Je Profite: Whitaker Fellow Nick DiStasio Discusses Life Abroad in Grenoble, France

Nick DiStasioNick DiStasio (Biomedical Engineering, BS’ 13) is spending a year in France through the Whitaker International Program. Here are some of the experiences he’s had:

The French have a word that to me summarizes why they are living life the way it should be lived. The verb is “profiter” and it means in English something like “Take advantage while you can.” The word really resonates with me because one strong viewpoint I have on life is to be extremely open-minded and up for anything. It’s the only way you will discover new things that you love or hate. This is why I applied for a Whitaker fellowship without thinking twice. It’s why I went to China last September for ten days on a trip booked through livingsocial.com. Overall, I think it is a mindset one must have when living in another country. I learned immediately how nice French people are as they constantly include me in every plan they make. There were many nights when I wanted to just stay in and binge-watch American TV shows but, yes I can do that anywhere, I also thought even if I’m not happy or if the situation is uncomfortable or awkward I would still be happier at the end that I did it. Therefore I always chose to profit from an invitation to do anything. And so far it has really been working out for me.

My first weekend here I went to a housewarming party for my lab supervisor’s sister. She told me to bring a few beers and I thought it would be a nice little housewarming party with a couple of friends and a great intimate setting for me to practice my French. It turned out, as was immediately evident when we arrived to blasting hip-hop and a house full of people already, that this was a different kind of party. At first I was nervous as I knew one person and everyone was speaking what I like to call ‘quick, young-person French,’ which is almost a different language than the French I’ve learned in high school and at Drexel. But I shook it off and tried to speak to many different people. As usual, the situation turned out to not be as nearly as bad as I thought. I even got some compliments on my French; they really appreciate Americans trying to learn another language, because we don’t have to. However, even at the end of the night, when I had exhausted my ability to focus and speak French, my ears perked up as I heard some English. I drifted over to a conversation and found a girl from Los Angeles, and so it was nice to reminisce about the good old US of A for a bit.

Grenoble, FranceGrenoble, where I live, is surrounded by three different mountain ranges and is one of Europe’s hottest spot for winter sports as well as hiking and climbing. I plan to profit beaucoup when the ski season begins soon. I attended a very interesting festival in the mountains about three weeks ago. It was all about flight and paragliding in addition to other strange methods of one-man flight. People gather for four days to just relax on the mountain grass and be entertained by daring and beautiful feats of paragliding. There’s also paper-airplane making for kids, food, drinks, and a huge expo for buying equipment. To me, it was just so interesting to be submerged in this culture of like-minded people all gathering and sharing for one reason, regardless of what the reason was it was inspiring.

ParagliderI have been living in a centrally located apartment now for about a month and I love it. I have three roommates, two of whom are French and the other is Spanish, but the house language is French. What I love about Europe is how social and open everyone is here. I love facilitating the contact between say my roommates, my friends at the lab, and my friends from my French class. They all became friends and it is something I did. The apartment is on the sixth floor with no elevator; so that’s a challenge but also a motivator to never forget anything before you leave. However, I have to go to a Laundromat, but there is a little balcony that makes the whole apartment worth it. The next two pictures are a view from my balcony and my lab respectively. Not too bad.

The view from Nick's lab

Nick's view from his apartmentMy lab has already proven itself a comfortable and inviting place to work. We are part of a very large scientific and technological campus. There are dozens of institutes, universities, and companies using the facilities in Grenoble. In fact, our area is known as the “Scientific Polygon.” The majority is physics, chemistry, and materials work, but within those blanket-fields there is no shortage of diverse and novel work, and no shortage of acronyms as well. My lab is called IMBM (Interfaces of Materials and Biological Matter) and we are a subdivision of the larger group LMGP (Laboratoire des Matériaux et du Génie Physique), all run under the government’s CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique). Oh, and there’s even a particle collider!

Muscle Stem CellsOur group attempts to understand and ultimately control at the cellular level the establishment, development, and fate of muscle stem cells (I took the picture left with a confocal microscope and stained actin in red and the nucleus in blue). In order to do this, we culture the cells in a well-controlled manner that mimics their natural niche environment in the body. We can replicate this niche environment, known as the extracellular matrix (ECM) with specific biocompatible polymer films. These special polymer films are fine-tunable in regards to their stiffness, topographical patterns, and biochemical content. By understanding and controlling the life cycle and fate of these muscle stem cells, we hope to eventually repair damaged muscle tissue with the patients’ own muscle stem cells, or produce muscle structures in vivo for the high-throughput testing of drugs, treatments, and/or disease models.

Le Millésime Wine FestivalBut when I’m not in the lab, you can find me at wine festivals like last weekend’s “Le Millésime” which happens every year in Grenoble. Vineyards from all over the region come and set up stands in this square. You buy an entry glass and just go around tasting wine all day at a leisurely pace. There are of course local cheese, meats, and bread artisans as well because one needs to eat after drinking wine all day. As I said before, the French have got leisure down; trolling along, sampling delicious local foods and drinks all the while being serenaded by live classical and jazz music is not the worst way to spend a Saturday. To continue my bragging about how great life is here, I’ve also joined a beer club aptly named ‘Just Beer’ where we get together once a week and sample a beer from a different country, unfortunately I arrived two weeks too late for America night.

I’ve been doing some traveling as well, I mentioned Lyon the first weekend and I went to Turin, Italy, which is extremely close to Grenoble. In fact, the trains are a bit more money than I wanted to spend and so I asked around the lab for other ways to travel and got the general consensus that this carpool website was the way to go. It is a foreign and strange concept for Americans I think but you literally go on and say you are traveling to a city and someone responds back and says that they are going and have room in their car. It is a cheap way to meet people from the area and have a nice personalized journey.

I want to reiterate how I arrived here by actively seeking out these opportunities, an idea I can’t stress enough and one that I feel is so important in today’s world. It is so easy to hang out with your same friends, surf Facebook, get into a routine, and delay that big trip or study/co-op abroad with excuses, but before you know it you won’t have the opportunity anymore to expand your horizons. Traveling is so important because your life will depend on international relations whether you realize it or not. And for academics of all kinds, there is now a need that reaches beyond just gaining new perspectives for work.

In a recent opinion article on CNN.com, Dirk Jan van den Berg outlined how the new Nobel Peace prize being given to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) demonstrates that through science and international collaboration, we are making new strides in peacekeeping efforts. He points out how all branches of higher education are becoming more important for world peace; those ever desired but unattainable buzz words. Higher education is churning out more and more people responsible for “Tackling key global challenges, from climate change to conflict revolution” (Berg). So I will leave you with this: If great experiences, new friends, and delicious food and drink, aren’t enough for you to want to live abroad, you can certainly profit from helping bring about world peace.

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