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The Personal Dimensions of Moving to Zurich

February 23, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 8

Zurich's attractiveness to chemists is undeniable. Yet chemists are not only scientists but also teachers, spouses, parents, and children. Below are excerpts from C&EN's interviews of U.S.-based chemists who recently moved to Zurich, focusing on the more personal aspects of their decisions.

Kim Baldridge, formerly with the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the University of California, San Diego, and now with the University of Zurich:

I lived in North Dakota until I was 28 years old. The culture, the value system, the whole way I grew up is much more European than Californian. In fact, a lot of Europeans go to North Dakota because the value system there--the pace of life--is very similar to that of Europe.

Everyone I've met in the chemistry community in Zurich seems contented and happy. People don't sleep in their labs, and yet they get a lot done. In the U.S., because you can go to the lab anytime, people don't meet each other. In Zurich, people are around at the same time, and you want that. Even the American students here seem content.

Erick M. Carreira, formerly with California Institute of Technology, now with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH):

My wife is Swiss, so I was already familiar with the culture. When the offer came, she had a job with a patent law firm in Los Angeles; she was not pining to go home. Of course, she liked the fact that she could be close again to her family. But having lived in the U.S. for almost 12 years, she also had to readapt to a new life. And she also had to reconfigure her career.

At some point when you're weighing the plusses and minuses of a decision, often it comes down to a gut feeling. I felt that way about ETH. We didn't have a child at the time. I thought, if I don't move now, I'll never do it.

Peter Chen, formerly with Harvard University, now with ETH:

Zurich is a nice, clean city, a good place to raise a family. I have two kids, ages nine and six. Both were born here. When ETH made the offer, we also negotiated things like German lessons and assistance in finding housing.

ETH even paid for the birth of my first child because our U.S. insurance ruled that any birth after the seventh month of pregnancy is not an emergency and [the insurance company did] not cover nonemergency care outside its service radius. Meanwhile, the insurance here viewed the pregnancy as a preexisting condition and said it would not be covered.

Switzerland is much more different from the U.S. than I had expected. Adaptation was not easy, but it was buffered by a lot of things ETH did to help.

François N. Diederich, formerly with the University of California, Los Angeles, and now with ETH:

Zurich is a very nice city to live in. It is regularly quoted as one of the most livable cities in the world. It has a low crime rate; cultural diversity is high. It has one of the best operas in Europe. We have spectacular mountains, lakes, and good climate. The city has a large international community--foreigners make up about 37% of the population. These considerations are important because you want to be somewhere where, when you have some spare time, you can be enriched by your environment.

Donald Hilvert, formerly with Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, and now with ETH:

I had been at ETH as a student. After college, I had a fellowship, which I spent here for nine months. I had many friends from that time, so when I got the offer to return, it was almost like coming home.

My wife had a full-time job at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. When we decided to move, they asked her to stay on full time and do her job by telecommuting. She did that for two years. It was a wonderful situation because she stayed in contact with people she cared about. It helped ease the transition.

Zurich has a very international flavor, much more than many other cities in Europe. Most business can be conducted in English. One does not need to speak German to live here.

Unlike at Scripps, which is a graduate school, I'm having to teach undergraduate courses here. That's an interesting challenge, and it's one of the things that I was intrigued by when I decided to come. One of the exciting aspects about being here is that you're often interacting with young people with different levels of interest and different goals and who get turned on by different aspects of science.

In many ways, Zurich is more of a city than San Diego. San Diego is five times bigger, but here there is a large cultural scene, lots of people from all over the world. It's safe for the kids. My kids are now 14 and 11 years old. Even when they were 10 and eight, they traveled around on the trams by themselves.

Peter H. Seeberger, formerly with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and now with ETH:

I like the U.S. I could have seen myself living there for the rest of my life. And MIT is a great place. But my parents are getting older. They are now in their mid-60s. They live in Nuremberg [Germany]. All my family is there. If I want to see them more, it is much easier from ETH than from MIT.

After ETH made an offer, it would have been extremely difficult for MIT to keep me. ETH is a superb environment for a young person to start. It attracts the best students in Europe. In the end, what convinced me was the combination of the environment, the lab space, the academic venture capital, and the fact that ETH is becoming the center of glycosciences in Europe, and that is my area.

Jay S. Siegel, formerly with the University of California, San Diego, and now with the University of Zurich

I have been critical of certain aspects of the U.S. academic research system, particularly the emphasis on competitiveness as if it were equivalent to excellence. Many excellent ideas may not be competitive in terms of not having commercial value or money-generating potential. The emphasis on competitiveness leads to the exclusion of diversity. Here, there is a greater ability to develop diverse ideas.

In my first six months here, I was able to take action on many issues of great interest to me. To design a complete lab environment that takes advantage of the multidisciplinary components of physical organic chemistry is something that I have been trying to do for years in San Diego.

The entire teaching program is changing here, and the new program incorporates standards of quality that I've always believed should be part of the curriculum. I refer to the development of the students' ability to defend their own ideas, to solve a broad spectrum of problems, and to present themselves to others and create an impression. These can be achieved through student seminars, the writing of proposals, the establishment of cumulative exams, and the requirement that students participate in seminars of guests and visitors.

Those measures are now in place here. None was in place a year ago. A lot of these things are on their way to being accomplished in San Diego. But the bottom line is, in moving here, I got them done.


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