Besides handling an interesting research project in Lyon and Alsace, Amrutha Swaminathan finds her stay a culturally rewarding experience.

As a research scholar in the Molecular Biology and Genetics Unit, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore, the opportunity to work on the generation and characterisation of a transgenic mouse in ENS-Lyon, France, came as a surprise for it was not part of my original thesis outline. The acceptance of my candidature for the Charpak fellowship and my departure — all happened in a rush, even before it could sink in.

Lyon is a beautiful city, though not as big as Paris, well-connected and happening enough to satisfy a hungry young soul. A first look at the famed ENS-Lyon (École Normale Supérieure), and you wouldn’t miss the sprawling library and the sheer stretch of the campus which accommodate the multitudes that pour in from across and outside France to study science and humanities. The department, Joliot-Curie Interdisciplinary Laboratory, true to its name, housed physicists, biologists, chemists and astrophysicists. Though language was a problem in the beginning, with seminars, lab meetings, group discussions and theses in French, the overlap of the French and English vocabulary made it slightly easier with time. The scientists, students and technical staff there were most helpful and open to discussion, yet fitting in there — outside the workspace — was quite a task in itself, being a foreigner, a vegetarian and non-drinker.

Social life

Soon after I reached there last year, it was vacation time in August, and the lab was almost empty. The French take holidays with their families very seriously indeed. Thankfully, I had found some Indian friends, and enjoyed a good summer, combining work with a few trips in France, right from Mont St Michel in Normandy to Cannes and Nice in the south. The journey was breathtaking in every sense, close to nature, the French countryside, the carefully preserved churches, monuments, beaches and scientific parks. I made an expected but sudden second trip for three months this year, and my time was divided between the University of Strasbourg and ENS-Lyon. During both these trips, I was amazed by the animal experimental facility in France, not to mention the working system of the labs, the instruments, and the sheer organisation of it all. The strict safety rules, training to work in special laboratories, security measures in every laboratory, disposal of toxic waste, all possibly contribute to the productivity of the Western world in science. The institutes there offered access to most journals, good funding (which is quite difficult to get), good quality reagents, technical help, one just had to give their best to do good science there.

The work culture was balanced, giving me time to travel in and around Lyon, explore French and Italian food, the TVG rail network speeding between cities at 300 km/hour and what not! It was scientifically and culturally a rewarding experience.

The writer is currently pursuing PhD in molecular biology in MBGU, JNCASR, Bangalore. As part of a collaborative research project with Prof. Philippe Bouvet's laboratory in ENS-Lyon, France, and Dr. Anne-Laurence Boutillier' laboratory, University of Strasbourg, she was in France for nine months. Email: amrutha.swaminathan@gmail.com