Kara Poon - ETH Zurich 2015

Kara Poon - ETH Zurich 2015

Kara Poon is a 4th year student, studying a Bachelor of Materials Science and a Master of Biomedical Engineering. In January 2015 Kara commenced a 7 month exchange in Europe, studying at the prestigious ETH Zurich, one of the worlds leading universities for science and technology, which boasts Albert Einstein among its alumni.

Kara's story:

In January this year, I set off on my longest solo trip. For the next seven months, I’d be living away from home in lands where I couldn’t speak the language and where my skills in charades would be put to the test. After travelling almost 24 hours, I arrived in Europe, ecstatic to start my exchange life. For the first few weeks, I travelled around different European cities such as Paris, London, Brussels and Venice. Then it was time to start my academic life in Zürich, Switzerland. When I arrived it was bitterly cold but absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen so much snow in my life and the city was charming with its blanket of pure white snow. 

Before my semester started, I took an intensive German class for exchange and Masters students. In this class I learned everything from “Ich heisse Kara und ich komme aus Australien” to “Ich liebe Schweizer Schokolade”. I can’t say that my German really improved all that much, but it was enough to help me to get around the country fairly easily.  

I studied Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering courses at ETH Zurich for the semester. It is considered to be one of the top universities in Europe and alumni include people such as Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli. To say I was daunted was an understatement, especially since I was arrived at the university during the exam period when all the students seemed hushed and focused in the hallways. ETH Zurich has two campuses that are vastly different. The main campus is in the heart of the city and its main sandstone building was erected in 1855 and looks impressive and grand. Its other campus is 20 minutes away and is modern with mostly concrete, steel and glass structures but equally impressive in its own way. I was initially overwhelmed by the fact that I was taking 6 subjects plus an additional German language class. Thankfully, the classes were all interesting and there was only one lecture per week for each class. In my MRI Imaging class, the university didn’t seem satisfied to only teach us the theory behind the equipment. They allowed us to climb into the machine to get our brains scanned! In another class, I had the even more surreal experience of being allowed into a surgical theatre wearing scrubs and all, to observe spinal and elbow surgeries. During my semester, I also had the opportunity to visit EMPA – the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology as part of my corrosion science studies. 

I also made friends with an incredible bunch of people from various countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria, Austria, Finland, America, Singapore and of course, Switzerland. In our free time, we would travel to different areas in Switzerland to experience more of the culture and the country. Some of my more memorable trips include skiing and snowboarding in the Swiss Alps. How many people can say that they learnt to ski in the Swiss Alps?! It was such a surreal experience to be able to say things like “I’m just going to hike around the Matterhorn on the weekend” or “I’m going to take a short train ride to the next country tomorrow”. But this is considered so normal in Switzerland, that the locals usually didn’t bat an eye. 

Zürich is considered Switzerland’s largest city, yet the population is far smaller than in Sydney. I often felt as if I was living in a quiet city rather than the main city of the country. But that was something I quickly became accustomed to, as I grew to love just how close everything was. During the week, I would attend my classes and within 30 minutes of finishing them, I could be on the other side of the city, climbing a mountain or swimming in the river, or be in the main financial district bustling around with the city’s financial elite. 

During the time I was there, I was lucky enough to experience some of their festivals. In April, Zürich celebrates Sächsilüüte, which is a traditional holiday to welcome the Spring season. The most bizarre event during Sächsilüüte is the burning of the Böög- a figure of a snowman filled with fireworks in its head. It is set alight on top of a bonfire and it is said that the time it takes for the fireworks to explode will be an indication of how good the following summer will be. Thankfully, the lengthy wait of 21 minutes this year was not at all correct, as the summer turned out to be beautifully warm! 

My stay in Switzerland was exciting, eye-opening and at times very surreal – from studying at a world renowned university, to eating copious amounts of cheese and chocolate, to exploring beautiful landscapes with fun company. It was such a great opportunity to learn more about Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering and the broad opportunities in each field. Furthermore, it was amazing to learn so much about different cultures and to gain some valuable life skills from living on my own in a foreign country. My exchange semester in Switzerland is definitely an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.