Swiss institute mixes training, languages

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June 6, 2005 – The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne may be located on the idyllic banks of Lake Leman, but the institute has its feet solidly on the ground. Its programs combine technical training with something rarely emphasized in science and engineering: linguistic dexterity.

Its leaders believe that mix will make the institute more attractive to students and to the businesses that eventually hire them.

“We think that in the long term, quite a few business sectors, such as micro and nanoelectronics and MEMS, will require people who have multidisciplinary training,” said Adrian Ionescu, director of EPFL’s Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems (IMM). “Companies are interested in people who are ‘polytech-nicians’ — generalists who can specialize later on, once they have joined a specific industry.”

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IMM research covers different fields, including integrated circuits, materials for microelectronics, sensors and biomedical and space applications. About 120 people work at the institute, in 12 separate laboratories. There are about 50 doctoral students and 13 professors in addition to scientific staff and post-doctoral students.

Philippe Renaud, a professor at IMM who specializes in bioMEMS and microstructures, said faculty look for ways to involve students in real-world projects. “For example, there was recently a master’s student in microelectronics at the school. For his master’s thesis, we asked him to design a device that would make an artificial retina we are developing functional.” The student has since graduated and gone to Japan on a paid internship closely associated to the engineering and design work he was doing at IMM.

Lausanne is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, but the EPFL is a bit of an international island. Faculty teach first-year classes in French and German, the second and third years in French. Starting at the master’s level, they switch to English. Books and materials used are all in English, though French still crops up in classes. But students have the right to request that classes be held exclusively in English.

The English-only policy is expected to further internationalize the student body. Already, 40 percent of all students are non-Swiss. That number jumps to 66 percent at the doctoral level, making EPFL one of the most cosmopolitan graduate schools in Europe. The team in Renaud’s lab, for instance, includes people of seven different nationalities.

“Up to now, our institution hasn’t been very attractive for potential students from English-speaking countries,” Renaud said. “We are hoping that our switch to 100 percent English teaching this year, starting at the master’s level, will change that.”

The Swiss state finances 40 percent of the IMM. The remaining funds come from contract work, either partnership projects with the European Union, the Swiss National Fund for Scientific Research or industry. The cost for students remains modest; annual school fees are $1,100 for international students, though Swiss living expenses must be factored in on top of that.

IMM is relatively selective. According to Ionescu, only about half of the applicants get chosen. “We have a lot of applications, but we sometimes lack financing,” he said, adding that most doctoral students are financed by professors’ contract work.

Some of the research performed at the school has led to the creation of spinoffs, but the school also likes to sell patented discoveries to companies interested in developing a product based on the patent. EPFL’s Industrial Relations Service handles technology transfer for the school and helps university startups get off the ground with coaching services and access to cleanrooms.

“If we find we can’t interest an existing company to take up a licensing agreement with us, we encourage the creation of an in-house startup,” Renaud said. “Our main objective is that the school’s inventions and innovations create some value.”


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