Keeping it cool with electron microscopy in Switzerland

19 April 2017

Written by Lachlan Arthur

It wasn’t easy leaving Australia, but now that I am two months into my time in Switzerland, I am glad to say that my exchange has been everything I hoped it would be!

Over the past month, I have completed the first of my four research projects at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). ETH Zurich was at the top of my list for exchange because of its reputation as one of the best scientific institutions in the world and because of the opportunity it would give me to work in some incredible labs.

I have now started a new project using cryo-electron microscopy – a method involving freezing samples at cryogenic temperatures – to study how the Hepatitis C virus binds to the part of the liver cell responsible for producing proteins. This process is what allows the virus to produce proteins inside an infected cell and reproduce.

The coolest part of this research is definitely using an electron microscope. It’s rare for an undergrad to be even allowed near a multi-million dollar piece of equipment, let alone use one, even if it is with some nervous looking supervisors peering over my shoulder.

The fast-paced, condensed style of research at ETH definitely has its perks in terms of learning a wide-range of skills and meeting a diverse range of academics in a short period, although it does mean that I don’t get to follow my projects through to completion.

Whilst on exchange, I have also had some uniquely ‘Zurich’ experiences over the last month. This includes climbing Zurich’s local mountain, the Uetliberg, in a mob of people carrying flaming torches, having a traditional Swiss barbeque over an open fire in the mountains, and participating in the university sports club’s traditional full-moon run through the forests with only the moonlight to guide us.

I also made the trip out to Oberriet, a small town on the Swiss-Austrian border, to run in the Rhylauf half marathon. The town, which is surrounded by the Swiss Alps on one side and the Austrian Alps on the other, was a beautiful place to have my final official run before I take on the Paris marathon this month. It also provided me with the highlight of my month, as unlike the usual medal and Powerade I am used to receiving when I finish a run, this time I was greeted with a huge loaf of bread when I crossed the line! I later found out that the bread is called Zopf, and it is a Swiss tradition to bake and eat it on Sundays – nevertheless I was stoked to be awarded bread instead of a medal.

Of course, no month on exchange would be complete without a trip away, and I was lucky to spend the past weekend exploring Vienna and Budapest, which are two of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited.

Usually I am not a huge fan of the arts, but I made an exception and went to the opera in Vienna (which, being in German, really put my language skills to the test). I also made visits to the Schönbrunn Palace and the houses of Mozart and Sigmund Freud in Vienna. Eating goulash soup and Paprikash chicken at the Fisherman’s Bastion while overlooking the Hungarian Parliament Building was certainly a highlight of my time in Budapest.

April is set to be the biggest month of my exchange yet. This weekend I head to Paris to see if all my training has paid off as I take to the streets with 60,000 others for the Marathon de Paris. Then the following week I will be making the most of Easter and the mid-semester break by heading to Milan with some other exchange students I have met in Zurich, where I will also meet one of my friends from ANU who is currently on exchange at Exeter in the UK. In Milan, we will pick-up a campervan and set off to cover as many kilometres across Italy as we can in 10 days.

Even with all this to look forward to, I can’t lie, I do miss home.

Before I applied to go on exchange 12 months ago, I knew I’d miss my family, the familiarity of studying at ANU, and be extremely jealous when I saw my friends back at college having a good time (observing O-week via Snapchat was particularly hard).

But even though I miss home, I wouldn’t change my exchange experience for the world!