Americans in Switzerland: U.S. Interns Do Research on Bio-Inspired Materials

From left to right: Jessica Zhou, Alicia Dibble, Jessica Lalonde and Cole Sorensen. Photo credit: NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials.

Several American undergraduate students are spending the summer at the Adolphe Merkle Institute in Fribourg, Switzerland, to participate in the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Bio-Inspired Materials internship program. The U.S. Embassy Bern had the pleasure of interviewing four of those American students and learning about their visit to Switzerland.

We asked the four young people about their passions, projects and impressions of Switzerland.

Alicia Dibble is from Salt Lake City, Utah, where she attends the University of Utah. She is studying materials science & engineering. During the internship, she is working on bio-inspired materials for biomedical devices.

Alicia is passionate about sustainability and the outdoors. She remarked, “I am lucky that I grew up with an appreciation for and access to outdoor recreation. I hope to help preserve and protect outdoor spaces so that future generations may also enjoy them.” Switzerland’s efficient public transportation and pristine outdoor recreation were the perfect fit for Alicia. “I was told about the public transit system before I arrived, but I definitely underestimated how robust it is! I love that I can hop on a train and be on a trail within an hour. The public transit system makes the outdoors incredibly accessible.”

Her passion for the outdoors and sustainability has led her to pursue her undergraduate degree in materials science & engineering. “I am inspired by young scientists, who forge new, innovative paths to address societal and environmental needs. Science has the power to create a more equitable, peaceful society and I am excited to be a small part of that movement.”

Cole Sorensen is currently studying nanoscience at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Through the internship, he is collaborating with a PhD student to mimic the structure of leaf-cuticles to create functional membranes out of biocompatible/based materials.

While synthesizing a library of new polymer materials to be used in these membranes, Cole was impressed by the labs at the Adolph Merkle Institute. “They are spacious, clean, and fully stocked with every type of equipment you would ever need.”

His experience in Switzerland has challenged Cole in a number of ways, including an exhilarating ascent of the Via Ferrata at Moléson-sur-Gruyères. “It was the first weekend I had in Fribourg, and I was approached with the offer to ‘go hiking with some climbing involved’ by some friends—that was a quite an exaggeration. It was a 400 m climb up a face of a mountain while a thunderstorm was approaching. It was thrilling, tiring, and beautiful at the same time.” Cole remarked, “I think it is important to always try and improve yourself.”

Jessica Lalonde attends Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she studies materials science & engineering and biology. This summer, she has been placed in the Soft Matter Physics Research Group to conduct research on bio-inspired materials.

An outdoors enthusiast, Jessica found Switzerland to be an ideal location. Impressed by the efficiency and ease of navigation throughout the country, Jessica commented, “I’ve traveled frequently, but in nowhere else that I’ve seen, is it as easy to get exactly where you need to go – no matter how remote the destination may be – as it is in Switzerland.” One of the most memorable experiences for her was a run on a section of the Eiger Ultra Trail near Lauterbrunnen. “I climbed over 2500 m over the course of 30 km and it felt like it all happened instantly because of the sheer beauty of the trail. Bright blue skies, stunning green valleys, sheer rock faces, and dramatic waterfalls – as well as the world’s friendliest cats and delicious pastries in the villages could be found along the trail. It was a day I’ll never forget.”

When asked the three things she will remember most of her time here in Switzerland, Jessica responded, the quality of the food, the importance of being punctual, “and finally, the third thing for me would be the people. Always friendly, helpful, and kind – the people of Switzerland are proud of their beautiful nation and it is inspiring.”

Jessica Zhou is from Troy, Michigan but previously lived in New York City. She attends Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she studies polymer science & engineering. During the summer, she is able to put her knowledge of polymer science to use at the Adolphe Merkle Institute.

Jessica is interested in the study of polymers given how widespread polymers are in our everyday lives. She remarked, “Not only are plastics polymers, but components of other everyday items, such as shampoo, contain polymers. Polymers have so many versatile applications—even in biomaterials. There’s a wealth of possibilities for the application of polymer science.” Jessica noted, “Conducting research at the Adolphe Merkle Institute has been such an enriching experience and almost certainly helped shape my future career path.”

From the first moment Jessica’s plane landed in Switzerland, she was in awe of her surroundings. Jessica exclaimed, “All of the places I’ve visited (Kandersteg, Bern, Lucerne, Aletsch Glacier, Jungfrau, etc.) have been so memorable! There hasn’t been a single place in Switzerland that has left me feeling disappointed.”

Alicia Dibble, Cole Sorensen, Jessica Lalonde, and Jessica Zhou were in Switzerland for 8 to 12 weeks during the summer of 2018 to participate in an annual undergraduate summer research internship hosted by the NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials. Of the 19 students participating in the program this year, nine students attend undergraduate university in the United States. The four Americans we interviewed, along with their fellow American and international peers, gained hands-on experience conducting advanced research work at the Adolphe Merkle Institute, the University of Fribourg, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). In addition to their work in the lab and participation in scientific lectures, students are given the opportunity to explore Swiss culture and to develop French and/or German language skills.


This blog post is part of a series of profiles on Americans in Switzerland, in which U.S. Embassy Bern portrays the lives, travel, and work of Americans met in Switzerland. Stay tuned on social media via #AmericansInSwitzerland.