In life little can be planned
03.06.2016 | Alumni Chapter New England , Alumni Porträts
Von: Nina Bader
ETH Alumnus Dean Glettig got a chance that many ETH students are dreaming of: He is doing his Postdoc at the Langer Lab in Boston, the biggest lab in biomedical engineering. His background from the ETH still has a strong influence on his approach to research and his aspiration to understand fundamental mechanism. In the following interview we talk with Dean about his time in the US, what he would recommend other Swiss students who would like to study in the US and about his plans for the future.
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Why did you decide to study at the ETH in Zurich?
Like many students getting close to the end of high school in Switzerland, I didn’t really know what kind of studies I’d like to pursue. Even though my parents are both chemists, they never pressured me to study the same, but instead encouraged me greatly to explore all my options. I somehow concluded that I disliked chemistry the least and after having visited many Swiss universities, ETH Zurich stood out tremendously in two aspects: A) historically it has a very good reputation and has produced many successful Alumni and B) the brand new chemistry facilities at ETH Hönggerberg superseded even some labs I visited in the chemical industry. Therefore the decision to pursue my studies at ETH Zurich was a no-brainer.
After studying at the ETH, you went abroad. Was it one of your dreams to study and work abroad or did you make this decision during your studies?
Despite growing up in a multinational household, my entire life revolved around my studies and local activities in Switzerland. Therefore I never had any plans to go abroad. The opportunity to do a master thesis in Boston was offered to me out of the blue by Lorenz Meinel, my advisor at the ETH. Admittedly, I had some initial hesitation mainly because I was not aware how important it is to learn different approaches in research. Only in retrospect did I realize how valuable these experiences are and I am so grateful to have been given this opportunity.
You did your PhD at Tufts University, a university with a high reputation. What would you recommend to an ETH-student who wants to get into such a well-known American university?
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many ETH students that pursue a PhD in the US but instead the large majority comes here for postdoctoral studies. Many are deterred by the increased time length of a PhD in the US, not knowing that a Bachelor generally suffices to start a doctoral study. My suggestion would be to actively contact universities/professors/contacts in the US and ask for details on their graduate programs. Unlike in Switzerland, the PhD programs here generally require a more formal application and acceptance into the university. Therefore it is recommended to start the application process at least one year in advance. Students should not be intimidated by this process as the reputation of ETH Zurich reaches far and greatly increase chances of acceptance to even the highest ranking universities.
Today you work as a Postdoc at the Langer Lab, one of the biggest labs for biomedical engineering. How did you get this position?
I was very fortunate to have met Bob Langer several times in Boston and was amazed by his inspirational talks. My PhD advisor at Tufts, David Kaplan, knows him very well and therefore suggested I contact him directly for a postdoctoral position. After now having been in the Langer lab for three years, I can confirm that not only did my personal ties help, but that the ETH Zurich connection had a positive influence. Bob has a strong affinity towards ETH Zurich as it was the first university to award him an honorary degree.
What are the challenges as a Postdoc at the Langer Lab?
As you mentioned, the Langer Lab is the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world. Trying to navigate through it can be rather intimidating at first, especially since there are people with many different backgrounds and expertise. However, everyone is very helpful and friendly, and therefore as long as one reaches out to people, advice is always happily provided. In fact, many exciting projects are launched through random conversations between lab members.
"The Swiss network in Boston is vibrant and has helped advance several careers, including my own" Dean Glettig, President ETH Alumni New England Chapter
Do you have the feeling that you can use the knowledge from your studies in your work life?
My education at ETH definitely had a strong influence on my approach to research. Besides having a high attention to detail, I believe ETH students are also instilled the innate aspiration to understand the most fundamental mechanisms of their research. At the same time this US experience has taught me to not constantly overthink everything and sometimes just try an experiment even if one is not fully able to control every single parameter. To this date I’m still striving to find the ideal middle ground between these two approaches as I believe there is great value in both.
You're the president of the ETH Alumni New England Chapter. How active is the interaction between the members in New England?
We have >300 members scattered over all the states of New England, with a large concentration in the Boston metropolitan area. We organize several events throughout the year with a large annual gathering every fall. Though our Alumni gatherings aren’t too frequent, regular interactions happen at the universities as well as the Swiss consulate, swissnex Boston. I’m happy to say that the Swiss network in Boston is vibrant and has helped advance several careers, including my own.
You're in the US since 2007, what are your plans for the future? Do you want to come back to Switzerland or do you want to stay in the US?
Yes indeed, I never planned to stay in the US for this long, but as fate had it, I met my amazing wife here which is probably something that I least expected but am most grateful for. The people of Boston are friendly and our family and friends here have greatly enabled me to call this city a home too. Though moving back to Switzerland will always remain an option, life is still very exciting in Boston and we therefore intend to stay here for the foreseeable future. That said, the one thing I have learnt from my experiences so far, is that there is very little you can plan for in life and that the inevitable changes should be viewed as exciting challenges.