Argonauts of modern research
EPFL has some 2,200 PhD students – modern-day adventurers who have chosen to devote four years of their lives to becoming cutting-edge researchers. We spoke with two of them about their experience.
A chosen few. Every year, 4,800 people apply for a PhD program at EPFL, but only 490 are accepted. “Our goal is to educate the next generation of world-renowned experts. We’re looking for independent, motivated young researchers who like to take initiative and aren’t afraid to venture into uncharted waters,” says Jeroen van Hunen, deputy to the Vice President for Education for the Doctoral School. The School offers 21 PhD programs that are designed to “give students better guidance, build a community and promote cross-disciplinary collaboration,” says van Hunen.
In addition to their research, EPFL PhD students must also take classes (12–30 credits, depending on the program) and help with teaching, such as by leading lab sessions or exercise sessions. “Four years may seem like a long time but it goes by really quickly. That’s why it’s important to set deadlines for yourself along the way,” says Oriane Poupart, a PhD student in biotechnology and biological engineering. For the past two and half years she has been developing a photopolymerizable hydrogel to help prevent aneurysms from rupturing. Doctors would place the hydrogel in the blood vessel using a microcatheter and then solidify the hydrogel by shining light on it to activate a photoinitiator. That would reduce the pressure on the aneurysm by blocking blood flow.
“I now have a candidate hydrogel and am working on a system for performing in vitro simulations,” says Poupart. “It’s a research topic I’m excited about because it could lead to better medical treatments. Of course, there are times when it’s harder to stay motivated, like if I don’t get the results we were hoping for, or if I run into problems that take me in an unexpected direction. You have to be able to adapt continuously.”
And according to fellow PhD student Bardiya Valizadeh, the key to staying motivated is “patience, because scientific advancements are born out of failure. You don’t get good research results without first getting bad ones. That involves a lot of stress, because you deal with things that do not work and you have to make them work. That's why it takes perseverance and creativity. Suddenly, you see a small spark in the dark and you reach the light."
Valizadeh, who is from Iran and pursuing a PhD in chemical engineering at the Laboratory of Molecular Simulation in Sion, has chosen to study metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). Just one gram of these porous materials can absorb the surface-area equivalent of a soccer field and capture specific molecules like CO2. But the catch is that MOFs currently exist only in powder form, which makes them hard to use in industrial applications. So Valizadeh is working on ways of producing MOFs in other forms without changing their properties. “The thing about research is that you think about it all the time. It’s hard to really switch off,” he says. Especially if your colleagues are also your friends. “It’s not easy to meet people outside of work,” he adds. And being far away from EPFL’s main campus in Lausanne doesn’t help.
That said, neither Poupart nor Valizadeh would change jobs. They are passionate about their work and dedicated to improving the world we live in. That goal drives their thirst for knowledge and makes up for the drawbacks of their jobs, which require a huge amount of time and energy but provide very little in terms of income. After they graduate, Valizadeh plans to further develop the startup DePoly to market a new chemical recycling method for PET. And Poupart will seek a job in R&D for a large healthcare company or research institution.