Not the norm – Beginning a nanosciences degree during the coronavirus pandemic

Starting university is an exciting time. With their school days behind them, the students are beginning an important new stage of their lives, one that is filled with new experiences and new friends — and often takes place in an unfamiliar city. Those starting their courses in 2020, however, had a vastly different experience than in previous years. Whereas some classroom courses were still possible at the start of fall semester, students have now been receiving their tuition exclusively online since the start of November. This makes it difficult for them to meet new friends and find their bearings in what is still an unfamiliar university environment. We asked four new nanoscience students how they are coping in these unusual times and what their first impressions are of the nanosciences degree program at the University of Basel.

Tania Beringer came from the US to study nanosciences in Basel.

An American in Basel
Hailing from California, Tania Beringer has traveled a long way to study nanosciences in Basel. As her parents were originally from Switzerland, Tania decided to study in Basel and take this opportunity to get to know the country a bit better. She chose the nanosciences because, as a high-school student, she was particularly interested in the natural sciences at the molecular level. “I didn’t want to limit myself to one science, and nano brings together a variety of different fields,” she says in our interview.

So far, Tania has not been disappointed. She is finding it all very exciting and has no trouble following all of the different topics. Although she initially attended classroom courses every day, stricter coronavirus measures saw all teaching move online at the start of November. This has not been easy for Tania, particularly when it comes to practical exercise courses, because it makes it harder to ask questions if anything is unclear. “But the tutors are great and always respond immediately if you have any questions,” she says.

Although there haven’t been many opportunities to meet up in person, she now knows all the students who started the nanosciences course with her, as well as a number of students from higher semesters. She has also met two other nanoscience students who share her love of photography — one of the few activities that are still possible with almost no restrictions even during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tania moved into a student dormitory in Basel, where she has also made some good connections despite the current restrictions. “There’s always someone there to do things with me if I need to,” she says.

All in all, Tania is very pleased with her first semester here in Basel. She was elected vice-president of the Nanoverein in November and is looking forward to her commitment to the association and to the time when students can once again attend lectures, take part in practical courses or simply spend time together in person.


Mina-Lou is very pleased with the support she receives from the tutors. (Image: M.-L. Schleith).

From the other side of the border
Mina-Lou Schleith had a much shorter journey to Basel. Hailing from Weil am Rhein, Germany, she completed her school-leaving certificate at the town’s Kant Gymnasium in 2019. She first came across the nanosciences a few years ago when she attended a bachelor’s information day at the University of Basel.

She found biology and chemistry particularly interesting and enjoyable at school — and, above all, she was always very inquisitive about a wide range of topics. In an internship after completing high school, she learned what it was like to work in a laboratory. Unfortunately, a subsequent internship at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) had to be canceled due to coronavirus restrictions. Mina-Lou used this spare time before beginning her studies to brush up on her physics, as she hadn’t studied the subject at high school. “That was definitely a good idea,” she says. “Because I’m now keeping up well — and enjoying it.”
Classroom teaching has also been suspended for Mina-Lou since the start of November. “The days are really quite monotonous,” she says. “Luckily, there are a few virtual groups where we do practical exercises together and sometimes also discuss things on a one-to-one basis.” Mina-Lou is very pleased with the support she receives from the tutors. “In physics, for example, we have a question and answer session every Friday, where we can ask about anything we like. That’s really useful.”

For her, the highlights were the events at the start of the semester, when people could still meet in person, including the hike organized by the nano student association and a picnic with students from the higher semesters. She also enjoyed activities such as hockey at the university sports center, but these have also been off limits since November. Luckily, she made two good friends among the new students during those initial few weeks, so she still has the opportunity to meet up with people in person occasionally.

Mina-Lou has adapted to the current circumstances well. She has no regrets about her choice of degree program and is also involved in the Nanoverein as representative of this years’ students.

Andreas Ruh has already completed his bachelor’s program in Tübingen and has even had the opportunity to gain some professional experience.

Studying for a master’s in Basel
Andreas Ruh has already completed his bachelor’s program in nanosciences and has even had the opportunity to gain some professional experience. After completing his bachelor’s in nanosciences in Tübingen, he spent two years working at the company OSA Opto Light in Berlin. However, his thirst for knowledge and further progression ultimately led him to enroll on a master’s in nanosciences. “I chose the University of Basel because it has an excellent reputation, plays a leading role in research and also has excellent links with industry in the region,” he says.

In order to study in Basel, Andreas moved to Lörrach. As he tells us in our interview, he’s very comfortable in his shared flat there and has settled in well. The lectures he has been attending so far are both interesting and enjoyable. Although he still attended one classroom lecture course at the start, he now does all of his learning from home.

He too had different expectations of starting university and finds it hard from time to time. Despite the excellent advice and support he receives from the Student Coordination Office, and having met several students at a nano student association event, he lacks personal contact with people in a similar situation to him. This is difficult, however, given that only a small number of new students come to Basel from other universities to study for a master’s in nanosciences. As the bachelor’s degree in Basel is very diverse and the program that the students complete is highly specific, graduates usually have to satisfy a series of requirements in order to switch to the university after their bachelor’s.

Dimitrios Tripkis has learned a lot during his first block course in Basel and was delighted to work on the AFM himself.

Still some catching up to do
Andreas still has a number of classes and two block courses to attend before he can get started with the lectures for his master’s program. A similar situation faces his fellow student Dimitrios Tripkis, another new arrival on the master’s program in Basel in fall semester.

Dimitrios was born in Switzerland but grew up in Greece, where he also completed a bachelor’s degree in materials science. He has now come to Basel to study for his master’s in nanosciences, having been very impressed with the nanosciences degree program, and is also keen to get to know Switzerland better.

This semester, Dimitrios has already completed a block course on atomic force microscopy (AFM) and was delighted at the opportunity to work on such high-tech equipment himself. “In Greece, the professors showed us how the devices worked, and we just watched,” he says. He also sees clear advantages to having all lectures online. “It gives you more freedom, and you can catch up on or repeat courses whenever you like,” he says. That being said, he would prefer it — and be more motivated — if he could sit in a lecture hall with the other students.

Although the current circumstances are sometimes not easy, and despite the lack of contact with fellow students, both Andreas and Dimitrios say they made the right choice by coming to Basel, and neither of them has any regrets about their decision. Indeed, they are happy here and looking forward to embarking on their master’s studies in earnest once they’ve obtained the remaining credit points.

We hope all of our students emerge happy and healthy from this difficult time and that we can welcome them back to class in person again soon.