Dec 1, 2016

The founding principle of all the activities of Zdenek and Michaela Bakala is, truly, the courage, which must, according to their belief, always go hand in hand with responsibility.
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R. Brechbuehler 2015 - report


July 2015 – April 2016



University of California (UC), Berkeley


Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Applied Materials & Surface Science Laboratory

Master’s thesis project in the research group of Prof. Dr. Roya Maboudian



During my stay, I worked on a novel concept of an energy storage device that is self-rechargeable by sunlight. Such an integrated energy harvesting and storage unit could be directly built onto micro-devices as for example sensors to detect toxic gases.

The praxis-oriented project allowed me to familiarize with chemical lab work and to develop an initial idea towards a fully working device prototype. Additionally, being part of the Berkeley Sensors and Actuators Center (BSAC) gave me the opportunity to meet people from industry and academia that share my enthusiasm for micro and nanotechnology. 


I have been tinkering with the idea of studying abroad for a long time. My Master’s Tutor at ETH supported my idea and helped me establishing contact to the host Professor in Berkeley. This uncomplicated start was followed by a laborious planning phase, including visa matters, insurance, financial means, and more.

In particular, the application for a FZMB scholarship involved a lot of effort. Nevertheless, reflecting about my own personality, my strengths and goals for the future, as well as taking part at the interviewing day itself was a worthy experience. 


I arrived in Berkeley one week before the start of my research project to organize the last details on-site, to explore the area, and find suitable accommodation. 


Berkeley is a rather small college town in the bay east of San Francisco and part of the so-called Bay Area, including San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. Recently, the housing prices in the entire area have been skyrocketing due to the ongoing tech boom. Finding affordable housing was therefore extremely hard. After living in a temporary room for one month, I finally found a permanent place in a shared apartment only one block away from the campus area. 


With nearly 40.000 students, UC Berkeley is the largest of ten campuses of the University of California public university system and is therefore often simply referred to as Cal. The campus is a very vivid place and you don’t have to be surprised when you spot students playing Quidditch (!) during day-time or performing outdoor dance in large groups in the night.

People at UC Berkeley and in general in the Bay Area come from all over the world. I consider the exposure to all those cultures, different ways of thinking and living, and diverse backgrounds as one of the most important lessons of my stay abroad. In our lab, we organized a series of international dining events, including Chinese hot-pot, American burgers, Turkish coffee and dessert, and of course Swiss fondue.

Besides culinary experiences with my lab mates, I strongly benefited from the hands-on work in our research group, including general chemical lab practice, handling of hazardous chemicals, and working with fabrication and characterization tools for micro and nanomaterials. My lab work included the fabrication of silicon nanowires – a forest of vertically aligned silicon rods with diameters in the order of several nanometers – and the use of graphene – a single layer of carbon atoms in a honeycomb arrangement. A little art gallery of failed fabrication steps is depicted below to show the beauty of those nanoscale materials. 


During my time in the temporary apartment in the beginning of my stay, I met a couple of friends that all have previously been living in this house (but none of them at the same time). Together, we discovered the beaches in the South, the wineries in Sonoma and Napa up North, as well as nice spots in San Francisco, Oakland, and more. Additionally, several beautiful State Parks are located in California and the neighboring states, which I visited during a two-week road trip.

The roommates of my second apartment were locals. I celebrated Thanksgiving with their family and we often watched Sunday afternoon football on TV.


In summary, my stay in the United States was an amazing experience to broaden my horizon and gain further expertise in my field of studies. I thankfully acknowledge the financial help of the Fondation Zdenek et Michaela Bakala.

R. Brechbuehler gallery


© Fondation Zdenek et Michaela Bakala