Starting on August 1, 2015, I will begin my new position as Associate Professor at EPFL in Switzerland. This post is a reflection of this transition.
I'm incredibly excited about the opportunity at EPFL, for a number of reasons. First, it is an excellent research university (don't take it from me). Second, unlike many other european institutions, they are very enthusiastic about the potential of online education, as evidenced by their Center for Digital Education, dozens of MOOCs, and close to a million online students. They were also the first European partner of Coursera, pretty much immediately after it launched. Since I share the enthusiasm about the potential of online education, this is a very exciting environment for me. Third, they have created a great environment for startups over the years, and the Lausanne / Geneva area, where EPFL is located, now takes in the majority of VC funding in Switzerland.
In addition to many other reasons, I'm also really excited to be back in the Swiss research environment. The Swiss, a small population in a landlocked nation without any natural resources to speak of, are well aware that education is their best bet to compete in a global economy, and correspondingly invest heavily on research and development (about 2.3% of GDP per capita, which is the 12th highest percentage internationally). In return, the results are impressive: output it terms of papers per capita is off the charts, and they win more scientific prizes per capita than most anyone else. These may not be most useful metrics, but they are at least to some extent indicative of a productive scientific environment. In addition, it's very exciting for me to be closer to some institutions that I've enjoyed visiting in the past few years, most notably the Institute for Scientific Interchange in Turin, Italy, where I will be a fellow next year.
But before you get the wrong impression: I'm very sad to leave the US. I have had a wonderful time here, first as a postdoc at Stanford, and later as a faculty member at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State. The "can do" attitude at these places is just phenomenal. It's no wonder that US institutions so thoroughly dominate the scientific enterprise. Professionally, I will try to be as American as I possibly can, by which I mean maintaining the fast-moving, risk-taking, stand-up-and-try-again, pioneering attitude that is so pervasive here.
As much as I hope to bring that American spirit to my new European home, I am equally hopeful - but somewhat pessimistic - that US institutions will adopt a more European approach about access to higher education. I have never felt comfortable working at an institution that charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education. It's impossible to blame a single factor here, and there is obviously huge variance on both sides of the pond. But it's a relatively new phenomenon in the US, which is why I will observe the developments in Europe with heightened sensitivity. What's remarkable about the situation is that I haven't met a single person at any US institution who has individually thought that this is a good development. Everyone agrees that it's bad, and yet the ball keeps rolling in the wrong direction. The reason why I remain hopeful is that the US is highly adaptable, and those years that I've spent here are strong evidence of that (a black president, the health insurance reform, the gay marriage decision, etc.).
Personally, I have had an absolutely fantastic time, and I will always remember it fondly. Actually, I can't quite believe I'm leaving. I'll miss the people, I'll miss the landscapes, I'll miss the open space (sooooooo much space), and I'll miss the attitude. But then again, I have much to look forward to.