International exchange during the pandemic

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Link zur deutschen Version: Internationaler Austausch während der Pandemie

There are many benefits that the presence of exchange researchers within our group can bring. According to Dr. Jaime Mata Falcón, working every day with foreign researchers is the best way to keep our minds and research horizons open. We are getting used to a global life and economy. An international exchange of research ideas and methodologies also provides a huge potential for synergies and progress. Publications are the most classical way of communication in research. Although they are an essential sharing step, publications tend to be impersonal and do not foster a high dialogue and interactions with our peers. Working together with foreign exchange researchers for some time builds a common understanding, both at the personal and professional level, which allows going into deeper interactions. This is an excellent opportunity to disseminate our ideas more efficiently, learn new ones, and set up longstanding collaborations. While we are getting used to work and interact virtually, I am convinced that these outcomes can only be achieved when one has the opportunity to work face-to-face for some time and learn about the other person and its culture.

Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has difficulted the interaction with foreign researchers spending some time with us. To get more insight into this topic, three exchange researchers share in this post their professional and personal experiences and how both have been affected by the pandemic.

Tell us about yourself!

I am Tobias Huber from Vienna, Austria. I am 32 years old and I work as a postdoctoral researcher in structural concrete. I have finished my doctoral studies at the Technical University of Vienna in 2019. My thesis is about the structural behavior of old concrete bridges. In the last years, my research focus lies on finding new ways for faster and sustainable construction. Besides research, I love to travel the world, play soccer and I am a passionate Vespa-driver.

My name is Laura Esposito and I am 28 years old. I come from Italy and I got my Master degree in Structural and Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Naples Federico II in 2018. After graduation, I decided to continue my career at the university with my doctoral research project: Innovative Structures obtained through the implementation of 3D printing technology in the construction industry. The doctoral research allows me to investigate very innovative topics and discover how much automation technologies are becoming crucial in all areas, including civil engineering.

My name is Lisbel Rueda García and I am 29 years old. After finishing my master’s degree in Civil Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia UPV (Spain) in 2017, I enrolled as a PhD Student in Construction Engineering. My research focuses on the shear behaviour of concrete composite beams, although I have been also involved in concrete structures seismic reinforcement and repair.

What are you doing at ETH Zurich?

(Tobias) I work at the NCCR dfab project, which is an outstanding Swiss research initiative for digital fabrication in architecture and construction. In an interdisciplinary team, we are finding ways of integrating 3d-printing of formwork for reinforced concrete structures. With this robot-granted freedom of shape, it is possible not only to lower material costs and labour of formwork making but also to optimize the structural elements. This results in lower material consumption. We will try to show this benefit by building a floor-slab demonstrator.

(Laura) During my doctorate, I had the opportunity to join formative and exciting experiences around Europe. At ETH Zurich, I focus on reinforcement strategies and their effectiveness in 3D concrete printed structures, together with my Italian tutor (Costantino Menna) and my tutor at ETH (Jaime Mata Falcón). Me and Lukas Gebhard (an ETH doctoral student currently at my home university) are working together, sharing experimental results, technical knowledge and know-how. The possibility for an actual exchange with an ETH researcher was a key reason for doing my exchange. Furthermore, this experience allows me to collaborate with one of the leading universities emerging in the scientific research on Digital Fabrication.

(Lisbel) PhD grants funded by the Spanish Ministries might include extra help for supporting stays abroad to promote collaboration with a different university in the research project and the professional and personal development of the doctorate student in another university. Thanks to this help, I am currently at ETH for three months for numerically modelling the specimens I tested at the UPV with the software IDEA StatiCa Detail, which is based on the Compatible Stress Field Method (CSFM) developed at ETH.

Tobias casting concrete in Bauhalle

Why did you choose ETH Zurich?

(Tobias) At the beginning of my doctoral studies back in 2016, I had the chance to join a workshop about shear in concrete structures from the fib held at ETH Zurich by the chair of Prof. Kaufmann. I got to know Prof. Kaufmann and his team, as well as the impressive structural laboratory at ETH. I knew back then, if I ever got the chance to do research abroad, ETH Zurich and the IBK would be my first address.

(Laura) My choice is undoubtedly linked to ETH Zurich being one of the leading universities on Digital Fabrication. Scientific research at ETH is advanced thanks to the many groups working in cutting-edge laboratories (such as the Robotic Fabrication Lab). Additionally, I have the opportunity to improve my research in one of the hot topics in my field: how to reinforce 3D concrete printed structures.

(Lisbel) Already in a pre-pandemic situation, to find a place in which you could work on something that improves your own research and to have guarantees of being supported by a supervisor was not easy. With the Covid pandemic, finding the proper place with so many movement restrictions was even harder. Knowing someone at ETH (in my case, Dr. Jaime Mata Falcón, who belonged to my home university) can facilitate this search. This, in addition to the fact that it is one of the most prestigious universities in civil engineering, made ETH the perfect destination.

Lisbel visiting Salginatobel Bridge

What is the main difference to your home university?

(Tobias) The group of Prof. Kaufmann is about three times the size of our Institute in Vienna, when it comes to the number of research assistants working there. So they have a lot of variety in their research topics, which leads to very fruitful scientific discussions. This is encouraged in many ways. For example, they organize a biweekly format called Journal Club, in which interesting papers are discussed together. This gives me a lot of new aspects for my own work.

(Laura) Everything at ETH is really big, such as the number of laboratories and lab machines available. Last but not least is the number of people working in the Prof. Kaufmann group and the number of topics addressed. These factors are fundamental in the scientific research field in which experimental activities, continuous exchange, and discussion are the core.

(Lisbel) Definitely, where I have noticed the greatest difference, and probably what I will miss the most, is in the team atmosphere. Kaufmann’s Group is a large research team in which a sharing perspective is encouraged. The interaction between people and teams, something quite common in private companies, is not always observed in academic research. A doctorate is a relatively long stage in our lives. It is enriching, both from the personal and professional levels, to carry out this stage in a team atmosphere. Moreover, sharing of ideas creates important synergies.

How did the pandemic influence your time at ETH Zurich?

(Tobias) My time here started officially in April 2021. Since the number of Covid-cases in Vienna had risen in February/March I had to spontaneously travel a bit earlier as planned to Zurich to avoid Quarantine. The restrictions and the number of cases in Zurich were less compared to Austria, which made life also quite relaxed. Luckily, I was allowed to spend some time in the office. Moreover, the Kaufmann group organized virtual coffee-breaks, which helped a lot to get in touch.

(Laura) I am very happy to be here, even if this is not an easy phase: all of us are now experiencing the Covid pandemic, which is influencing our way of leaving. Nevertheless, with protective safety measures, I am able to enjoy the campus life, research and laboratory activities, and the wonders of this country.

(Lisbel) Of course, social life, at and outside work, has been limited by the pandemic. Even so, the fact that the team atmosphere is something that I liked about my stay here means that the Group has been able to incorporate new technologies to work. Despite not seeing many of the colleagues in person, regular meetings are held to discuss work and non-work issues, which allows you to meet workmates and learn from them despite the existing limitations.

Laura with colleagues from Kaufmann’s group at Uetliberg

What do you take home from this collarboration?

(Tobias) All these experiences I had and new things I saw at ETH are now packed in my “scientific backpack”. I think this will overall enhance my future research. My goal is to write at least on paper about my experiments here. What I think is more important is this new network I was able to grow here. I think this will lead to future collaborations between ETH and TU Wien.

(Laura) The foreign experiences are really formative from professional and personal sides. Knowing other cultures, lifestyles, foods, or traditions is essential to grow, discover, and appreciate your own and new costumes. Here at ETH Zurich, this is easier since it is like a little city, in which students from all parts of the world come to learn and share.

(Lisbel) This collaboration has allowed me to meet new people involved in my field of research, which is appreciated in times of scarce conferences in which to network. In addition, without the intention to underestimate my home university, since I consider that the knowledge level acquired at the UPV has nothing to envy other highly prestigious universities, having been at the ETH will enrich my CV. On the other hand, the work carried out during this stay lead to very interesting research results, as well as having created a connection between my home university and the ETH that could favour future collaborations.

Tobias and his wife Letti hiking on the Mount Brè

What was unique during your time at ETH Zurich?

(Tobias) The very helpful and nice people here at IBK and generally in Switzerland. I would be glad to stay in contact with my new colleagues over the years, not only for research aspects.

(Laura) The link between Zurich city and the green spaces. Even here, on the Hönggerberg hill, there is a fantastic contrast between ETH’s innovation and technology and the rural environment outside.

(Lisbel) The people I have met here and the amazing places I have visited around Switzerland. Although my short stay, I feel I have made friends for life with whom to celebrate my future doctor’s degree either in Zurich or in Valencia.

Lisbel with her colleagues in the Valencian paella day

Which cultural differences were you not aware of?

(Tobias) I already knew that fondue is a national dish in Switzerland and I enjoyed it very many times. What I did not know is that it is mostly eaten in the cold time of the year. So whenever I told a Swiss that I ate a Fondue, they were arguing that actually, it’s not the right time of the year, except in Wallis ;-).

(Laura) People can enjoy free time and outdoor spaces as soon as possible, even during working days after office hours: hikes, walks around the lake, recreational activities are perfectly integrated with everyday life.

(Lisbel) The passion for hiking and how fit people are for that, which is completely understandable with these impressive landscapes; the lunch time around 12am instead of 2pm, which in the end I have found much better; and that Swiss people are not very open at first but, after just a single plan outside work, the relationship completely changes to a really good friendship.

Laura in Lugano

Tobias Huber, Laura Esposito and Lisbel Rueda García