Exploring Optics and French Cuisine during a Summer Internship in Paris

Chris Valdes in Paris
September 18, 2019

Fresh from a summer in Paris, France—as one of just eight students chosen nationally to be immersed in a prestigious internship program—a physics major has returned to St. John’s University with a deeper passion for his chosen career path and a fascination with French culture.

“I would, hands down, 100 percent, recommend this program to anyone interested in optics,” said Christopher Valdes of the Optics in the City of Light Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. “I had a firsthand experience of what it is like to conduct research in a laboratory setting, working in a French lab alongside professional scientists.”

“I had the opportunity to generate my own ideas about how to solve a problem. I gained much more confidence in learning how to think creatively,” said Christopher, a senior in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who is interested in pursuing a career in medical physics, an area that applies physics to health care.

“The Paris internship has been nothing less than a life-changing experience,” Christopher said. “I am extremely grateful to St. John’s for helping me find this incredible opportunity.”

 “The REU internship was also an absolutely amazing cultural experience. The French people are so kind and generous.”

Optics is a branch of physics that studies the behavior and properties of light. During the two-month internship, Christopher and fellow members of his cohort worked in several Paris-based laboratories, conducting research with ultrafast lasers and microscopes.

Christopher, who is also pursuing a minor in Spanish and is a member of St. John’s first cohort of the S-STEM Scholars Program,  was assigned to work at the Photophysique et Photochimie Supramoléculaires et Macromoléculaires Laboratory (PPSM) at the École normale supériere Paris-Saclay, a university that is part of the top level of research and academics in France’s higher education system.

His research project, “Optimizing a Set-Up Coupling Electrochemical and Fluorescence Microscopies,” involved working with an electrochemical microscope in combination with a fluorescence one “so researchers can study a molecule’s fluorescent characteristics while simultaneously applying an electric field,” he said.

“However,” Christopher added, “recording data from this set-up was very inefficient, so, my project focused on developing a more efficient data-acquisition system.”

Noting he worked under the supervision of the head engineer of the laboratory, who offered valuable advice throughout, Christopher said, “I worked with computer programs and machines that I did not even know existed.”  

“The internship gave me a new perspective on how optics can be used in medical applications,” he said. “It helped me discover how we can use physics to study diseases and use it to define phenomena we do not currently understand. I especially enjoyed the experience of contributing my research to help other scientists with their own research and studies.”

Christopher also was thrilled about being immersed in the tastes, sounds, sights, and spirit of the French culture. When he was not in the laboratory, he was out with his cohort, touring museums, exploring famed sites such as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

“I loved walking all around Paris with its beautiful architecture,” he said. “It was like being in a magical world because every building I saw was gorgeous.”

The famed Louvre Museum became one of Christopher’s favorite haunts. “Entrance to the Louvre is free for anyone under the age of 26 on Wednesday and Friday nights. Every Friday, I would take a 10-minute train ride to the museum with members of my cohort and wander the halls.”

He also made frequent visits to the boulangeries, or bakeries, of Paris, to sample the storied, fresh-baked breads of France. “The croissants, baguettes, beignets—they were all delicious!”