Tale of Two Swiss Alumni

A few months ago, two alumni of Swiss higher ed researching in the US—both of them Swiss National Science Foundation Fellows—traveled to San Francisco to meet up with international researchers at AGU, the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world.

As part of our Alumni Portrait Series, we caught up with the scientists on a gray day in the City by the Bay to ask the two, both postdocs at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, about their journey from Switzerland to the United States, their studies back home, and their current research and life in sunny San Diego.

Ice Cores and Urban Vibrations

Bernhard Bereiter studied climate research at the University of Bern. In San Diego, he endeavored to uncover mean ocean temperature using a new method of studying trapped air in ice cores to reconstruct past oceanic temperature changes.

“I focus on changes on the time scale of glacial and interglacial cycles,” Bereiter says. “We expect from other sources than ice cores that the mean ocean has changed by about 3°C from the last glacial to our warm period.”

This new method using the ice cores allows Bereiter and his team to measure these changes within one archive instead of the traditional and more time-consuming method focused on multiple ocean sediment cores.

“If this works out well, we have very sweet way to constrain this very important number in the climate system which defines more than 95 percent of the global energy budget,” he adds with a smile.

ETH Zurich trained Nima Riahi, meanwhile, spends his time thinking about urban vibrations—man-made sources that create measurable seismic activity recorded with geophones.

“Usually, seismologists or exploration seismologists focus on the medium . . . where do the seismic waves go or what does the sub-surface look like? What we humans generate is usually considered, almost exclusively considered noise,” Riahi says. “So we are looking at that noise, at those sources, trying to learn more about human activity in an urban setting and see what the vibrational record can tell us.”

The analysis of urban vibrations might tell us more about the spaces we inhabit and our senses, according to Riahi.

Research in Switzerland vs. US

When asked what it’s like to do scientific research in the US compared to Switzerland, the two SNSF fellows are in agreement. At least in their fields, they’ve found that the research groups are smaller and work at eye-level with the Principal Investigators (PIs), they say. And that flat hierarchy allows for good communication within and across teams.

They also note that the pressure to publish or have a research outcome is more intense in the US, although this mindset is also starting to take root in Switzerland.

For Bereiter and Riahi, the decision to apply for the SNSF Early Career Fellowship and spend time in the US proved to be the right choice. Both have learned a lot working with other researchers, interacting with different groups, and having an insight on how research is done in the US.

Sunny in Southern California

The scientists from Switzerland also don’t mind their perch atop the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop for their work. Bereiter has taken to surfing whenever he needs a break from his research and Riahi began playing in a small jazz band, which he created together with some colleagues.

“One of my personal obsessions is taking pictures of sunsets,” Riahi adds. “Back in Zurich I didn’t have a lot of chance to do this. In San Diego it’s every day. The anxiety goes down, there is more time for that.”

Forward to the Future

Bereiter and Riahi are venturing into fairly new research fields that are quickly changing the way we look at certain facts, and, most importantly, the way we will deal with global warming indicators and sensing our cities.

Both agree that career planning in academia can be tricky, as research is not built on long-term plans. So for now, their aim is to successfully finish the SNSF fellowship.

Then maybe apply for an extension of the SNSF fellowship.