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.

Gaining perspective from an international research internship

I was fortunate enough to able to complete an internship abroad during my undergraduate career. Though I was extremely excited to begin work at a German university in Berlin, I was also very apprehensive about the huge transition I would have to make. Not only was I living in a new country speaking a relatively uncomfortable language, but it was also my first laboratory experience in the side of materials science, which so often overlaps with chemistry. Through my time in Berlin, I learned about German culture, conducting science abroad, and I got a healthy dose of chemistry.

Luisa Russell during her internship.

Luisa Russell during her internship.

My lab work in Germany involved the synthesis and functionalization of gold nanospheres and nanorods for the ultimate goal of the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis using hyperbranched polyglycerol. Though I worked under an older graduate student and had to start essentially from the beginning due to my relative lack of chemistry lab training, my fellow interns and I were given many opportunities to expand on our laboratory skills, and I came to be independent in both synthesis and in data collection and analysis for a variety of nanoparticles. Though we mainly worked with gold, we also explored more nontraditional nanomaterials including graphene and nanodiamonds through work my mentor was doing in collaboration with other groups, giving me a broad experience in nanotechnology.

In addition, doing my internship abroad rather than at another university in the United States gave me a new perspective on science as an international endeavor. Though lab books, conversation, and notes were in German, everything with a larger audience was conducted in English, from guest lecturers to group meeting presentations to papers written for publication in journals. While this made me a little more comfortable given my barely conversational German, it also struck me how my peers were obligated to be conversant in English to be part of the international science community, as well as a contributing part of their own local groups. This helped me understand the unique challenges faced by international scientists, and I look forward to continuing work with international collaborators in the future.

My internship, though it started out slow, ended up being an invaluable experience for my current work. It was a great way to get an in depth and low commitment experience with an aspect of lab work in materials science that I hadn’t previously been familiar with, and inspired me to continue working in this field. My work in the Searson Group centers around nanoparticle synthesis as applied to quantum dots, and my experience both as a member of a chemistry lab and as a semi-independent synthesizer of nanoparticles gave me an advantage in learning to navigate my way around the lab and the relatively difficult protocols applied in the synthesis of quantum dots. While it did break up the span of time over which I could do longer term research, ultimately the opportunity to explore a variety of aspects of materials science in a hands-on way was extremely valuable, and helped to inform my future research interests.

Luisa Russell is a second-year PhD candidate in the materials science department working on hybrid multifunctional nanoparticles in Peter Searson’s research group.

Lindau 2013: Mingling with Nobel Laureates

During the first week of July 2013, 34 science Nobel Prize winners congregated on the island of Lindau, Germany to meet and mentor the next generation of leading researchers. 625 undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students from 78 countries were invited to attend this exclusive meeting. I was very lucky to be among them!

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting has been held annually since 1951 and rotates among the Nobel Prize categories of chemistry, physics, physiology and medicine, and economics. This year’s meeting was devoted to chemistry. The Lindau Mediatheque is a great resource for meeting lectures, abstracts, and programs. The database lists all of this year’s attending Laureates, along with the years and disciplines in which they won the Nobel Prize.

U.S. researchers explore the island city of Lindau, Germany.

U.S. researchers explore the island city of Lindau, Germany.

Conference mornings were spent in widely-attended and inspiring lectures by the Laureates, while the afternoons involved break-out sessions where we could asks the Laureates our questions in a more intimate setting. I learned the processes through which many of the Nobel-prize winning discoveries were made and where some of the Laureates were when they received the infamous phone call informing them that they had been awarded the Prize. The conference’s U.S. delegation consisted of approximately 70 graduate students, and our organizing partner, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, was able to score us some great additional interaction opportunities with a few of the Laureates. We had our own dinner parties arranged with Brian Kobilka (Chemistry, 2012) and Steven Chu (Physics, 1997, and former U.S. Secretary of Energy). I had the pleasure of sitting next to Akira Suzuki (Chemistry, 2010) during an extravagant international get-together dinner sponsored by the Republic of Korea.

A panel of Nobel Laureates and scientists discusses the importance of communication in science. Speaking in this photo is Ada Yonath (far left), who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 for her studies on the structure and function of the ribosome.

A panel of Nobel Laureates and scientists discusses the importance of communication in science. Speaking in this photo is Ada Yonath (far left), who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 for her studies on the structure and function of the ribosome.

The Laureates were treated like celebrities on the island of Lindau. They were each gifted their own luxury car for the week, and personal drivers shuttled them between conference events. Students vied for their pictures and autographs like they were rock stars! My favorite day of the conference incorporated a boat trip to Mainau, another German island in Lake Constance. The scenic two hour sail on a giant cruise ship included food, drink, and even dancing with the Laureates and their spouses. Once on the island of Mainau, we toured spectacular gardens and enjoyed an authentic Bavarian lunch.

From meeting science “superstars” to networking with students from around the globe and exploring a beautiful island city, I can’t speak highly enough of the remarkable experience. For information about how to apply to be a part of the U.S. delegation for the 2014 Lindau Meeting, which will focus on physiology and medicine, visit http://www.orau.org/lindau/.

Story by Allison Chambliss, who is entering her fifth year as a PhD student in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

 

Lindau: where the Nobel Laureates gather

If you want to rub elbows with Nobel Laureates, the place to be this week is Lindau, Germany. Three of the four Johns Hopkins University graduate students attending the 63rd Annual Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, which is dedicated to chemistry thie year, work in Institute for NanoBioTechnology affiliated laboratories. The meeting runs from June 30 to July 5 and will host more than 550 young researchers from 78 countries.

Allison Chambliss, a doctoral student in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the laboratory of Denis Wirtz; Sravanti Kusuman, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering from the laboratory of Sharon Gerecht; and Allix Sanders, a graduate student in chemistry from the laboratory of J.D. Tovar,  were chosen to attend along with 71 other top U.S. graduate student researchers. This year’s group is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Mars, Incorporated, the National Science Foundation, and the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).

Before she left, Allison said she was excited about the opportunity to interact with successful and well known researchers, which is harder to do at big conferences. Essentially, she and the others will be chatting with the “rockstars” of science. Allison was able to attend despite also having a summer internship with Novozyme in Raleigh, NC, where she is working in their R&D department on biofuels.

“I liked hearing about how it was so interactive and that there will be people from all over the world. And then the fact that there will be Nobel Laureates, you don’t get the chance to meet someone like that every day, “ Allison said. She also sees this as an opportunity to network in case she wants to do a postdoctoral fellowship in another country. “I will be meeting people from labs all over the place and also people in both academia and industry.”

Allison’s current research in the Wirtz lab involves using high-throughput cell phenotyping to look at the physical characteristic of cells on a single cell basis and how physical attributes can impact a cell genetically. Allison did her undergraduate work at Virginia Tech.

Sravanti’s did her undergraduate work at MIT. Her research in the Gerecht lab involves using pluripotent stem cells and a specially engineered synthetic matrix to grow a micro-vasculature (tiny blood vessels).

“These are the seminal leaders in their field, and in many cases, they are the ones that created their fields, so I just think it will be great to learn the science from their standpoint,” Sravanti said. “You know, like what obstacles did they have to overcome to prove their point, since all their findings would be really novel.”

She is also interested in learning what inspires and keeps these leading figures going. “This is also a more intimate setting,” Sravanti added. “There are lectures in the morning but in the afternoon there are smaller roundtable discussions where you can get more intimate with whichever Nobel Laureate you choose to talk to.

Allix Sanders is working on a project in the Tovar lab that incorporates large, unique chromophores comprised of extended pi-conjugated networks into peptide chains. Following self-assembly, the photophysical characterizations of the supramolecular polymers will be investigated with the future goal of creating useful electronic materials. Allix did her undergraduate studies at Lebanon Valley College.

The fourth Johns Hopkins University student is Joseph Schonhoft, a doctoral student in the biophysics department, which is part of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. He works in the laboratory of James Stivers at the School of Medicine. His research involves facillitated diffusion mechanisms of DNA repair enzymes.

According to information from ORAU, Nobel Laureates have annually convened in Lindau since 1951 to have open and informal meetings with students and young researchers from around the world. Laureates and students exchange ideas, discuss projects and build international networks throughout the week. All attendees must pass through a competitive application and selection process managed by the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Throughout the week, the 35 participating Laureates will lecture in the mornings on the topic of their choice related to chemistry and participate in smaller question and answer sessions in the afternoons. Students will also interact with the Laureates and other international students during the week for more informal discussions. This year, with the addition of science master classes, a select few researchers will have the opportunity to present their research to a Nobel Laureate and a small group of their peers.

For more information regarding the 63rd Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates and Students, visit the ORAU–Lindau website. The ORAU-Lindau website and all logistical arrangements for the participants are being administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, a DOE institute managed by ORAU.