"Most students underestimate the support they can get"

In addition to her master's degree in mechanical engineering, Nathalie Nick, 23, is managing a major project: Swissloop pods, machines that accelerate to hundreds of km/h in a vacuum to test a new concept in freight transport.
Nathalie Nick, 23, master's student in mechanical engineering at ETH Zurich. (Image: Nathalie Nick)

Los Angeles, July 2019. Swissloop and EPFLoop take second and third place in SpaceX Hyperloop. This international competition encourages the development of a new type of transport running at very high speed through low pressure tunnels. Both projects are entirely led by students from ETH Zurich and EPFL respectively. In 2018, Nathalie Nick joined the Zurich team of around 20 people. She became co-president one year later while continuing her studies in mechanical engineering at ETH Zurich.

Why did you get involved in such a competition?

I had heard about Swissloop on social networks and from colleagues. The idea fascinated me: to build something that has never existed before and that has to work under extreme conditions similar to those found in space engineering. I was also aware of what participation could bring in terms of skills, including teamwork, interdisciplinary and technical. These are things you don't learn in a classroom.

When did you join Swissloop?

In 2018; I was in the third year of my Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the time. I joined Swissloop, a students' association, and the mechanical team. We came second in 2019, which was a great result! However, I felt that there were a lot of things to do to improve our performance. I spoke to the management team about this, and I joined them as co-president. Since then, I've been spending a lot of time on project management, long-term planning and partnerships.

«It is important to broaden one’s horizons during studies, to do other things. You learn a lot that way»      Nathalie Nick

Why did you switch from technical to management?

I have always been interested in project management. I already got some experience in High School. I like to have an overall view and to be able to carry out work from A to Z with a motivated team. With Swissloop, it's all about managing a very technical project, which I particularly enjoy.

Any negative aspects?

Of course, you have to cope with stress, navigate in unexpected situations and deal with different opinions. But I like a challenge!

How do you manage the double workload of studies and a project?

It's something I've known since I was a child – for example, I was figure skating besides school classes and took the ski teacher's certificate a few years ago.

Are you ever envious of people who work less and enjoy more of their leisure time?

No, never! First of all, this project makes me spend time with people with whom I share the same passion. I do sometimes work on weekends, but we do everything we can to plan things properly and avoid a backlog of work done in a hurry. This is a very important aspect: you need to have quiet time to anticipate and develop creative solutions, which is not good if you're always running behind schedule. It doesn't work too badly with Swissloop: I've always managed to do other things on the side, like going skiing!

Is the time spent on the project recognised in your studies?

No, not for me. But it is for some of the other participants. We identify projects in Swissloop that can be the subject of officially recognised research work. Eight students can join us as part of their studies thanks to the Focus Projects programme, which is run by the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich.

Did you feel supported by the academic community?

Yes, completely. We were able to obtain work and research space at ETH Zurich as well as at EMPA, which set up a 120-metre-long test track. Most students underestimate the support they can get, especially from the teaching staff and researchers, but just ask them!

What advice would you give to your colleagues?

If you have an idea, get started! There will be plenty of people motivated to participate in a good project. For me, it is important to broaden one’s horizons during studies, to do other things. You learn a lot that way.

What about institutions?

Being involved in a project such as Swissloop is still often a sacrifice, with a lot of time spent alongside studies. It would be very beneficial if they were credited more systematically, and if other programmes such as Focus Projects were set up. Keeping study programmes flexible is important, as it can be difficult to prepare for exams when you are engaged in a large project on the side. In that case, being able to extend the studies without too much trouble really helps.


Students study, and scientists publish. This is the daily routine of universities and research institutes.

But these institutions now want to encourage unusual paths: the creation of start-ups, interdisciplinary projects, international competitions, and the popularisation of science. "We have to avoid anything that might generate resistance," says Pascal Vuilliomenet, head of the Discovery Learning Program at EPFL (see our interview). We met two female students and a researcher who have created their own scientific path, next to classrooms and labs.

  • Chloé Carrière, a student at the EFPL, will send six  astronauts to a space camp under the Alps (see It started with a failure!).
  • Nathalie Nick, a student at ETH Zurich, is building a capsule for the international HyperLoop competition (see Most students underestimate the support they can get). 
  • Bastian Etter has launched the Vuna startup to market autonomous toilets (see Applied science opens up new horizons).