My journey to the Catalan sunshine

Hi everyone! My name is Klaudia Kopper, I am from Hungary and I am working on the FoodSmartphone project „Electrode arrays for multiplex smartphone assays” at the Nanobiotechnology for Diagnostics (Nb4D) research group of CSIC in Barcelona, Spain. I am planning on giving you a more detailed description of my project in my following blogs, now I would like to focus more on the experiences I have gained during my first few months in Spain.

I arrived to the magnificent city of Barcelona in March, initially only to do a 5 month long traineeship at the Nb4D research group. Back then I never would have imagined that I was going to have the possibility to stay here for 3 more years. I was working on the final phases of the SEA-on-a-CHIP project, which had the aim to develop an autonomous multianalyte immunosensor with impedimetric transduction for monitoring contamination in sea water. Participating in this project gave me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge in the world of immunosensors, but also to learn about the PhD position at the lab in the framework of the FoodSmartphone project. Being part of a European project immediately awakened my interest, since it presents an incredibly unique opportunity for young researchers. After a rather rapid consideration I decided to start the next chapter of my life and I applied for the position. After a few stressful weeks of uncertainty I eventually found out that I got the position at the beginning of June. Ever since then I feel like I hopped on a train, which has no intention of slowing down, but I am absolutely enjoying the ride so far. We had to start with the organizations right away, because at the end of June I had to go to the summer school in Wageningen, and I also had to arrange everything in order to be able to stay in Spain for a longer period of time. You can read more about our activities at the summer school on the previous blogs of my fellow ESRs, I just want to say that it was a wonderful experience for me as well. I enjoyed both the interesting lectures and also meeting all the other researchers from different countries and scientific backgrounds (and I was especially looking forward to meeting the other ESRs of the FoodSmartphone project). It was a very nice way for me to begin with the project and also to prepare myself for the next three years. I am already looking forward to the next summer school, the collaborations with the other ESRs, as well as learning about everyone’s individual journey and research as an ESR.

As I am also from a European country, one could assume that settling down in Spain isn’t that big of a change, but I have to admit that I have encountered some difficulties and also of course there are some differences in people’s everyday lives as opposed to what I have been used to back in Hungary. Luckily ever since my first day at the lab everyone has been incredibly kind, helpful and welcoming towards me. It is really nice to be a part of a research group where people not only have a working relationship but are also friends and organize several activities outside of the lab, too.

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The Nb4D research group of CSIC

In my opinion the city of Barcelona in itself is astonishingly beautiful. During my first weeks here I did discovery tours every weekend, starting of course with the most famous sights of the city. I have to say that I am not only blown away by the incredible creations of Antoni Gaudí, but also by the amazing work of other architects in the city. Besides the mesmerizing buildings I find an incredible amount of joy when spending time in the green parts of the city (my favourites are the beautiful parks of Montjüic) or near the sea.

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The Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s ongoing masterpiece
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The wonderful view from Parc Güell
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The imposing building of the National Art Museum of Catalonia and the “Magic Fountain”

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Beautiful parks of Montjüic

After visiting the most important sights of Barcelona I decided to explore the surroundings of the city as well by participating in organized one-day bus trips. I can’t help but be amazed by the natural wonders of Catalonia. It is a fascinating part of the country with the most powerful mountains, precious lakes, and not least the magnificent sea. After a long week in the lab there is nothing more relaxing for me than spending time in nature. During the spring I was lucky enough to visit the majestic mountains of Montserrat, and a place called Valle de Lord (Lord’s Valley), a series of mountains surrounding a lake, which was absolutely breathtaking.

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Majestic mountains of Montserrat
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The incredible view of Valle de Lord

Since summertime I have tried to choose excursions close to the water, because the combination of the current temperature and humidity makes intensive hiking more or less impossible right now. Luckily just in a few hours by bus you can arrive to the gorgeous beaches of the Costa Brava. So far I have visited 3 towns of this beautiful coast: Sant Feliu, Begur and Cadaqués, all of them were really nice and had charming atmospheres. I also took a visit to the county of Aragon (next to Catalonia), where I saw some splendid (and also quite cold) natural pools in the forests.

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Mesmerizing view from the town of Begur
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The charming town of Cadaqués
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Beautiful bays of Costa Brava
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Admiring the natural pools of Aragon

As for integrating into the Spanish culture the first barrier for me is of course the language. Here most of the people you meet in your everyday life talk to you in Catalan or Spanish, usually they don’t speak English, especially not at places, where you have to get the official papers. In that regard I have started to study Spanish a few months ago, and I can say that I understand more and more every day, but I still have a long way to go in order to feel confident about speaking, too. It is also a bit confusing, since some of my colleagues speak Spanish, while others mostly speak Catalan, so I am hearing a mixture of both at the same time.

People here are generally kind and helpful, but of course they have some different habits from the ones I have been used to back in Hungary. One thing that I found a bit hard to get used to is their working schedule. They start later in the morning (around 9:00-9:30) and they finish quite late in the afternoon (around 18:00-18:30). Due to their working hours they also have their meals later (lunch around 14:00 and dinner around 21:00-22:00), to which I have not fully been able to adapt yet. With regards to the food they eat a lot of meat and fish, you can find all kinds of seafood even at the supermarkets, and there are plenty of fruits and vegetables to choose from, which I find really nice. The only things I am missing from home are the delicious soups and the wide variety of bakery products and desserts. Based on my experiences so far, here they don’t really prepare soups (except for gazpacho in the summer), and they don’t really have a diverse selection of bread and desserts either. Their different eating habits can of course be explained by the geographical location of the city and its climate. Coming from a country with a continental climate, I needed a little bit of time adapting to the Mediterranean one. The weather here is mostly sunny and warm, the temperature is not that variable, it is a bit windy, but luckily it rarely rains. The only challenge is to survive the humidity in the summer…most flats are not equipped with air conditioning devices, and it can get up to 90% humidity late at night. But once you get to the air-conditioned lab, everything is fine. 🙂

Another amazing aspect of Barcelona is that you can do almost anything at any time. The city offers countless activities, people here are very active. There are also a lot of international people, who organize group activities such as hikes, training sessions, language exchanges, dance classes, photography classes etc. According to your interests you can join the ones that you like and participate in their upcoming events. So far (as I have mentioned above) I have been to a few hikes and also dancing classes, but I am planning on going to Spanish classes and other activities in the future as well.

Regarding my scientific project, up until now I have been mainly conducting literature studies about the state of the art on the field, especially about the development of electrochemical sensors with smartphone readout systems. The aim of my project is to develop an electrochemical immunosensor for the detection of antibiotics in milk and other food matrices. We have set ourselves the goal to assess the electrochemical immunosensor detection techniques together with electrode arrays, in order to be able to perform multiplexed assays.  At the end, the immunosensor should be connected to a smartphone readout system for the data acquisition with the help of a wireless system.

Thank you very much for reading my first blog post! In the following ones I plan to give you a more detailed description of my project, and of course tell you about my other experiences while living in Barcelona.

All the best,

Klaudia

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