“You get to see the impact of your research”

As part of IBM Research’s newly extended global Summer intern program, eight undergraduate students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Union College, and University of Notre Dame, joined IBM Research – Zurich in Switzerland for two months. 


Before heading home, we caught up with most of them to hear about their experience.

Jing Fu studies high performance computing at RPI because he likes to see commercial and scientific programs to solve real-world problems fast on supercomputers. At the Zurich Research Lab, Jing was part of the Storage Systems team.

Matthew Manning enjoys studying Electrical Engineering at Union College because it is a rather broad field that plays a role in almost every area of science. He worked in Nanofabrication group of the lab.

Vincent Hargaden studies Industrial and Systems Engineering at RPI because it allows him to research the interaction between systems at a high level and apply his research to some practical business problems faced by both manufacturing and service companies. During his internship at the lab, he joined the Business Optimization group.

Edit Varga is studying electrical engineering toward a PhD degree at University of Notre Dame because she likes new problems to solve as well as to learn new research areas. For the last two months she has worked in the lab’s Physics of Nanoscale Systems group.

Kristof Tahy is studying electrical engineering toward a PhD degree at University of Notre Dame. During his stay he joined the Nanoscale Electronics group.

Nick Lanzin is studying computational physics at RPI because it combines his curiosity for the natural world with computer technology that will play a major role in tomorrow's research environment. During his summer internship he worked in the Computational Sciences group.

Guangle Zhou studies electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame purely accidental. He worked in the Nanoscale Electronics group.

In short: how did you like your stay here and why?

Kristof: I really enjoyed my stay here. My goal was to experience corporate working environment and it was fulfilled. But the experience was unexpectedly positive, working here is relaxed, but productive. I'm glad to see how the European working morale is different from the US as well. It was a bit difficult in the beginning to do so much work in so little time, but realizing that there is a life outside of work is great. I had a very good project here, which I enjoyed to work on. The group was very helpful, and it was good to see, that my results are an important part of the research efforts.

Matthew: My stay in Zurich at the IBM lab truly proved to be a once in a lifetime experience. Not only did I learn many new things and gain valuable skills that I will bring back to my home university, but I did so while being immersed in a completely different culture.  I would call this internship a perfect combination of education and adventure.

What is the most memorable experience(s) you take home?

Jing: The fact that industrial labs explore a research topic similarly, yet differently from in school and other labs.

Matthew: Traveling to various regions of Switzerland on weekends was certainly a highlight of this trip, however just as memorable were the daily coffee breaks with my research team. Whether discussing our projects or the latest news it was a great time to get to know members of my group and team on a more personal level.

Compared to your universities, what are the differences and similarities of how research is being done?

Vincent: I think the biggest difference is the commercial focus taken by the lab to research. Whether it is for external clients or other IBM divisions, the research undertaken here has to be seen to make a difference commercially. Universities are to a certain extent more removed from this. Certainly, to be competitive for external funding and industry sponsorship, faculty have to convince the funding agencies of the impact their research will have - but the bottom line is that unlike IBM, universities or funding agencies are not listed on the stock exchange…yet.

Jing: Similarities would be to explore an interesting, yet not well understood problem in my general research area. A difference is that in school the main motivation is producing good papers, while in here it is much more real-product-oriented and it's interesting to optimize/explore a real product.

Edit: In the group here, there are different people with different skills, which is very useful. It is much easier to work if there are permanent positions as well, not like in a university group, where everybody is a student, and going on to graduate some time.

So what was your impression of IBM Research - Zurich?

Vincent: I think the Lab is an ideal size - not too big so it is easy to get to know people and find out what is going on in other groups, but at the same time it is sufficiently big enough to be considered by universities and other companies as a source of deep expertise. I also liked the daily routine around coffee and lunch in that the people here make a conscious effort to go to the cafeteria together to have a coffee in the morning/afternoon or to have lunch and chat - sometimes about work, but mostly it's social conversation.

Edit: It is a nice, friendly environment to work, an easy place to find people to get to know some research related information or to get some professional help.

Did you know the lab before your internship?

Nick: I had been to the lab for a two-week visit in December of 2010. This is when I was first introduced to a research project that I would continue working on throughout this summer internship. 

Jing: Yes, I knew some of the work in my area from this lab before I came.
Kristof: Yes, I met scientists from this lab at conferences, and I read some of the scientific papers, too.

Guangle: Yes, of course.

What was the biggest challenge (technical, cultural, etc.) while you were here?

Matthew: Adapting to life in Zurich both in and out of the lab was quite painless.  

Jing: Cultural wise, the language was a problem in the beginning, but in the lab everything is fine. Technical wise, finishing a project in two months is tough, given a typical curve one would have. As I type this, I am still trying to get the project done nice and elegant.

Guangle: I didn't face any real challenges, but got a lot of help from people here (at IBM).

Vincent: I think that not having much German was a challenge. While the standard of English is very high in the lab and also in Switzerland in general, I would have liked to have better conversational German. When I found out that I was coming here I did buy a German language software package, but didn't make much progress unfortunately. It is a complicated language, but then non-native English speakers say that about English too.

What was the biggest surprise(s)?

Matthew: The biggest surprise was the rather relaxed working environment here at the Lab.  I was expecting a much more corporate atmosphere, but was quite pleased with the campus-like feel.

Kristof: Relaxed working environment. I packed a lot of formal clothing, which turned out to be absolutely unnecessary.

Jing: The size of the Lab.

Guangle: The "free" working environment, was not expected.

Do you envision pursuing a career in research? At a corporate research lab?

Edit: Yes, I'm open for it.

Kristof: Yes, and Yes.

Jing: I am aiming to be a researcher for sure. I am considering both industry labs and other national research labs.

Matthew: Currently my focus is much more confined to finishing my Bachelor's degree, however this experience has certainly opened the door to a research career as an option in the future.  My experience will play a great role in the decisions I make in furthering my education.

Vincent: Prior to the internship in the lab, I was planning on pursuing an academic career in a research focused university, either in an Engineering or Business school, as my area of study (Operations Research) easily transfers between those two types of schools. But having spent the last two months here in the Lab, I would now consider a corporate research lab. I think in a corporate lab you get to see the impact of your research, as well as still being able to publish papers and present at conferences. The downside of a corporate lab is that you don't get to teach courses to students.

Nick: I absolutely plan on pursuing a career in scientific research. However, I am undecided as to whether this will be in an academic or corporate setting. After earning my PhD I will likely apply to academic post-doctoral research positions, but this depends strongly on what types of jobs are available at the time of my graduation. 

Guangle: I would like to work on a research lab in the future if I have some chances.

For more photos click here.

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