Switzerland Summer Internship: Week 3

It’s amazing how much I’ve learned in such a short time. I’ve been hard at work coming up with interesting research questions and how to go about testing them. This may not sound all that hard, but it’s way more difficult than just executing a technique, which is what most undergrad researchers spend their time doing. In fact it’s pretty uncommon to assign this level of responsibility to an undergraduate at all. The postdoc (Jose) who I’m working with likes to give a high level of autonomy to his students, which is intimidating but also a greatly enriching experience. I’m really grateful for this unusual opportunity.

At the moment I’m focusing my research on endothelial cells, which are the cells that line your blood vessels. These cells play a much larger role in brain health than you might think, because they are an essential component of the blood-brain barrier, which keeps harmful toxins and microorganisms in your blood from contaminating your brain. It’s believed that a gradual breakdown of the blood-brain barrier occurs with aging, and this may help bring about neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Some of my initial pilot studies include culturing endothelial cells from the brains of young and old mice, and analyzing their gene expression to see if I notice any differences. To do this, I need to select which genes I want to study and design primers for qRT-PCR. I spent most of last week researching relevant endothelial genes and learning how to design good primers using an online program. After a quick once-over of my list and a couple of small tweaks, Jose ordered all of the primers I designed, worth a couple hundred dollars. It’s scary but exciting that I have so much control over what I’m studying, and that my lab has enough trust in me to actually put money toward my ideas.

Once the primers arrive by mail tomorrow, I’ll be spending the rest of the week testing them to make sure that they are working properly and only amplifying the genes that we want them to. After that I’ll be all set to start learning some new techniques like how to extract endothelial cells from a brain, how to maintain primary cell cultures, and so on. My research in the U.S. relies almost entirely on immunohistochemistry with a bit of bioinformatics mixed in, so it’s great to learn all these new methods. I also get to observe other lab members doing their own experiments, so I’m gaining a lot of exposure to cutting-edge epigenetic techniques such as bisulfite pyrosequencing.

Eventually I’m planning to also study the effects of sleep deprivation on the development of Alzheimer’s disease, which is what I wrote my original project proposal on. However, since it takes a while to set up this kind of experiment, I’m getting started on some in vitro work while I wait. The summer is short, and I have to get as much use out of it as I can! While it’s not likely that I’ll discover anything ground-breaking, just being able to take ownership of my tiny piece of a much larger project is really gratifying.

Backpacking Across Europe: What I Should and Shouldn’t Have Packed

For some people, the concept of traveling for an extended period of time with only a backpack sounds next to impossible. Many of my friends insisted it simply could not be done. But I was determined to travel carry-on only and not have to pay those checked baggage fees for the budget airlines I’d be taking. In the end, not only did I manage to fit all of my stuff into one backpack (under a weight limit of 20 pounds), but there were actually plenty of things that in hindsight I could have skipped when packing. So for all of you looking to travel light, I’ve compiled this list of what I’m glad I brought and what I wish I’d left behind. (For a more detailed description of my original packing list, see this article.)

Stuff You Need to Pack

A really good backpack

Maybe this goes without saying, but if you’re planning to live for an entire month (or longer) out of a single backpack, that backpack had better be high-quality stuff. I borrowed my dad’s 46L Osprey Porter, which fit all of the airline size and weight requirements. Try to get one with straps so that you can compress your stuff, and be sure that the shoulder and torso straps are adjusted to fit you perfectly to avoid a sore back. If you’re planning to be moving around a lot during your travels, I would highly recommend a backpack over a rolling suitcase. In Europe, elevators are not nearly as common as in the U.S. One of my travel-mates brought a suitcase and she had a lot of trouble navigating the cobblestone streets, crowded subways, and long stair climbs up to our AirBnBs.

Packing cubes

These things are fantastic. There’s nothing worse than trying to find that last pair of socks at the bottom of your backpack while it’s covered by a messy heap of clothes and supplies. Packing cubes are great for keeping your stuff organized and easily accessible. I’d recommend rolling your clothes to maximize the capacity.

10 days’ worth of clothes

Yes, 10 days, that’s it. You can even limit yourself to 1 week, but since I’m lazy I wanted to do laundry a bit less often. (I even went a bit longer than 10 days by re-wearing a couple of shirts that were still clean. No shame.) When selecting your clothing items, pick things that you can mix and match easily. If you’re worried about getting sick of the same few outfits, bring along a few accessories like scarves and cheap jewelry that are lightweight and easy to pack. In particular, make sure you don’t go crazy on heavier items like jeans. I brought eight shirts (plus some camis), a romper, a sundress, a cardigan, two quarter-length jackets (I’d just bring one next time), two jeans, two shorts, and plenty of socks and underwear.

A travel towel

Boy am I glad I brought this thing. A travel towel is a super-absorbent microfiber towel that packs down smaller than a water bottle. Probably my most frequent use of it was when I was doing laundry. In order to make my clothes dry faster, I’d wrap the towel around them and give it a good squeeze to absorb most of the water. You should also be sure to bring a towel if you’ll be staying in any AirBnB’s, as many do not offer a towel, or the towel may be gross (I experienced the latter in Barcelona, my towel had a big stain on it.)

A clothesline

These things are so cheap and so useful. Contrary to the U.S., many people in Europe do not have a clothes dryer. Most places have a balcony where you can hang your clothes to dry, but if it’s a windy day don’t be surprised if your underwear end up flying down the street. (That’s not a joke, it happened to my friend while we were in Venice.) To prevent that from happening, bring a clothesline with you. The one I bought has velcro straps or suction cups to hang it up, and the braided rubber design means you don’t need to use clothespins.

A sarong

Another extremely versatile item. A sarong is basically a large piece of fabric that you can tie around yourself to use as a swimsuit cover, but it has many alternative uses as well. My sarong doubled as a beach towel, a scarf, a shawl, a blanket, and more.

A theft-proof purse

Honestly this is probably overkill, but if you’re nervous about traveling alone, a theft-proof purse can really give you some peace of mind. Its zippers lock to prevent pickpocketing and the shoulder strap has a steel wire that bag-slashers can’t cut through. When I stayed in shared bedrooms, I kept my most important items in my purse and slept with it on me.

A small water bottle

Unless you want to piddle away your money on endless disposable water bottles, or risk dehydration, you should definitely bring a water bottle on your trip. Personally, I much prefer having to fill my bottle more frequently than lugging around a big heavy bottle. Mine held 16 oz and fit perfectly in my theft-proof purse.

A book

There are arguments for and against bringing a real, physical book on a backpacking trip. E-readers are smaller, lighter, and don’t require an external light source to use. However, I find that reading on an e-reader before bed keeps me awake. It’s also another thing you need to remember to charge, and another thing that could get stolen. I chose to bring a paperback copy of Game of Thrones, which kept me occupied for the entire month.

A wristwatch

Before this trip, I never wore watches. My motivation for trying them out was the rationale that I didn’t want to always be taking out my phone to check the time. This was a really good call, since I ended up mostly keeping my phone in my purse to avoid pickpocketing, and it was much easier to just glance at my wrist to check the time. The one I bought was cheap, functional, and feminine all in one.

An outlet converter

I’d recommend investing in a converter that will work all over the world. That way you won’t have to buy a new one for every trip. The one I bought has two USB ports and a regular plug port, and works in most countries around the world.

A digital camera

Similarly to the watch, I didn’t want to always have to take out my phone whenever I wanted to snap a picture. I’d definitely prefer to have my camera stolen than my phone. I chose a model that was inexpensive, sturdy, and easy to pack. I used it all the time. The photos were better quality than what I could take on my phone and I also felt like I looked a bit less like a clueless tourist when I was using an actual camera. The only time I took pictures on my phone was for those obligatory selfies, which admittedly are a bit harder on a real camera. If you have a laptop with you, I’d recommend copying the pictures from your memory card as frequently as possible. I did so almost every day, so that if it got stolen at least I’d still have my pictures.

An international SIM card

If you’re going to be traveling for more than a week or so, a SIM card will be much cheaper than an international phone plan through your home provider. Your options are a bit more limited (and more expensive) if you’re going to be traveling in multiple countries. I’d recommend sticking to a data-only plan, since that’s all I ended up needing to use. You can communicate with family using WhatsApp or Skype. I bought 1GB of data, which lasted me through the month no problem as long as I used it only when necessary.

A portable battery pack

Do not forget this! If there’s anything worse than getting lost in a foreign country, it’s your phone also being dead, preventing you from using Google Maps to figure out where you are. Every time you leave your hotel, you should be sure to bring your fully-charged battery pack and phone charging cord.

A small laptop or tablet

This one will depend on your travel plans. If you’re planning to keep a blog, then you’ll definitely need something to type on. It can also be handy for things like purchasing attraction tickets, as not every website will display properly on your smartphone. Whatever you do, DO NOT bring that bulky MacBook Pro from home. Not only are full-sized laptops large and heavy, but that would be a real financial blow if it got stolen. That’s why my last Christmas gift request from my parents was a Chromebook, which was worked perfectly for me during this trip. It weighs less than a kilogram and cost around $200. As a bonus, it has a built-in memory card reader, so you don’t have to worry about bringing an extra item to get the photos off of your camera. A MacBook Air or a tablet with attachable keyboard could also work, depending on your preferences.

Rainy weather gear

To be honest, I didn’t end up using my umbrella or backpack cover at all during the trip, since I was lucky enough to have nice weather the entire time. However, that’s certainly not the case for every trip, so I’d still recommend being prepared for poor weather. At the very least, be sure to bring a good raincoat, since this is also useful for cool windy days.

An extra swimsuit

In the name of packing light, I thought that one swimsuit would be enough. However, these are small and light enough that I’d now recommend bringing a spare, especially if you’re planning to spend a lot of time at beaches. Things happen, and if your suit gets ruined, trying to find a suit that actually fits you properly in a foreign country can be a real hassle, particularly as a woman. If you do bring only one suit, make sure it’s darker in color to hide any stains if needed. I had the poor judgement of packing a white swimsuit and then getting carsick during the insanely twisty road back from the beach in Greece. You get the picture.

Laundry detergent

During my trip I was prepared for hand-washing my clothes. I brought a bar of castile soap that I used to wash my face and body, and it also doubled as a hand-washing laundry detergent. This worked well, but the process is time-consuming and doesn’t get your clothes quite as clean. A few of our AirBnB’s had washing machines, but I realized that I hadn’t brought along any machine detergent. Luckily one of my travel-mates let us use hers, but in the future I’d be sure to bring some of my own. Try to find some small packs that can work in normal or HE machines. If possible, get the kind where you can adjust the amount of detergent you use (i.e., a squeeze packet instead of a solid pod) because many of the washers in Europe are quite small.

Bamboo silverware

My friend brought these with her and I thought they were great! I’m definitely going to bring a set on my next trip abroad. Just a simple fork, knife, and spoon made out of lightweight bamboo came in handy multiple times, especially during picnics.

Things to Leave Behind

Scissors

These things were such a pain. I used them maybe once or twice, but despite being safely under the four-inch blade limit, I still got flagged at several airports because of them. After careful measuring they were always returned, but the hassle was pretty annoying.

Too many shoes

For women, shoes are probably one of the most difficult things to pack for backpacking. For my trip I brought four pairs of shoes: ankle booties, Converse (with insoles), walking sandals, and flip-flops. Next time I think I would skip the ankle booties. There were some days that were somewhat chilly and rainy, but for this time of year I think the hassle of lugging around these chunky things wasn’t worth the few times I used them. I also might have replaced the sandals with a pair of comfortable walking flats, since most Europeans seem not to wear open-toed shoes. The Converse and flip-flops I would probably bring again.

Too many toiletries

After shoes, toiletries would probably be the #2 most over-packed item for women. I actually thought I’d packed very light on these, especially since I had to stay within the TSA’s 3-1-1 guidelines, but in the end I had too much of a lot of stuff.

My recommendations: 2 oz sunscreen, 1 oz shampoo, 1 oz conditioner, 0.5 oz facial moisturizer, 0.5 oz facial sunscreen, 0.5 oz hair oil, 0.5 oz hand sanitizer (don’t forget that one), 1 bar of facial/body soap, 2 mini-tubes of toothpaste, 1 mini stick of deodorant, 1 small pack of floss, 1-2 tubes of lip balm

Those numbers may sound small, but for most things like facial creams, etc. you probably only use a small dollop per day. Keep in mind that these recommendations are what worked for me, a woman who showers every other day and has fairly short hair. If you want to figure out how much you should bring, one option is to allocate your various toiletries into smaller containers and see how much you use over the course of a week or so. Then multiply by the length of your trip.

Makeup and makeup remover

This of course depends on you and your preferences. I’m the type of girl who wears makeup only very sparingly for “special occasions.” Why I felt the need to bring makeup on this non-glamorous backpacking trip is beyond me. If you do wear makeup, try to keep it to a minimum for space-saving purposes.

Clothes that don’t fit

This one was pretty dumb. I brought one sundress with me on the trip, only to find out that it did not actually fit me. I finally just had to toss it, since there was no reason to carry around something I wasn’t going to wear. So to avoid a dumb mistake like me, be sure to try on everything before you pack it.

 

I hope you have found these tips useful! If you regret packing or not packing something on your last trip abroad, share your insight in the comments below.

 

Switzerland Summer Internship: First Day in My New Lab

The day I’ve waited for so long is finally here. After braving today’s rainy weather and briefly getting lost on campus, I made it to the EPFL Brain Mind Institute in time to meet my new boss for the summer. I’m always a bit nervous when meeting a new PI after I had a bad experience in a previous lab, but luckily mine seems like a really nice guy. He took a lot of time introducing me to all the lab members and explaining the different projects currently going on in the group. He’s fairly young, I think in his mid-thirties, but I have so much respect for his intellect and ideas. He’s one of the pioneers in the new field of neuroepigenetics, and has already won some impressive awards for his work.

The lab is a very international group, with members from all around the world including Mexico, France, Spain, and Egypt. One of the grad students is an American like me, so she’s been great to talk to and complain about the lack of peanut butter in Europe. She was nice enough to take me to lunch and give me a tour of the campus. I really like the social environment of the lab. Everyone has lunch together pretty much every day, followed by coffees in the break room. It’s a smallish lab, with 7 people besides me, but it’s a closely-knit group that seems to enjoy each other’s company. It’s a bit intimidating being the only undergrad working here, but everyone seems to view each others as equals.

Since the postdoc who I’ll be working with is currently out of the country, I mostly spent today getting oriented to the campus and reading some papers on my research topic. I’ll probably be doing mostly general lab chores and maybe observing some lab techniques until he returns on Monday to start my actual project. For those who are interested, my project focuses on the influence of sleep deprivation on the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. To make a (very) long story short, when you don’t get enough sleep, some of your neurons become hyperactive, and they secrete a bunch of a protein called amyloid-beta, which is believed to contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. However, no one has really looked at whether your age can affect how much amyloid-beta is released, or the subsequent risk of Alzheimer’s. That’s what I’m hoping to investigate this summer. If there’s time, we may also be able to study some of the epigenetic mechanisms that contribute to these differences before I go home in August.

It’s a relief to know that I’ll be spending the summer in a supportive and social lab environment. I can’t wait until next week when I can start getting into the science!

 

Cover photo shows a mural of a neuron outside of EPFL’s Life Sciences Building. Photo Credit: GigaScience

Summer Internship in Switzerland: Week 1

It’s been nearly a week since I ended my time backpacking across Europe to settle for three months in the beautiful city of Lausanne, Switzerland. I’m technically staying in Crissier, a smaller town to the north of Lausanne, at (you guess it) another AirBnB. I share the flat with a guy named Gabriele, a personal trainer who works in Geneva. He speaks perfect English, which is good since my French leaves a lot to be desired. (I’ve been grinding on Duolingo for the past several months, but still can barely manage a few basic sentences.)

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The view from my balcony.

My housing situation is a bit complicated, so I’ll take a second to explain. Officially, my summer internship is through a program at the Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EPFL), which translates to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The program is fully funded (yay!) and takes place from July 1 to August 25. However, since two months is a short time to work in a lab, I decided to apply for some extra funding to see if I could extend my trip. I was lucky enough to receive a fellowship from ThinkSwiss, which allowed me to arrive a month early and have that extra time on my research.

What does that have to do with my housing? Well, since the official internship program doesn’t start until July 1, that’s also when the program housing in the campus dorms becomes available. This left me with something of a dilemma: how could I find furnished and reasonably-priced housing close to the university, for only one month? The hostels all had a one-week limit and were too expensive anyway (some upwards of $50 per night). None of the EPFL students were willing to sublease for only a single month. I finally turned back to my good old friend, AirBnB. I’d never heard of staying in one of these for an extended period of time, but in fact many of the renters actually offer a large discount for longer stays. In my case, the cost was reduced by 35% for being longer than a month. This is because having one person staying for an extended period of time greatly reduces the workload on the renter, since they’re not constantly having to reclean the bedroom, give orientation to the new guests, etc.

In total I paid about $1100 for 33 nights in my apartment. That may sound like a lot, but in fact it’s pretty reasonable for Swiss standards, especially compared to my other limited options. For that money I get my own large bedroom and access to our shared bathroom and kitchen, which I often have to myself since Gabriele works and travels a lot. The best part is that EPFL campus is only 10 minutes away by metro. Overall I’m quite happy with my decision to live here. Gabriele is very nice and keeps the apartment cleaner than any bachelor pad I’ve ever seen. One downside might be that it’s on the fifth floor and there’s no elevator, but I’ll just take advantage of the free leg workout.

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Speaking of workouts, now that I’m in one place for a while, I’m finally able to start getting back into my health and fitness routine. At home I’m normally the kind of person who works out 5-6 days a week, eats a salad every day, and generally places a lot of value in being healthy. This is obviously impossible to maintain while traveling. I’ve spent the past month eating zero salads and lots of cheese, carbs, and chocolate. My exercise was limited to daily walking around the cities, which was a lot (often 10 miles or more every day) but not the higher-intensity running or strength training I’d done before. Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets about letting my health-conscious attitude slack a bit while traveling, but now I’m definitely feeling ready to get back into the swing of things.

One of the first things I did after arriving at my apartment was hit up the nearest grocery store. Eating out in Switzerland is unbelievably expensive; for reference, a combo meal at McDonald’s costs around $13-15. A decent dinner will cost you $30 at least, and that’s if you don’t get a drink or dessert. Needless to say, I’m planning to cook most if not all of my meals while I’m here. The grocery stores are pricey too, but still nothing compared to the restaurants. The biggest expense by far is meat. Two chicken breasts will cost you around $20-25. Beef is even crazier, racking up to $50 per kilogram.

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The menu at the McDonald’s on my street.
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I think I’ll lay off coffee for a while.

To keep my grocery costs down, I will be leading a mostly vegetarian diet this summer, turning to other sources of protein such as beans and eggs. The only time I’ve purchased meat this week was on Saturday afternoon. This is the best time to buy perishable items in Switzerland because everything closes on Sunday, and stores need to get rid of stuff before it goes bad. I got two chicken breasts for 50% off, bringing the price down to $10, which was still pretty expensive but at least doable. I stretched them into several meals by making chicken spaghetti with tomato sauce. I also used Saturday to load up on fruits and veggies to last me through the week.

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I finally found peanut butter! Reunited with my true love at last.
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The first meal I made was this pesto pasta with tomatoes, zucchini, spinach, and chickpeas. Yum!
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A delicious salad I made with romaine lettuce, kiwi, blueberries, feta cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil.
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The first time I used it, I didn’t understand that Gabriel’s Italian coffee pot makes espresso, not the American drip coffee that I’m used to. Long story short, I drank the entire pot (about 6 shots of espresso) and was spazzing out for the next few hours. At least it tasted delicious!

In total I spent about $100 on groceries this week, plus some extra to restock on non-food items like shampoo, razors, etc. That’s nearly twice what I normally spend each week at home, but since this is Switzerland, I think I kept the cost pretty reasonable. My funding allows me about $750 per month for food, but I’m hoping to keep my grocery costs down so that I can afford to try some nicer restaurants (fondue is at the top of my list) and also do some weekend traveling with the other interns.

I don’t start in my lab until Tuesday, so I’ve had a whole week to recuperate from my month of backpacking (traveling can start to take a toll after a while) and to get my bearings in the city. This single week of regular exercise and healthy eating has already done a lot to improve my mood and energy levels. I haven’t yet found a good jogging route, so I’ve mostly just been making a big loop through the rural areas of town, where I can get some tantalizing glimpses of the mountains. Strength training is proving more of a challenge without access to a gym or any equipment, but I’m hoping I can purchase a resistance band to facilitate that. Until then I’m sticking to basic calisthenics to make sure my muscles stay strong. The rest of my time this week has been spent running various errands (buying a metro pass, shopping for SIM cards, etc.) and reading papers related to my upcoming research.

It’s hard to believe that on Tuesday morning I am really going to start in my lab. More than a year and a half ago, I discovered a paper about neuroepigenetics, a field I’d never even heard of yet immediately captured my interest. At the time I never would have guessed that I’d one day be in Switzerland working for the author of that paper. Yet here I am. After so much hard work to get where I am now, I can’t wait to get started on this new adventure.

Budgeting as a Backpacker: How to Afford a Trip Abroad

As a college student, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on travel. Careful budgeting has been key for allowing me to afford this month-long trip across Europe. Here I will share my experience with finances while traveling and my tips on how to afford your own international experience.

For those of you who haven’t read my articles before, my international experience this summer has consisted of three phases: 11 days in Greece on a school-sponsored study abroad trip; 14 days of independent travel in Italy, France, and Spain; and 3 months completing a summer research program in Switzerland. No matter what type of travel you’re interested in, I hope you find this advice helpful. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions!

Money Matters

In total I spent around $2000 (USD) out of pocket on my trip backpacking across Europe. To some of you this may seem very low for nearly an entire month of travel. Keep in mind that I received scholarships and fellowships that covered several of my major expenses, including:

  • Passport fee
  • Airfare between the U.S. and Europe (both directions)
  • All expenses for my Greece study abroad program (except a few meals)
  • All expenses for my Switzerland internship

Essentially my out-of-pocket expenses were only for things taking place between Greece and Switzerland, including:

  • Flights to Rome and Barcelona
  • Trains to Florence, Venice, Paris, and Madrid
  • Accommodations (all through Airbnb)
  • Tours and excursions
  • Food (averaging around $20-$30 per day, depending on the city)
  • Souvenirs (less than $100 total, including gifts)
  • Pre-departure necessities (good walking shoes, plainer shirts to replace my huge stash of graphic tees, etc.)

My parents also contributed a few hundred dollars to purchase supplies for my trip (digital camera, international SIM card, etc.) and to ship my extra suitcase to Switzerland. In total the cost of my backpacking experience was probably closer to $6000, but financial aid and family contributions brought that number down to a more reasonable level that I could afford. My self-funded expenses all came from money I earned during high school working as a kids soccer referee and as a summer research assistant. It’s been stashed in my savings account for years, waiting to be used for this very purpose. I even have a bit left over for weekend trips during my time in Switzerland.

Tips for Aspiring Backpackers

1. Start Saving Now
If you want to travel the world, start saving today. There are tons of great blogs out there with tips on how to save up your money. I recommend keeping track of your expenses to figure out where your money is going and identify places to save. I use a free app called Mint, which creates detailed charts showing all your monthly spending. Especially think carefully about bigger expenses like a TV or a pricier apartment. I spent the last year living in probably the cheapest possible apartment on campus with no TV, rarely eating out, and saving every penny possible. I definitely don’t regret my stinginess.

2. Apply for Every Scholarship
This doesn’t really apply to anyone just wanting to travel for fun, but it is extremely important if you want to study abroad through your school or pursue an international internship/research project. And yes, I do mean EVERY scholarship that you’re eligible for. When I decided I was going to intern in Switzerland, one of the most expensive countries in the world, I knew I would need at least $8,000 in funding. I applied to something like 12 different scholarships and fellowships. I spent many hours perfecting all my essays, polishing my resume, and sending polite but firm reminders to all my recommendation letter writers. (Remember to give your recommenders a hand-written thank you card afterward!) In the end I actually received more money than I needed and had to decline a couple of awards. The effort was well worth it to be able to undertake such a life- and career-altering experience. (Note: I’m planning to write an article later all about how I made my international research experience happen, so stay tuned for that.)

Similarly, my Greece study abroad program was entirely funded through scholarships, mostly small ones cobbled together. Keep your eyes peeled for scholarships with ultra-specific criteria. These often have smaller awards but you’re almost guaranteed to win one. For example, one of my scholarships for $400 was only for English majors or minors (I have a Creative Writing minor) pursuing study abroad related to literature. My trip was one of only three considered literature-related out of the dozens of programs offered at my school, so it was an easy way to earn a few hundred dollars.

Also check to see if your university has a passport reimbursement program. Since I was applying for my first passport for a university-sponsored study abroad program, they repaid me the $135 that it cost. Many other colleges have something similar, but you may have to do some digging if it isn’t widely advertised.

3. Buy Your Flights Through Student Universe
If you’re a university student under the age of 26, you can use Student Universe to purchase plane tickets at really low prices. This is an especially big money-saver for long-haul flights. My one-way ticket to Greece from the United States cost only $400. Some of my classmates who purchased round-trip tickets paid only $600 total. Be sure to book as early as possible before prices start to rise. To save extra money, consider being flexible with your departure airport. Many can be hundreds of dollars cheaper in exchange for a few extra hours of driving.

4. Consider Extending Your Trip
If you’re doing a short-term study abroad program like my 11-day experience in Greece, consider continuing your travels after the official program end date. Long-haul flights will probably make up the bulk of your expenses, so try to stick around once you’re in Europe to get your money’s worth. Flights between European countries are very cheap (often $50 or less) when you use budget airlines like Ryanair. Just be sure to watch out for those hidden fees! For example, Ryanair will charge you 50 euro if you don’t check in online before your flight.

5. Stay in Airbnb’s
If you’ve read my other articles, you know I’m a huge fan of Airbnb’s. They are often even cheaper than hostels and much more comfortable. I’ve had only good experiences with every place I’ve stayed. Be sure to only book places with lots of 5-star reviews and located close to the sites you want to see (or near a convenient bus/metro stop). Look for places with a kitchen so that you can save money by cooking your own meals (see the next tip). If you’re traveling in a group, you can often book your own private apartment for a very reasonable price. Every place I’ve stayed has been a great value, ranging from 16 euros per night in Madrid to 38 euros per night (after splitting three ways with my friends) in Venice.

6. Cook Your Own Food
In general I have aimed to eat out only one meal per day. Lunch is often the best choice because you can get a lot of food for a reasonable price, especially in countries like France and Spain that offer multi-course lunches for a fraction of what a similar dinner would cost. For breakfast you can easily stop by a grocery store to buy supplies for your meal, or see if your Airbnb owner provides breakfast for you. (Many will leave you some coffee and croissants.) For dinner, I like to have a simple picnic in a park or any scenic area. In Paris, nearly every evening we bought a baguette with cheese and fruit (plus wine of course) and enjoyed them sitting next to the river. In Spain I often bought a sandwich from a cafe or some cheap tapas from a local market. If you eat a big lunch, you won’t need anything too heavy for dinner.

7. Do a Free Tour
Another recurring theme in my adventures has been free walking tours. My favorites are offered through the company Sandeman’s New Europe, but there are other options out there in most major cities. Keep in mind that these aren’t completely free, because you still have to tip your tour guide, but you’ll definitely end up paying a lot less than you normally would for a tour. There are also lots of free audio walking tours that you can download onto your phone. My favorites are from Rick Steves. Personally I think that walking is the best way to really experience a city, so I tend to shy away from bus tours, which can be quite pricey. There are always exceptions to my only-walking rule, such as the inexpensive boat tour we took in Paris. Other options that I think could be fun include bike tours and segway tours, though those can also have higher prices.

8. Get a Credit Card Without International Fees
This may sound like a no-brainer, but if you’re a college student with zero credit (like me), it can be pretty hard to qualify for a card without international fees. Those fees seem small by themselves, but they can really start to add up over time. You may have to get your parent to cosign if necessary. It’s less important (though still a nice bonus) for your debit card to have no fees. My card through Huntington charges fees for withdrawals from foreign ATMs, but by taking out larger sums of cash less frequently, I haven’t had to pay too much.

On a side note, be sure that you call your bank and credit card company to let you know you’ll be traveling. If not, your cards will likely get shut down, leaving you without any money until the situation gets resolved. Also, don’t forget to make arrangements so that all of your bills still get paid while you’re gone, or else you may return to piles of late payment fees.

9. Don’t Go Crazy on Souvenirs
It can be tempting to splurge on every cute little souvenir you see, but try to hold back. First of all, set a limit before you leave on how much you plan to spend on souvenirs in total. I spent around $100, but the number is up to you. Just set a plan and stick to it. A good way to limit yourself is by traveling as a backpacker or with a carry-on suitcase. This forced me to stick to small lightweight items that could fit in my bag. You should keep in mind how many people you really want to buy gifts for, and try to buy only one item for each of them. Will your coworkers, neighbors, or distant relatives really be that disheartened if you don’t bring them back a key chain?

Speaking of key chains, try to avoid all of those little tchotchke stands that cluster around tourist spots. The stuff they sell is overpriced and often low-quality, not to mention completely not unique. Flea markets are great for buying handmade items for a low cost. Little side-street shops can also be inexpensive, not to mention the value of supporting small family businesses. And don’t be afraid of thrift shops! In Paris I bought some cute used scarves for only 4 euros apiece. Not only are they cheap, but they have the added value of having been worn by a “real Parisian,” which I find endearing.

Finally, buy souvenirs that you will actually use. I mostly bought stuff that I can wear (scarves, jewelry, etc.) because I don’t find much value in things that just sit on a shelf. But this entirely depends on your personal preferences. For example, one of my friends bought lots of postcards and mailed them home while we traveled, a cheap souvenir that you don’t have to bother carrying around.

10. Don’t Stress Too Much About Money
My final tip is simply to not let your trip revolve around painstakingly budgeting every little item. Leave some wiggle room in your budget for unexpected expenses and experiences. Go to that crazy nightclub with 10-euro cocktails in Greece. Buy that expensive tour of the Vatican Museum. Splurge on that one pricey food you’ve always wanted to try. Travel is about having fun and experiencing new things. Keep your finances in the back of your mind, but don’t let them rule your entire trip!

One Month as a Backpacker: Reflections and Looking Forward

The past month has been the most intense, terrifying, and inspiring time of my life thus far. I have traveled across four countries (five if you count Vatican City), only one of which I speak the language. I have met fascinating people, gotten lost, and seen the most breathtaking sites I’ve ever experienced. Now, as I sit at my new apartment in Switzerland waiting to begin my three-month internship, I thought I’d take this time to reflect on my experience as a backpacker.

Europe vs America

While the four counties I visited (Greece, Italy, France, and Spain) have very unique cultures, in many ways I think that they have more in common with each other than they do with the United States. A few interesting differences I’ve noted:

  • There is no peanut butter (or really any kind of nut butter) anywhere in Europe. Seriously. It’s driving me insane.
  • You usually have to pay for water in restaurants. However, beer and wine tend to be cheaper, especially from bars or grocery stores. Liquor and cocktails are similar in price to the U.S.
  • Practically everyone in customer service speaks at least a little bit of English. Being bilingual is not nearly as common in the States.
  • Produce is much cheaper here that in the U.S., and often much better quality.
  • People don’t eat out as often as Americans do, so when they do go to a restaurant, it’s meant to be a bigger event. Even lunch takes a minimum of two hours. It took me a while to realize that the waiters’ slow service was on purpose. People here really hate to feel rushed when they’re eating. They eat slowly and spent a lot of time chatting with their companions.
  • Mealtimes are a bit later than I’m used to. Lunch is around 2-3pm and dinner is 8-10pm.
  • People dress more conservatively. Even in sweltering Madrid, all the locals wore long pants and close-toed shoes. Their clothes also tend to be more “classy” with solid colors or simple patterns. Wearing sweatpants or graphic tees in public is definitely frowned upon.
  • While many people drive or take the metro to work, they still do a lot of walking here. Shopping is typically done on foot. People use little carts resembling baby strollers to carry their groceries back home.
  • Supermarkets are less common. More people seem to buy their bread at the baker, their fruit at the fruit market, etc.
  • Splitting the check at a restaurant doesn’t seem to be very common. Unlike at home, waiters in Europe almost never ask how you want to divide up the bills. If you ask them for separate checks, they often are unable (or unwilling) to do it.
  • Even in the big cities, society is more cash-oriented that in the U.S. Greece was the most extreme example. Very few places accept credit cards, even nice restaurants. More modern cities like Paris are better able to accommodate cards, but it takes longer and you’ll definitely get some dirty looks if you use a card to pay for something small like a coffee.

Group vs Solo Travel

Every since I decided I was going to spend a week traveling alone in Spain, I’ve felt terrified that something would go wrong. Yet having some time beforehand to ease into travel and learn some of the tricks of the trade gave me the confidence I needed to be successful and really enjoy myself. The study abroad program in Greece was highly structured, besides a couple of free days spent lounging at the beach. Not having to worry about what things to do and when, or whether I was going to get left behind anywhere, made the experience really fun and carefree. I think it’s a good idea for students or any young adults to travel in a more structured format like this the first time you go abroad. Traveling with your family could also be a good way to dip your toes in the water.

From there I spent over a week travelling with my friends, three of us in Italy and two of us in France. This was a lot harder than our study abroad program. We had to figure out how to navigate complicated bus and metro systems, make decisions on what to see and what to skip, and keep ourselves safe in an unfamiliar city. Yet we learned a lot during this time, and also became closer friends than I ever imagined we would. This time is where I really learned what it means to be a backpacker.

Finally I headed to Spain, all by myself. Having a bit of Spanish in my back pocket was definitely helpful, yet I was well aware that I was far from fluent. I could complete simple tasks like ordering food or asking for directions, which gave me a lot of confidence. I think if you’re traveling alone, especially for the first time, you should go somewhere where you have at least a basic understanding of the local language. Honestly it was not nearly as scary traveling alone as I thought it would be. In fact, it was a very liberating experience. I could do what I want, go where I wanted, eat what I wanted without having to consult anyone or make compromises. I have never felt more like an adult than when I spent that week by myself a thousand miles from home.

The Value of Blogging

Originally I started this blog planning to use it as a diary that I’d keep private. Later I decided to make it public so that my family and close friends could keep tabs on where I was and what I was up to. Before I knew it I had people from all over the globe reading my articles. I would highly recommend keeping a blog for anyone who plans on traveling for an extended period of time. The most important part is simply to keep a permanent record or diary of your experiences. You think you’ll remember everything that happened during such a life-changing trip, but believe me, all memories fade with time. While some people prefer a paper journal, I like the online format because I can insert my photos directly into the text, allowing me to connect the words with visuals when I read these entries again some day.

How Backpacking Has Changed Me

Though only a month has passed since I departed my home country, I feel like a completely different person. I have seen many sights that people go their whole lives never getting to see. I’ve watched the progression of art and architecture progress across millennia from the ancient artifacts of Greece to the modern pieces of the Sofia Reina. I’ve met so many interesting people and made lifelong friends.

Backpacking in countries where I don’t speak the dominant language has been a very eye-opening experience. For one thing, it makes me appreciate how lucky I am that my first language, English, has become the lingua franca for much of Europe, particularly in the sciences. My travels were made much easier by the fact that nearly every person in the countries I visited could understand some basic English. The same cannot be said about travelers coming to the United States, where being bilingual is substantially less common. It also gave me first-hand experience to what immigrants to a new country must experience. I’ve been learning Spanish for nearly 7 years and still I had a hard time understanding what most people were saying when I visited Spain. Natural speech is so much faster and less clear than what we experience in language classes.

In the places I visited, people seem to approach the pacing of life more slowly than in the U.S. They take long lunches and siestas, spend hours socializing with friends, and generally just take the time to really appreciate the good things in life. I admit that I’m something of a busy-body back home, and that’s caused me to experience a lot of stress. I hope that I can carry these European values with me when I return and remember to slow down and enjoy life.

Another development during this trip was discovering how I like to travel. Namely, I learned that I do not like to create rigid itineraries that squeeze in every major attraction efficiently. Instead, I much prefer to prioritize the things I most want to see and leave some free time for truly experiencing the culture of each city. This was kind of a surprise for me, as I’m normally someone who likes to meticulously plan every aspect of my life. But in travel, something in me changes and I no longer feel a need to check every item on my checklist. I’m okay with missing a few things that I would have liked to do. It helps to travel with the philosophy that this is not my last time visiting each of these places. The comfort of knowing that I will return to each of these cities one day allows me to bypass some of the big attractions without feeling guilty.

I really think that everyone should travel abroad at some point during your life, preferably before you finish college and enter the workforce, though it’s certainly never too late. Experiencing a wide variety of unique cultures and values has allowed me to view my own country with a wider lens, possessing the tools to compare how I was raised to how others are raised, equipping me to understand alternative viewpoints that I would not have otherwise been exposed to. I think that it’s made me a better scientist, and also a better person.

Looking to the Future

Now that I’m finished with this experience, I can look back and see how I might have changed things. The next time I go on a backpacking adventure (as this is definitely something I’m going to do again), I’ll be better equipped to take on the challenge. In terms of pacing, I definitely would have liked to spend more time in Rome, Florence, and Paris. These three cities all have so much to see and do. I spent only 2 days in Rome, 1 in Florence, and 3 in Paris. I felt a bit rushed going through all of them, not having time to do everything I want to do. If I were to do it again, I’d like to have at least 4 days in Rome, 2-3 in Florence, and 5 in Paris. The amount of time I spent in the other cities felt suitable for how much I wanted to do.

This trip mostly focused on large urban centers with a rich cultural history. On my next adventure, I would like to explore some of the smaller towns throughout the countries I visited. I think these would be great for escaping the chaos of the city while providing a unique cultural snapshot. Additionally, as a huge nature-lover, I hope to also get to experience some amazing natural sites when I travel, such as the volcanoes of Iceland or the rainforests of South America.

As I wrap up my current travels, I feel mixed emotions. On one hand I’m sad that, for now at least, I don’t get to wake up every day knowing that I’m going to experience something amazing, as I have for the past month. Yet part of me also feels ready to move on. I yearn to unpack my bag and stay in one place for a while, not constantly rushing off to catch flights or trains. Not to mention the physical exhaustion from all the early mornings and long days spent walking 10-15 miles on tired feet. I feel ready to return to the steady routine of a 9-to-5 job, to be able to exercise and cook healthy meals, to finally wear something besides the few basic outfits I’ve carried in my backpack. My Switzerland internship will be a new kind of adventure, and I can’t wait to tackle it.

Day 3 in Madrid, Spain

Today is my last day in Spain and also my last day as a backpacker (at least for now!) I enjoyed a peaceful morning at El Parque del Retiro, a large park on the eastern edge of the city center. The park was filled with locals walking their dogs, jogging, and biking. I strolled through a huge book fair that stretched across the entire park and stopped by the Crystal Palace, which is made entirely of glass. I spent the rest of the morning sitting by the pond and enjoying the beautiful weather, which has finally started to cool off. For a while I chatted with a little old man sitting nearby, who tried to guess from my accent where I was from. His first guesses were Italian and French. I think people here are more used to English-speakers having a British accent. My Ohio accent seems to throw them.

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For lunch, I figured it was about time I tried some authentic Spanish paella. It was packed with shrimp and mussels, which were tricky to get out of their shells but worth the effort in the end. I followed it up with a simple second course of chicken and fries. This time I opted for some espresso as my third course instead of dessert.

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My next stop was the Prado Museum, which like the Reina Sofía is free for students under 26. I went during the siesta again and didn’t have any problem with crowds. Overall I prefer the modern art of the Reina Sofía, but Prado did provide an interesting glimpse into the progression of Spanish art over multiple centuries.

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Apparently this strange painting shows the Virgin Mary, assisted by Baby Jesus, using her breastmilk to douse the flames on the sinners in purgatory.
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This hilarious 16th century statue of Charles V has detachable armor so that, if desired, Charles can be depicted either clothed or nude.
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An organist gawking at nude Aphrodite, who seems more interested in her little dog than him.
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Sculpture of Hermaphroditus, son of Aphrodite and Hermes, who was so handsome that a water nymph fell in love with him and prayed they’d be united forever. It worked: they physically fused into one, resulting in Hermaphroditus possessing both male and female body parts. I couldn’t get a decent shot from the front, but he’s depicted with female breasts and male genitalia. It’s a pretty interesting myth.

At one point I had a bit of a creepy experience at the Prado. While examining a painting, a middle-aged Australian guy started telling me some interesting facts about the artist. As we passed few other galleries, he continued to tell me trivia and I actually learned some cool stuff about Spanish artwork. However, it got a little weird when he offered to take me to dinner. I politely refused the offer, explaining that I was meeting my friends for dinner tonight (untrue of course). He didn’t press it further, and I gave him the slip in one of the later galleries. I don’t think he was dangerous or anything, but it’s always good to be cautious as a solo female traveler. I made sure not to let on that I was traveling alone or give any indication as to where I was staying.

After leaving the museum, I stopped by the fruit market again and picked up some potatos and avocado for my dinner, plus some bananas for my breakfast tomorrow. I cooked the potatos in the microwave and enjoyed them topped with the cubed avocado for a quick, cheap, and fairly healthy dinner. Tomorrow I will be up at the crack of dawn to catch my flight to Switzerland!