Life and Research in Salt Lake City by Peter Salz
My name is Peter Salz, I am a third year Ph.D. student in the Computer Graphics group of Prof. Hans Hagen. During my Computer Science studies in Kaiserslautern from 2005 to 2011, I majored in Computer Graphics and Visualization. After working on 3D visualization of time-dynamic biological data and object tracking in low-quality images, my new research topic of interest, Visual Computing in Medicine, brought me to the International Research Training Group (IRTG) for Visualization of Large and Unstructured Data Sets.
The IRTG offers a three year Ph.D. program with a wide selection of interdisciplinary research topics and a lot of distinguished international scientists. My research focuses on individualizing a lung imaging technique called Electrical Impedance Tomography towards patient-specific body geometries. I mainly collaborate with the group of Prof. Hermann Wrigge and Dr. Andreas Reske at the University Hospital in Leipzig, where I frequently travel to and also spent one month in the summer of 2012.
A Ph.D. student at the IRTG has the opportunity to spend about three months per year at collaborating international institutes, for example the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute (SCI) at the University of Utah („The U“) in Salt Lake City, UT, USA.
I visited Salt Lake City and the SCI Institute from September 2011 until a few days before Christmas, and again from October to November in 2012. Both visits were shortly interrupted for the VisWeek (IEEE International Conference on Visualization) in Providence, RI and Seattle, WA, respectively. During my stay I worked with the research groups of SCI Associate Directors Rob MacLeod and Charles Hansen.
What it’s like to live in SLC
First of all, Americans in Salt Lake City are very polite, nice and helpful. I always felt welcome while I was there. In contrast to Germany, for example, people are much more open and friendly towards strangers – see below for some events that stood out. Salt Lake City is not a very large town, but its metropolitan area is much larger. The IRTG provided me with a large apartment in the middle of downtown SLC, so I could use the bus, tram, bicycle or even walk to most places. All streets are aligned on a grid with north-south and west-east directions, which makes navigation very easy. The center of this grid is the Salt Lake Temple, main building of the Latter-Day-Saints Church.
Downtown SLC as seen from the SCI Institute
The weather during fall is quite warm and mostly dry. The winter is cold, but the sunlight is still warming. With an elevation of about 1300m and alpine regions all around, Salt Lake City is a great place for skiing. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to try it; also, ski season in 2011 began quite later than usual. On the other hand, nature, mountains, creeks, and other places for hiking or cycling are very close to the city. Just a short drive to the south we found a great place for paragliding. The Great Salt Lake can only be reached by car, and since I was told that it is not very exciting, I didn’t go there.
Some interesting events and experiences
My very first experience after arriving in Salt Lake City was quite special: A guy asked me for a dime for a train ticket, and after giving it to him, we had some small talk. I mentioned that it is my first day there, so he told me that he sells souvenir spoons, and promptly gave me a spoon with the Utah flag on it. Now that was a friendly welcome! It happened several times that strangers started some small talk conversation with me while commuting, which at first feels a bit weird (Germans are not used to this), but it was also interesting to talk with them not only about the weather, but also what I do, where I live, why I am in Salt Lake, and so on.
Although public transportation is quite developed (lightrail trains, buses and commuter trains), a trip to a remote shopping mall turned into an interesting episode: After about 20 minutes on the train, we got off at the station with the same name as the mall. It turned out that the mall is another 20 minutes walk away, and it was difficult to find without a map (but we had one, fortunately). On the other hand, some of the larger shops at the mall offer valet parking, so you just have to drive right in front of the entrance and start shopping! This car-centric mentality still amazes me.
Some of my new friends invited me to a great dinner on Thanksgiving, which was a very cool experience - the best turkey I ever had, and food made of pumpkin is not very common in Germany, so there were a few surprises! On my way to my friends' place I realized that there is no public transportation on important holidays at all! No bus, no train. So without a car, you are quite out of luck. It was a nice day, so I happily walked for 45 minutes, and taking a cab is not that expensive as it is in Germany, but I was surprised by the total lack of public transportation on Thanksgiving. Good for the bus and train drivers, anyway :-)
It is interesting to note the remarkably large number of Germans or German speaking people at the SCI Institute, for example Associate Directors Rob MacLeod, who spent some time in Austria, and Guido Gerig, who is from Switzerland. Also, a German post-doc arrived at the same time as me, and we became roommates for some time. To honor that, we had a German evening for some friends, with German music, Bratwurst, Sauerkraut and German-style cheese cake (it's not easy to find Quark in the US...).
As a German, I am very proud of our local beers, and I knew that most national brands (like Budweiser) do not compare very well to those. As it turned out, beers from local micro-breweries, like Squatters, are quite tasty. We had a lot of fun trying all of them out, and some of them have hilarious names, like "Polygamy Porter - Why have just one?" :-)
Talking about beer: Age restrictions on alcohol are very tough, which sometimes causes problems that sound quite hilarious to Germans: In some bars, they only accept passports (for non-residents), not the German ID or any other kind of identification, so my roommate, who forgot his passport at home, couldn't drink with us, although he is more than 30 years old.
Around Christmas, a lot of decorations were set up near the Salt Lake Temple. I enjoyed it very much to walk under the brightly lit trees along with a lot of other people. This compensated a bit for the lack of "Christmas Markets", which I like very much. I also noted that there are much more young families than elsewhere in the US or in Germany, maybe because many Mormons marry at an earlier age than the average American or German.
The first SCIx Open House event was a very interesting experience. I learned about all the research the many people at SCI are working on, got some new insights into the state of the art, and, most notably, attended a talk by a very famous person: John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Systems, not only grew up and studied in Salt Lake City, he also participated in the birth of Computer Graphics in the 1960s. Finally, his donation made it possible to build the Warnock Engineering Building at the University of Utah, where the SCI Institute is located.