a postdoctoral fellow to investigate the immune function of NimB2 protein. Though the learning curve was steep, all the members in the lab were extremely supportive and generous with their knowledge and time.

The doodle that greeted me every morning at the lab.

Lots of learning also took place outside of the lab. It was my first time living abroad; I had never bought health insurance for myself, opened a bank account on my own, nor applied for a residency permit. It was daunting at first to have that level of independence and responsibility in a foreign city where I didn’t know anyone, but I luckily met great friends in the program to go through these new experiences with. Together, we explored as much of Switzerland as possible.

A magical foggy hike in Lauterbrunnen shot on 35mm film (I was trailing behind).
The steep train ride up Rochers de Naye on 35mm film.

We took advantage of the great train system (get the half-fare travel card for the summer!) and made weekend trips to different cities. Whether we were hiking, trying new foods, visiting little shops, attending music festivals, or exploring outdoor markets, our excursions were the highlight of my summer. 

Posing next to cows on the Moléson.

I am very grateful to ERIP for bringing us together, supporting our development as scientists, and giving us the opportunity to experience Switzerland. For anyone who may feel like me pre-ERIP (unsure and a bit apprehensive about pursuing research in Switzerland), I hope this convinces you to step outside your corner of the world and into this exciting learning opportunity!

You won’t regret it.

Shirley Zhu, McGill University

Lemaitre Lab