Rankings 2: We consult the Professors

Why Professors left prestigious universities to come to EPFL, and what they think of EPFL

Bill Curtin
Institute Director 
IGM
Giovanni de Micheli
Institute Director
IEL
Andreas Mortensen
Institute Director
IMX
Volkan Cevher
PATT
IEL
Sebastian Maerkl
PATT
IBI
Georg Fantner
PATT
IMT
Camille-Sophie
Brès

PATT
IEL
Andreas Burg
PATT
IEL
Stéphanie Lacour
PATT
IMT
Christophe Moser
Associate
Professor
IMT
François
Avellan

Full
Professor
IGM
John Botsis
Full
Professor
IMX

Dr William Curtin gained a BS and an MS in Physics at Brown University, then a PhD in theoretical physics at Cornell University. After seven years in the Applied Physics Group of British Petroleum (BP), he held the position of professor at Virgina Tech, before coming back to Brown and joining the solid mechanics group. He  left Brown (USA) this year to join the School of Engineering at EPFL as the Director of the Institute of Mechanical Engineering.

"I would not have left Brown and joined EPFL if I had felt that EPFL was not comparable to, or better than Brown."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as Brown?

Brown and EPFL are very different types of institutions. Brown is a private school with both liberal arts and sciences, and a very long and rich history, embedded in the US culture.  EPFL is a public school, focusing on science and engineering that is relatively young and embedded in Swiss culture.  As such, the two schools function very differently and have very different strengths. I would not have left Brown and joined EPFL if I had felt that EPFL was not comparable to, or better than Brown in ways that I feel are important to success of a University.

Why did you come to EPFL in particular?
First, EPFL is a dynamic institution that is pushing forward the boundaries of research and teaching, through exceptional vision by the University administration. I wanted to be a part of such an institution. Second, the Swiss system of faculty support for EPFL and ETHZ is extraordinary, enabling faculty to be creative and flexible in pursuing new research. I wanted to take advantage of those research opportunities to advance my fields of research. 

What are the main assets of EPFL? And the weaknesses?
EPFL is a top University because of the quality of its faculty and because the leadership and faculty are working together to maintain and improve EPFL further. In short:   High-quality faculty; exceptional resources and facilities for research; excellent leadership; strong base of talented Swiss and international students at all levels. As for the weaknesses, I am still in the early learning phase of my EPFL career and so cannot answer this question in detail. But, I might say that EPFL is both a young and evolving university, and so the "culture" of the University may not be fully developed. This will develop in time, and with good communication.

Professor and Director of the Institute of Electrical Engineering and of the Integrated Systems Centre at EPF since 2005, Dr. Giovanni De Micheli was previously Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. Before that, he received a PhD. degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley.

"EPFL and Stanford: It is like comparing the new BMW and a Ferrari."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as Berkeley or Stanford?
No, not yet. Berkeley, Stanford and MIT would have better students (and professors).  It is like comparing the new BMW and a Ferrari. Moreover the industrial fabric around EPFL is not as vibrant as Silicon Valley. Still EPFL can reach – if growth persists – the group of the world top 10 universities in science and technology.

Why did you come to EPFL in particular?
I wanted to come back to Europe and I chose EPFL because of its strong reputation. I felt it was more dynamic than ETHZ. I chose dynamism over the size of the institution.

What are the main assets of EPFL? And the weaknesses?
There are excellent infrastructures (labs), excellent funding opportunity and a very good faculty. However, EPFL is still young and needs more maturity. Their policies and procedures are sometimes ad hoc. Still, there is a strong rate of improvement at EPFL.

Andreas Mortensen is currently Professor and Director of the Institute of Materials at EPFL, where he heads the Laboratory for Mechanical Metallurgy. He joined the faculty of EPFL after ten years as a member of the faculty of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he held the successive titles of ALCOA Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor. He is one of ISI’s Highly Cited authors for Materials Science.

"What makes EPFL interesting is not where it now stands but rather the rate at which it is evolving."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as MIT?
As far as the status quo is concerned, clearly the answer is “no” (with one exception: our undergraduate students). What makes EPFL interesting, however, is not where it now stands but rather the rate at which it is evolving and the overall direction along which it is doing so. In this regard EPFL is very special and there is good hope that within one generation the answer to your question become positive.

Why did you come to EPFL in particular?
I did not leave MIT to leave MIT; I was very happy there. I just wanted to return to Europe, for reasons that are personal. EPFL had (and still has) the right combination of a strong reputation in materials science and engineering, financial means required to excel, and (for me) the right cultural/linguistic/geographical context.

What are the main assets of EPFL? And the weaknesses?
Main assets: its dynamism and rate of growth; its top-notch infrastructure, its students and finally the sense of purpose and excitement that comes from building, together with motivated colleagues and in Switzerland, an Institute of Technology that has the potential to shine at the very top of its chosen disciplines.

Main weakness: the fact that its current mode of management is not one that can bring to EPFL what it lacks most, namely a strong, shared, and forward-looking corporate culture.

Volkan Cevher is a Tenure Track Assistant Professor at EPFL. He received his BSc degree (valedictorian) in Electrical Engineering from Bilkent University (Turkey), and his PhD degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology (US). He held Research Scientist positions at University of Maryland, College Park during 2006-2007 and at Rice University during 2008-2009.

"We are building up our reputation; however, it is not there yet."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as Georgia Institute of Technology or University of Maryland?
I will provide a comparison based on three axes: academics, resources, and services.

On the academics axis-excellence of the colleagues and their reputation on the academic world-, EPFL is quite competitive with the best of the universities in the US. Currently, we are building up our reputation; however, it is not there yet (we are still considered as the little sibling of ETHZ).

As for the resources axis, I will consider two subcategories: the availability of funds and the availability of good students. For the former one, no US university even comes close to EPFL. Regarding the latter one, there is a large variability on the quality of the students. Currently, I feel that the EPFL’s reputation is not out there yet to attract the best students to come here. The professors cherry-pick the students from known institutions.

Finally, in matter of services- response time of the EPFL services, such as setting up labs, central purchase systems, travel services-, there is a great variety too. The central services response times are abysmal. There is NO centralized help for grant applications (such as preparing budgets). Purchase mechanisms are quite slow. On the other hand, the travel services are OK.

Why did you choose EPFL in particular?
I came mostly for the great professors that work here and the available resources. In addition, my home country is Turkey and Switzerland is a lot closer to it than the US.

What are the main assets of EPFL? And the weaknesses?
The professors here are the greatest assets. I would say the main weakness is the central services systems or the support systems while there seems to be a momentum in correcting this.

Moreover, there is "no evaluation mechanism" from the professors on the system. For instance, when we teach, we get a grade from the students (who incidentally have no idea about the class). However, when we ask for help, e.g., to set up an office, things get done 6-8 months periods. Then, there is no formal mechanism by which we can provide a feedback on the quality and the responsiveness of the support people.

 

Prof. Sebastian Maerkl earned his PhD at California Institute of Technology. He is now Tenure-track assistant professor for the institute of Bioengineering at EPFL.

"EPFL was actually not on my radar, until my advisor informed me that EPFL was searching for new PATTs."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as Stanford?
When comparing EPFL with Stanford or Caltech, the density of excellence is probably not quite as high at EPFL as at two of the best universities in the world. Internationally, EPFL also does not have the same name-recognition as these two schools in biology related fields. EPFL was actually not on my radar, until my advisor informed me that EPFL was searching for new PATTs in 2007.

Why did you choose EPFL in particular?
The biggest draw of EPFL, and Switzerland in general, is the fact that research is well funded from a variety of sources including internal EPFL budgets, the SNSF, and European initiatives. The funding situation in the US is direr, creating a considerable hurdle to research. In Switzerland it was possible to ramp up the lab to a critical mass in a short amount of time.

What are the main assets of EPFL? And the weaknesses?

The biggest asset of EPFL is the fact that resources are bountiful. A weakness of EPFL may be that it is somewhat more difficult to attract outstanding students to the school, which is linked to the current lack of international visibility and recognition. Another compounding factor might be that students from certain regions in the world prefer to work at an English speaking institute (not knowing that English is in fact the language spoken in many labs at EPFL). The high PhD and post-doc salaries offered at EPFL should certainly be a draw as they tend to be 2-3 times higher than in the US with comparable living expenses.

Prof. Georg Fantner earned in 2003 a master’s degree from the Graz University of Technology. He pursued his studies in the physics department at the University of California, Santa Barbara and continued as a postdoctoral fellow at the same school before moving to MIT’s Department of Materials Sciences and Engineering in 2007. He’s now tenure-track assistant professor of microengineering and bioengineering at the School of Engineering.

"At EPFL, the buildings are closed down on the weekends, and hardly anybody is here."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as MIT or Santa Barbara?
In terms of academic excellence of the undergraduate students and graduate students I would rate EPFL and UC Santa Barbara about the same. In terms of worldwide recognition of the senior faculty, I believe that UCSB has a higher density of "big names" and Nobel Prize winners on its faculty. In terms of the quality of the new faculty hires, I believe EPFL has a more aggressive hiring policy and is able to attract top European junior faculty better than UCSB can attract top US junior faculty.

The level of excellence at MIT is I believe a class of its own. The admission of students at MIT is highly selective, and most students I’ve interacted with are very good to excellent (with the exception of a few). Although I have also seen exceptional students at EPFL, I believe that (in part because any student can enrol as an undergraduate) in general the quality of the students is markedly lower at EPFL than at MIT.

Why did you choose EPFL in particular?
I chose EPFL because it made the impression of a vibrant atmosphere with lots of dedicated faculty. The presence of the CMI infrastructure was important as well. Also, compared to the other offers I received EPFL had the fastest response and made the most decisive move to recruit me. EPFL was also the only European university that offered a US-like tenure track program. But finally the deciding factor was that I think EPFL is rapidly growing in its quality and international recognition.

What are the main assets of EPFL? And the weaknesses?

There are good infrastructure (lab space, clean-room) and high salaries for students and post docs, so good people can be attracted to EPFL. Moreover, the change from large labs with "sub-professors" to smaller individual labs gives young faculty the chance to perform their own work independently.

As for the weaknesses, I would say that work ethic of the general EPFL student/staff population is different from that of for example MIT. In all the previous universities I have worked at, it would be considered normal to work into the night and at weekends. At MIT, even on Saturday and Sunday night, there would be significant activity in the labs and hallways. At EPFL, the buildings are closed down on the weekends, and hardly anybody is here. Working more than 42h per week is not encouraged. There is no access to core facilities outside business hours. This slows down the research and makes costly equipment sit unused for the larger part of the day, while during the working hours the equipment is booked weeks in advance.

Moreover, due to the changes implemented over the last years, there is no uniformity about how facilities and responsibilities are organized (either a new centralized organization with many small labs using these facilities, or the previous way of having large labs with a few influential professors having to maintain a large amount of infrastructure). 

Finally, the transition from a local, French speaking university to an international institution with a majority of English speaking faculty is by far not completed, and I’m not even sure that such a decision has been made. Especially in the areas of undergraduate education and interaction with departmental services (such as workshops and core facilities) there is a real language barrier. This deters many talented people to come to EPFL, both as faculty as well as student or post doc. It also is a big burden on productivity when there are these everyday language barriers.

Camille-Sophie Brès is a Tenure Track Assistant Professor in the Institute of Electrical Engineering within the School of Engineering of EPFL. She earned a Bachelor at McGill University, did a PhD and got a postdoc at Princeton University. Before joining EPFL, she was then Assistant Project Scientist at University of California San Diego. Camille Brès has authored over thirty peer-reviewed journal articles and has presented more than 15 papers at international conferences.

"EPFL has very much met my expectations: it is a top University in  Engineering, it has a very dynamic and collaborative research environment and in well suited to my research goals in its research thrusts."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as Princeton?
From the work I have seen here and the people I have met, it seems to me like great research is coming out of both EPFL and Princeton. Despite having a much more recent history compared to Princeton, the quality of work at EPFL is very high and well regarded within the research communities. The EPFL definitely attracts world famous researchers such as Martin Vetterli, Demetri Psaltis and many more because of its level of excellence.

Why did you choose EPFL in particular?
I decided to come to EPFL because it was the best decision for me career wise. After my postdoc i definitely had some expectations on what my next step should be and I would not have settled for anything less. EPFL has very much met my expectations: it is a top University in Engineering, it has a very dynamic and collaborative research environment and in well suited to my research goals in its research thrusts.

What are the main assets of EPFL and weaknesses?
I have only been here for 2 months so it’s difficult for me to answer that! I can point out a couple of assets though. I will say that the financial support offered by the school is a great asset. When you have your own vision of what our experimental lab should be like, it is usually difficult to achieve it. But the EPFL understands that vision, understand that great research requires substantial means and supports it. I also feel like the school has a lot of collaborative work going on, showing a unified faculty. And finally the location of the EPFL is beautiful! As far as weaknesses go, I am still learning. However I think that the school still lacks a little in attracting some international students, especially form the US or Canada, despite being a top University. It seems that from talking with other faculty, this is definitely changing, which is very positive.

Prof. Andreas Burg earned all his degrees from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich. In 2000, he  received the “Willi Studer Award” and the ETH Medal for his diploma and his diploma thesis, respectively. Mr. Burg was also awarded an ETH Medal for his PhD. dissertation in 2006. In 2007 he co-founded Celestrius, an ETH-spinoff in the field of MIMO wireless communication.

"EPFL and ETH are on par in terms of their level of excellence."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as ETHZ?
In my view, EPFL and ETH are on par in terms of their level of excellence. Both schools have managed to attract excellent faculty and also attract excellent researches and students.

In a direct comparison, in my view, ETH draws much of its excellence also from having a significant share of SENIOR faculty that often has built a long track record over time. Having said that, it is even more surprising that EPFL – with its more Junior faculty – manages well to reach the same level of excellence.

Why did you choose EPFL in particular?
I have been familiar with the excellent research at EPFL and I have collaborated with researches from EPFL since some time. The high level of excellence (on par with ETH) made EPFL equally attractive compared to ETH in terms of research. Compared to institutions outside of Switzerland, it is clear that the EPFL/ETH research environment is absolutely unique, with its considerable support in terms of infrastructure and research funding. An important point that attracted me to EPFL is the highly collaborative environment (see below) and the strong focus on true engineering research.

What are the main assets of EPFL? And the weaknesses?
A point that I find particularly attractive at EPFL is the highly collaborative environment across the different labs and with the industry. Also (especially in electrical engineering), EPFL with its faculty and researchers is very present and active in the research community, which is a very important asset. In addition to that, I believe that (especially in engineering) it is of great value to remain attached to practical work and to solving real-world problems, which has a long tradition at EPFL.

Prof. Stéphanie Lacour gained a PhD from INSA, Lyon (Fr). She did Post-doctoral research in Electrical Engineering at Princeton (US), and then at University of Cambridge (UK), where she headed the Stretchable Bioelectronics Group, before coming to EPFL.

"the Centre of MicroNanoTechnology (CMI) of EPFL, one of the best infrastructures of that kind in the whole of Europe, perfectly matches my research needs."

Does EPFL have the same level of excellence as Cambridge?
It is really hard to make a comparison between these two universities because each of them is unique in many different ways. Cambridge recently turned 800 years’ old; EPFL is comparatively a very young school.  Moreover, all disciplines are taught at Cambridge, from Classics to Electronics, from Medicine to Civil Engineering. However, in less than 50 years EPFL has become one of the leading universities in Europe (and is very well ranked internationally).  

Why did you choose EPFL in particular?
To lead experimental research requires top-level infrastructure. In that sense, the Centre of MicroNanoTechnology (CMI) of EPFL, one of the best infrastructures of that kind in the whole of Europe, perfectly matches my research needs.

EPFL is also an interesting place for me because I got to meet a lot of leading professors in a range of domains, which makes possible a lot of great collaborations. EPFL faculty is young, younger than most European universities. This should become an asset in the long term as PATTs may engage in potentially lasting scientific collaborations across campus. I also decided to join EPFL for the dynamism of the school, its open-minded vision of inter-disciplinarity and its strong reputation in Europe as well as, increasingly, in the rest of the world.

What are the main assets of EPFL? And the weaknesses?
Inter-disciplinarity, dynamism and top-quality infrastructures are among the biggest assets of the school. EPFL’s official use of French and English is an interesting particularity as well. Compared to French and Anglo-Saxon universities, where only one language is privileged, students and staff at EPFL evolve in a really stimulating and enriching environment. Finally, the fact that EPFL, and STI in particular, have created a gender equality group to increase gender balance among its faculty is really interesting. The presence of female Professors in the School of Engineering could indeed encourage female students to undertake study in this field. As for the weaknesses, since I have only been at EPFL for eight months, I have not much to say. It might perhaps be wise to increase the number of places in the campus day-care centres.

Born in Lausanne, Prof Christophe Moser earned a minor in finance and a degree in Physics at EPFL. He did a master and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Ten years prior to joining EPFL, he co-founded Ondax, Inc., holding the position of CEO. He is now Associate Professor of Microengineering and Industrial Relations at EPFL.

"To offer a Bachelor program in English, alongside the one which already exists, would make it possible to attain an even greater international dimension."

 What is your opinion on rankings generally? Is it important to be ranked highly?
I think it’s good to have a process by which a university institute is compared to others within the same field. However, rankings are only expressed in figures. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the criteria used for grading, which vary according to the institutions that issue these rankings.

What do you think about the changes that have occurred in the last ten years, in order to turn EPFL into an international institution? Have the changes been beneficial?
I think it’s very positive for EPFL and for the region. Given that the French-speaking Lake Geneva region is by definition small, the internationalization of the EPFL structure enables us to recruit some of the best scientists in the world. I can only see positive effects.

In your opinion, can EPFL compete with universities such as MIT, Caltech or Cambridge? What needs to be improved in this university?
The first two of these famous universities are private, whereas EPFL is subsidized by taxpayers’ contributions. The constraints are therefore different, in particular within the education field. The best students worldwide attend the three universities cited at Bachelor level, and later on the best elements become professors in these same institutions or sponsors of their alma mater, after succeeding in industry. It makes for a full cycle. At EPFL, the Bachelor is mainly reserved for students from the French-speaking region (which is a very good thing). The depth of the “intellectual reservoir” is therefore well below that of the three universities mentioned. It has been suggested to charge high tuition fees, in order to attract the best elements worldwide, and to offer a Bachelor program in English, alongside the one which already exists. This would be taking a step towards this full cycle, which would make it possible to attain an even greater international dimension.

With a Diploma in Hydraulic Engineering from the INPG Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Hydraulique, Grenoble, France, François Avellan obtained, in 1980, his Doctoral Degree in Engineering from the University of Aix-Marseille II, also in France. Appointed at EPFL in the same year as Research Associate, he then became in 1994 Director of EPFL Laboratory for Hydraulic Machines. Nominated in 2003 as Full Professor, François Avellan was recently awarded the Grand Prix 2010 for Hydrotechnology by the French Hydrological Society (SHF). He is also president of the Association des Professeurs (APEL) de l’EPFL.

"Rankings are especially useful for the potential impact they have on the way Swiss taxpayers view EPFL."

What is your opinion on rankings generally? Is it important to be ranked highly?
Generally, it’s a very positive thing to be well ranked. However, in my opinion, rankings are most relevant in the sense that they have an impact on how EPFL is perceived by Swiss taxpayers, because it’s they who pay for the education of their children. The day when the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) publishes a ranking showing us up there with ETHZ (the equivalent of EPFL in German-speaking Switzerland), we will have really taken a step forward! In all cases, the progression in the recruitment of students in the various sectors of the STI confirms the trends observed in the various international rankings.

What do you think about the changes that have occurred in the last ten years, in order to turn EPFL into an international institution? Have the changes been beneficial?
These developments have been very positive, as shown by the results already obtained. Patrick Aebischer has enabled EPFL to position itself as a leading international institution, and the dean Demetri Psaltis has been able to renew the profile of the STI through hiring young PATTs with excellent academic records.

In your opinion, can EPFL compete with American universities such as Virginia Tech or Stanford?
Certainly, if we compare ourselves with public-sector universities. However, it’s difficult to compare institutions that have diverse traditions, and which recruit students from very different population areas.

What needs to be improved at EPFL?
It seems to me that EPFL is to a certain extent a victim of its own success. The organization of the campus must now take up the challenge of its extraordinary growth. We must also foster more dialogue between the teaching staff and the various EPFL authorities. With the changes that have taken place over the last few years, the STI has lost some of its professional coherence. EPFL is a public-sector university that has to fulfil its mission of training engineers who are able to add value in Switzerland and thereby contribute to the socio-economic development of the country. This is particularly relevant as we are fortunate to have a network of very performant small- and medium-size companies. This is all the more true for our faculty, whose challenge is to recruit high-value academics who are qualified for this essential mission, which has built the reputation of the school.

John Botsis earned a degree of civil engineer at Patras University (Greece), and a Ph.D at the Case Institute of Technology Cleveland (US). He worked successively as an Assistant Professor, Associated Professor and Full Professor at the civil engineering department of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since 1996, he holds the position of Full Professor of mechanics of solids and structures at EPFL.
 

 "Several young teachers were hired in recent years. The school has become very dynamic."

 What is your opinion on rankings generally? Is it important to be ranked highly?
Rankings are generally important and are at the interest of any higher education institution to be well ranked since they show a ‘measure’ of its standing and productivity. Accordingly, outstanding students and excellent faculty members can be attracted and produce excellence in education and research as well as new knowledge. In addition to the quality of every-day life on campus, the criteria for ranking must emphasize the quality in teaching and research.  

What do you think about the changes that have occurred in the last ten years, in order to turn EPFL into an international institution? Have the changes been beneficial?
I’ve known EPFL before and after these changes. In my opinion, these innovations are definitely positive. The new younger faculty has made the school very dynamic with tremendous potential for even stronger growth.  We are growing in the right direction and are definitely part of the highly active international community.       

In your opinion, can EPFL compete with universities such as MIT, Caltech or Cambridge?
These universities have a much longer and older history and very different cultures. For the past several decades they have larger pools of students and faculty to choose from and offer more programs than EPFL. It doesn’t seem wise to compare EPFL, as a single entity, with these schools. However, we can be (and are) extremely successful and very serious competitors in specific teaching and research domains. In my opinion, we should strive to be among the few best in specific domains rather than comparing numbers, coming out form these schools, and EPFL.

What needs to be improved at EPFL?
The dialog between the faculty and the direction should be facilitated more; we need a more bottomed-up approach. I also feel that bureaucracy has increased during the last years, especially with the horizontal deans. I see the importance of their functions but there is a need for coordinated efforts with the faculty fully involved. Concerning teaching, I would favour a common first year with certain key Bachelors classes taught in both, French and English, letting the students choose. More importantly, courses at the Master level must imperatively be given in English. I would also like to see more flexibility from the human resources since it takes a long time to hire someone.