My expectation of a summer abroad in Europe: working in a lab and effortlessly exploring different cities every weekend.
My reality of my summer abroad in Europe: no Wi-Fi or data for 6 weeks and begrudgingly trekking to various German bureaucratic offices so that I can fill out indecipherable documents written in German.
My love for German started when I was unexpectedly placed in a German class on my first day of high school. I was incredibly apprehensive, but my teacher and the language had me enraptured by the end of the first class. I continued studying German through college with the hope that I would one day get to live in the country that I had been studying.
I quickly realized that my premed academic schedule would not allow me to study abroad in the fall or the spring, so I found a program that matches students with summer internships abroad. My dreams of living in Germany were finally becoming a reality.
For to a variety of reasons, my internship match process did not go as smoothly as I would have hoped. The paperwork took weeks to be processed and accepted, and then my housing took even longer to secure. Unfortunately, before everything could be confirmed I had to be in Berlin for the program orientation. I was in a completely new city with no concrete plans as to where to go next.
After a stressful couple of weeks, I was finally able to start my internship at the Institut für Molekulare Medizin at Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf. On the eve of the EuroCup semi-finals, I arrived in Düsseldorf, Germany, anxious but ready to embark on this adventure. I arrived to a ghost town, as every German man, women, child, and animal was glued to a television awaiting the start of the game. I dragged my two suitcases for two miles through cobblestone paths in order to arrive at my dorm. Once there, I walked into a modern yet unfurnished room. I had no towels, bed sheets, blankets, or pillows. Worst of all: I had no Wi-Fi. Thanks to a new friend, I was able to acquire all the supplies I needed by the end of the next day. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi remained elusive the entire time.
Now onto the main reason I embarked on this crazy adventure: to work in German Molecular Biology Lab. Without a doubt, it was one of the most fun, enriching, and all around amazing opportunities I have had over the course of my undergraduate career. The main project I worked on analyzed the mechanism that drives autophagy. I also got the opportunity to help other lab members with their projects. Before this experience, I had a cursory understanding of the biology related to apoptosis (cell death) and autophagy (process of cell destruction), but I came to understand how the theoretical knowledge I learned in the classroom could be applied in the real world.
My PI (principle investigator) and colleagues were incredibly supportive and helpful as I learned the nuances of working in a new country and culture. It was especially unnerving to communicate in German outside the classroom. I sat dumbfounded through most lab meetings as I could not keep up with the speed and technical terms that were used. The other lab members really went out of their way to help me adapt to a new way of life, such as patiently explaining the train system to a Houston girl who thought public transport only extended to the occasional carpool.
What I loved the most about my co-workers was the fact that they were super laid-back and down to have a good time. Once in the middle of the workday, we all left what we were doing and went to a lake. Another time, the entire lab, including the PIs, dropped everything and went to play cage ball, a type of indoor soccer. I have had the chance to work in three labs: two in the United States and one in Germany. In my experience, the German lab was the most relaxed. This could be a reflection of the German/European culture, which is more laid back than its American counterpart. This stress free work environment is aided by the fact that Germans rarely take their work home with them. Indubitably, the individuals in my lab were truly a family of scientists working together to attain their goals while having fun with biology.
Even though my first research experience was in the United States, I was not exposed to many commonly used laboratory skills until I got to Germany. In fact, I learned how to Western Blot and Cell Culture using a German protocol. However, after returning to the United States, I realized that the protocols are nearly identical in both countries. Many, if not all, instruments and supplies used are the same in both countries. I still utilize many of the laboratory techniques I learned in Germany in the lab I work in here in the United States. However, one of the main differences I noticed was the fact that working in a lab in the United States feels more isolating at times than working in a lab in Germany. There was a lot more collaboration in the German lab where my PI and the other lab members worked in the same office. This promoted a sense of community that I so appreciated. I feel as though this dynamic made the PIs more accessible. Without a doubt, there are many differences good and bad between working in an American lab and a German lab and I am grateful I’ve had the opportunity to experience both cultures and environments.
At the time, I was unable to see all the benefits I was reaping from this particularly adventurous summer. However, when I reflect upon the experience now, I realize that I gained a lot more than tears and stamps in my passport book. I got the chance to experience a new culture; my German improved; I met some really great people; I gained some invaluable experience from the research lab. I also got the chance to test my limits as an individual and I gained compassion and respect for those who are brave enough to venture out of their comfort zone.
About Kasthuri Nair
Kasthuri is attending Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. She is pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Molecular and Cellular Biology and is expected to graduate in May of 2018. Kasthuri has been involved in research since her freshman year of college and has been lucky enough to research in different countries. She has always had a passion for writing and aspires to be a doctor and a medical writer. While she has grown up all over the world, she considers her home base to be The Woodlands, TX.