Seizing serendipity during a European internship

Studying abroad is a popular experience for undergraduates and many students try to take advantage of this opportunity. Being an international student at heart, I was also interested in exploring the world; however, my coursework made it practically impossible to go abroad with the study programs that my college offered. I did not just want to go traveling though, I wanted to invest my time while creating new experiences for myself, and so it occurred to me to independently seek an international research internship abroad. I started searching for the opportunities and with some luck involved I discovered the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The institute actually consists of a large number of member states in Europe including Germany, France, UK, and even, somehow, Australia.

We were completely soaked, but we had to get back. Much to our surprise we got a ride back up to the castle.

We were completely soaked, but we had to get back. Much to our surprise we got a ride back up to the castle.

After a series of e-mails and a phone interview I ended up joining the group of Dr. Christian Haering whose lab is studying the condensin protein complex in yeast. Condensin protein complex does pretty much what you would expect; it condenses and organizes chromosomes together but also has other roles, like regulating gene expression. The project seemed exciting to me, and it also meant that I would be able to spend my summer in Heidelberg, Germany, while learning something new. One of my best college friends also applied to the institute and ended up being accepted to a different lab.

The campus was located in a serene location on top of the hill, which required a healthy hike through the forest in the morning. A lot of things about this place were special: there was a building with two floors spiraling upwards in a double helix, a cafeteria chef with a mustache in a style of a Prussian soldier singing and greeting with “Bonjour!” beer Fridays organized by different labs, journal clubs and coffee breaks with a beautiful spectrum of accents discussing science.

In my research, I worked with fission yeast and tried to isolate condensin and other proteins that might interact with it on some level. I learned new techniques of growing yeast, isolating protein with magnetic nanobeads, and performing Western blots to mention a few. Although I did end up working very long hours during the week, Friday nights meant one thing: my friend and I were literally running to catch a train. We would come to work with packed backpacks and a vague idea of where we wanted to go. Very often we were in the hands of serendipity, which provided opportunities that would be difficult to plan out.

IMG_3695_stitch cc sat60 us. Hohenzollern in thunderstormTo give an overview of one weekend, we were able to visit Frankfurt, Cologne, Bonn, and a tiny city St. Goar on the Rhine River. Almost nearly missing a series of trains but always making it with half-a-minute to spare, we finally missed the connecting train in Frankfurt by 20 seconds and got stuck there. As a result, we arrived in Cologne at 6 a.m., with a stunning view of Cologne’s gothic cathedral filling most of the huge window of the train station. By midday we moved on to Bonn because it was a birthplace of Beethoven. If you ask me how we ended up in the tiny city of St. Goar, I do not know. In St. Goar, by chance we learned that they had closed the road along the Rhine to give bicycles free reign, and so we rented bikes to participate in the procession with other bicyclists. On the way, we climbed up to three castles overlooking the Rhine, and arrived back to our town late at night to get some sleep before work. In a similar manner, we traveled to Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and various cities in Germany.

The experience in Europe was rich with emotions and stories: from the Foreigner performance in Mannheim to the Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in St. Chapelle in Paris, from sleeping at the train station to being soaked under rain in the attempt to climb a mountain with a castle on top.

I advise undergraduates to actively seek such research and travel opportunities because very few things make you feel so alive like learning and traveling.

Alex Komin, a first-year PhD student in Kalina Hristova’s lab in Materials Science and Engineering Department, is working on new methods to deliver drugs to the brain.

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