The decision to look for a postdoc position abroad was taken about a year before I completed my doctoral thesis at the Faculty of Life Sciences (Pharmaceutical Sciences) in Vienna. It was shortly before my 30th birthday, and I wanted to get an idea of what’s going on in the international world of research. The decision of where to go took care of itself, as it were. For a subproject within my thesis we had received support from the research team of Professor Stieger in Zurich whom I also met in person at a meeting. This first impression tipped the scales, and I instinctively felt that he was the right person for my plans. So, without further ado, I asked him whether I could get a postdoc position in his group. That was the first step. We remained in contact, discussed potential main aspects for my research, and I tried to raise financial support for my project which was ultimately entitled “Identification and molecular characterisation of drug metabolite transporters in the endoplasmic reticulum of hepatocytes”. As you can tell from reading this article, my efforts were crowned with success.
Research focus and bureaucratic hurdles
At the start, the Zurich University Hospital offered me accommodation in their staff residence. That facilitated the organisational part tremendously, since finding a flat to rent in Zurich is a challenge at any event, and doing it from abroad is virtually impossible.
More quickly than I had thought I was sitting in my room in Zurich surrounded by my essential belongings. It was a bit like sharing a flat, and I actually shared a kitchen, bathroom and toilet with five other girls on the same floor. It meant that I met many nice people, which is exactly the right thing when you start out in a strange city. I have to admit that I found it difficult initially to enjoy life on my own, as there were not yet any friends to call and meet up with. And although I had actually often done things by myself in Vienna, this was different. But, as they say: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and giving up was out of the question anyway. As I was to find out, the same principle had to be applied to the bureaucratic hurdles which tested my resilience more than once. How, for instance, are you expected to take out insurance against work-related accidents when you are not officially considered as gainfully employed? In addition, the insurance company felt they could not insure me against accidents at all, since as a scientist in a laboratory I was exposed to too many risks. Continuing my pension guarantee scheme also turned out to be a time-consuming and very complicated endeavour. But as we know, all roads lead to Rome, not only the ones taken by the cardinals to join the papal conclave. After one-and-a-half years of paperwork and mailing the entire pack of enrolment receipts of all my twelve years as a university student, it was ensured that my pension entitlement would be continued. With time, everything fell into place. After my first half year in Zurich I started to relax, and after one year I started to feel at home here. It probably helped that I could move into my own little flat and enjoyed no longer having to share my kitchen, bathroom and toilet with other people.
Keeping in touch with family and friends is not a problem; in the age of Skype you can easily share all news to your heart’s content. This said, I also rediscovered the appeal of good old snail mail. There is nothing nicer than receiving postcards, letters and parcels and sending them off yourself, of course. Who of us still gets birthday cards sent by post nowadays? While postal services are a good thing, they may tax your patience when you are waiting for parcels. Sometimes I have a feeling they are still delivered by foot from start to finish. In Zurich there is a separate compartment under your letterbox where parcels go, which is a great idea, if you happen to know that. It took me some time to realise it, and by the time I found out my first parcel had already become frozen solid. Since my sister loved the idea of having this compartment so much, she ensures I find a small parcel in it now and then. At any rate, my mailbox is not going to starve. I usually find something in it, not only bills, but also many cards and letters from home. The jury is still out on who holds the record of writing most postcards at the moment.
As far as my research is concerned, my instincts turned out to be sound. Nice colleagues, an exciting project and a great working atmosphere are ample confirmation that my choice was spot on.
People and impressions
And Zurich itself makes it easy for you to enjoy life. It is no coincidence that it ranks among the cities with the highest quality of life: the location at the lakeshore, an Alpine panorama on the horizon, cheese fondue and Sprüngli’s macarons all contribute to my well-being. It is hence recommended to leave your bathroom scale at home or do as I do and ride your bicycle to work every day: riding along the edge of the forest, passing a flock of sheep, hearing a rooster crowing, and, weather permitting, enjoying a view of the western Alps. Even if I greatly appreciate Vienna, these are things it just doesn’t have to offer. Next to scientific exchanges, cultural exchanges are just as valuable. Getting to know about other customs and practices is as exciting as working on my postdoc project. One of my favourite days in the Zurich calendar is the so-called Sächsilüüten at the beginning of April. After a parade of the trade guilds, the Böögg (a snowman) is burned on a gigantic stake. Depending on how long it takes until the head of the snowman flies off with a loud bang, it is going to be a good or a bad summer. Poor snowman! I am quite curious to know what the prospects of the coming summer are going to be.
There is one thing I can predict already with some certainty: despite the initial administrative and emotional difficulties, I am always going to cherish my time here in Zurich. New friendships and perspectives are going to stay with me for a long time. The research experience I am able to gather here through my Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship is something I truly appreciate, and my work in a highly reputed research team is a wonderful opportunity for professional development in life-science research.