From an internship to graduate studies at EPFL
Lara, PhD student in Electrical Engineering, co-inventor of COUGHVID and PhD candidate at EPFL
Lara, former Bachelor’s student in Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech (USA), visited EPFL for a study exchange, followed by a research internship in signal processing for embedded systems at the EPFL Embedded Systems Laboratory Lab. This experience was in many ways a springboard for her academic and personal development. Today she is completing a Master’s in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from EPFL, will start a PhD in Electrical Engineering at our School and develops ways for people with chronic health conditions to be able to monitor them from home and so improve their quality of life.
Thanks to EPFL’s Research Internship Program, I discovered my interest for signal processing and machine learning which allows me to develop applications and algorithms to help people live a healthier life.
Your Excellence Research Internship at EPFL as a springboard for your future, why?
- It helped spark my interest in research as an academic career option.
- It led me to both do a Master’s degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and start a PhD in Electrical Engineering at EPFL.
- I realized that engineering is more than just a technical or theoretical field. It allows you to solve problems across all domains and help people of diverse backgrounds.
- It opened doors I thought I would never enter – through the lab in which I did my internship I got interested in machine learning on edge devices, which led me later to work on COUGHVID, a project to distinguish the sound of a COVID-19 cough from that of a healthy cough – something with a real-life impact.
- Concrete project work during my internship allowed me to design an application, and learn how to collaborate with start-ups and other university partners.
- It made me aware of what I could achieve – I had the opportunity to be the first author on a paper we published and I presented at an international conference.
Why did you do a research internship at EPFL?
“Experiencing a different research and education system makes you a stronger researcher.”
During my Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at Giorgia Tech, I wanted to do an exchange and research internship abroad and I learned that EPFL offers that. During my first Bachelor’s year, I already gained some lab experience in biomedical signal processing and I wanted to see more within this field, but in a different setting and country and also at another university. Certainly, my personal interest in discovering new things, travelling and my natural curiousness helped me to take that first step.
What motivated you to study at EPFL after your Excellence Research Internship experience?
“My stay at EPFL helped me decide to do a PhD and to take ownership of a specific question or research area.”
I wanted to stay at EPFL for a PhD and work on biomedical signal processing on wearable devices in the Embedded Systems Lab (ESL) because I was extremely impressed by that group and the research they did. I learned so much and I liked the atmosphere. The lab consists of experts at every level of electrical engineering, from the low-level hardware design to high-level machine learning optimization, and I was sure I would learn a lot in this environment. During my internship, I was given a lot of independence to come up with ideas and I got the feeling I really contributed to the research. I spoke with Prof. Atienza who manages the lab about my thoughts and he encouraged me to apply for a PhD. I decided to apply for both, a PhD at Georgia Tech and a Master’s in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at EPFL (as a preparation for a PhD at EPFL ESL). When I got accepted for the EPFL Excellence Fellowship for my Master’s, I decided to come to EPFL.
Did you have a key experience during your internship that impacted your decision to study at EPFL?
“The lab really pushes you to do your best work possible and that experience was so encouraging, valuable and rewarding.”
I originally worked on a project that monitors the activity level of student-athletes by providing them with smart watches and a custom-built Android application to monitor their daily fatigue (read more). This really got me interested in how engineering can contribute to improving people’s health. I did a side project with a PhD student on a new ECG heartbeat detection algorithm that can run on energy efficient, wearable Internet of Things devices (read more). The professor and some researchers thought that my work had the potential for a publication. As I had done most of the work, they suggested I be the first author and present it at a conference, something I had never dreamed of. This experience would not have been possible without the encouragement and empowerment I received during my internship. That was one of the decisive experiences.
What learnings from your internship have an impact on you today?
“It gave my academic career a strong direction and helped me develop very valuable relationships with my current colleagues.”
Aside from what I learned in terms of technical knowledge within the embedded systems research domain, the internship strengthened my interest in research and taught me countless skills, including making effective presentations, writing academic papers, and working in large, multidisciplinary teams.
That is why, during my Master’s at EPFL, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I pitched a project to ESL to train an audio signal processing algorithm to distinguish COVID-19 cough sounds from other cough sounds using smartphone microphones. We developed the infrastructure for COUGHVID, a diagnostic test using a smartphone app to identify the sound of the user’s cough using machine learning algorithms. This sound-based diagnosis of COVID-19 has been previously used to detect whooping cough, asthma and pneumonia. While this method is still under development, it enables decentralization and provides a preliminary screening in case of symptoms, which is something that interests me.
What is your advice to your younger self in terms of pursuing studies at EPFL after an Excellence Research Internship?
“It was good I took the risk to get out of my comfort zone, come to a different country, and explore a different school and research system.”
Don’t be afraid to reach out to professors and propose ideas because they may end up becoming research projects, something my cohort peers all emphasized as well.
Gergely, PhD candidate in Computer Science, passionate about interactive teaching
Gergely did an Excellence Research Internship at EPFL’s Laboratory for Information and Inference Systems (LIONS) during his Bachelor’s in Mathematics and Computer Science at MIT (USA). This experience led him to come back to EPFL for a PhD in Computer Science, where he, as a supervisor of interns, continuously tries to improve the way he works with students.
My Excellence Research Internship at EPFL motivated me to do research, but also to create an environment that people can flourish in.
Your Excellence Research Internship as a springboard for an academic career, why?
- It opened the doors to a PhD, possibly to a career in research or teaching.
- It made me want to be a mentor to interns myself – thanks to the great experience I had, I want to give something back.
- I felt encouraged by the lab to pursue a career in research – that was a decisive and very positive experience for me.
Why did you do an Excellence Research Internship at EPFL?
“I was impressed by the vast choice of research projects available and how openly the labs communicated.”
Coming from a family of professors, I always was interested in research, which is why already at MIT I was part of the undergraduate research program. I heard about EPFL and thought this might be a great opportunity. I also always knew I wanted to go to Europe, and on the other hand, EPFL is somewhat America-oriented in their research approach.
How did the internship help you for your academic career?
“I want to do research, but also create an environment that people can flourish in, an environment similar to the one I had during my research internship.”
Whist I was interested in research, I was not quite sure which direction to take. During my Bachelor’s at MIT I did a lot of applied research. On the other hand, my internship at EPFL, with its vast choice of research projects and the new environment at EPFL, allowed me to try theoretical research. My Master’s at the Central European University served as a preparation to learn more theory before deciding on the topic for my PhD that I decided to do at EPFL. My internship experience at EPFL helps me be a better mentor to my own interns and find ways to improve my teaching. I can see myself continuing this path as a researcher but also potentially as a teacher.
A key experience during your Excellence Research Internship that influences your teaching activities today?
“I had a good mentor. And in turn, I think, giving this back to the community by being a mentor yourself will prepare you to be a better academic leader.”
I always felt that my personality as well as my contributions were valued. Especially when we had the opportunity to publish a paper (read more), I received all the support to do that from the lab since I had no idea how to proceed. The lab’s professor was very approachable and encouraged me to apply for a PhD in his lab. This left an overall very positive impression and still affects me today. I see myself as someone accompanying the students through the learning process – that is why interactive learning is so important to me – as I have experienced that myself here.
What would your advice to your younger self be in terms of starting an academic career through an Excellence Research Internship?
“Try to find challenging but realistic goals for yourself.”
A healthy amount of ambition, willingness to learn and openness is important and necessary to succeed. However, remember not to feel pressured to compete from day one on with all the people in the lab that have been doing that research for a long time.
And this is exactly why good mentors are so important to make sure research interns at EPFL have a valuable experience: to ensure we empower them, but also help them when needed, and teach them about the domain so as they may consider this a door opener for an academic career – possibly at EPFL.
How do you think that these experiences at EPFL prepared you for your future?
“I probably will be a better researcher thanks to the great mentors and interns I had – both teachers in a way.”
Charles, Master’s student in Environmental Sciences and Engineering, passionate about finding solutions for our environment
During his Bachelor’s in Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech (USA), Charles came to EPFL for a study exchange followed by an Excellence Research Internship at the Environmental Chemistry Lab. Interested by environmental questions, he found that Switzerland, and EPFL in particular, offers great opportunities in this field. He values his experience for many reasons: he got his first work experience in research, found a domain he is passionate about, got to study abroad but also learn a lot about life, cultures and what it means to work in an interdisciplinary team. Today he is about to finish his Master’s in Environmental Sciences and Engineering at EPFL and aims to continue working to improve the environment by collaborating with industries and scientists from around the world.
Before joining EPFL’s Excellence Research Internship Program, I never expected to find such an interest in research and to work independently on a project that would be valued.
Your Excellence Research Internship at EPFL – an experience you would not want to miss, why?
- I learned how to work independently but also within a diverse team.
- The lab empowered me to design a setup, process results and come up with new solutions – I felt I was taken seriously.
- I co-authored a journal article that was published.
- I discovered how it could be to work in environmental research – a reason why I came back to do a Master’s degree in this field.
What motivated you to do an Excellence Research Internship at EPFL?
“I thought this could be very valuable, as I had no working experience.”
I always knew I wanted to go abroad and I had been looking at different options within the field of my Bachelor’s in Environmental Engineering. After consulting my study abroad advisor, I saw that Switzerland ranked top in terms of environmental action and policy. I was very impressed by that and my advisor mentioned the option to combine studying abroad with doing an Excellence Research Internship at EPFL, a sort of package. Having done an industry internship before, I also knew that I wanted to do something in research.
What learnings from your internship have an impact on you today?
“It was during the Excellence Research Internship Program that I found out that I was pretty good at designing a setup, processing the results and coming up with a new solution.”
At the Environmental Chemistry Lab, I examined the inactivation mechanisms of enteroviruses, which for instance cause diarrhea, looking at their survivability in natural water under different conditions (see publication). I could come up with own ideas, consult with others, and my work was taken seriously. This very positive experience got me interested in water related environmental research and set the corner stone for my current path and for further developments.
After your Excellence Research Internship, what made you decide to do your Master’s at EPFL?
“The Master’s offered by EPFL is the ideal preparation for me to work in the environmental research field.”
Because of my interest in water related environmental research, the people in the lab told me about EAWAG (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology), a Swiss research institute that is part of the same domain as EPFL with several joint research programs. I saw myself working in this field and what better way to get started than to pursue a Master’s that is closely linked to that research area. Once I also was accepted for EPFL’s Excellence Fellowship, the decision was also pretty clear.
Why do you think doing a combination of both at EPFL, an Excellence Research Internship program followed by a Master’s, works so well?
“I found it interesting to come up with solutions that could be impactful.”
The Excellence Research Internship Program gave me an insight into how actual work in that field could look like. The Master’s shows you many different dimensions of environmental applications, which means you are in multi-disciplinary classes, learning to work with people from various background. This brings me to the beginning, where during my internship I saw a small part of environmental engineering that interacts with many others to ensure sustainable solutions are being developed.
How do you think that these experiences at EPFL prepared you for your future?
“I probably became a better person as I developed a mindset on what we should do for our environment… it expanded my worldview.”
The different phases at EPFL, the exchange, Excellence Research Internship and the Master’s prepared me for different things: I built up skills such as working independently, being able to tackle problems or think results through and formulate a report, similar to a research paper, something that I had not done in my Bachelor’s. I also learned how to work in groups with people from all different kinds of backgrounds. Most importantly, I developed a mindset on how to find solutions for our environment, which expanded my worldview.
Watch my video of my exchange experience at EPFL.
Their experience in pictures
© EPFL 2021
The interns work alongside researchers but also independently on exciting projects in areas such as environment, health, engineering, basic science or information technology. Read more about their experiences inside and outside the lab.
The interns’ blog
Are you interested in EPFL’s Excellence Research Internship Program? Read about current and former research interns’ experiences on and off campus in their blog and discover why this unique experience could be just what you are looking for.