„That’s funny …“ – teenagers living one day in the life of a scientist

Isaac Asimov supposedly once said “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’”. Indeed, many scientists have experienced this notion that something in their data is so puzzling, so difficult to explain that they desperately want to find out more about it.


Instructions ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

This is also the spirit of exploration that we at the RUB Chair for Chemistry Education hope to install in future scientists. And this is the aim of the one-day project “High Resolution – focus on research” that runs since 2015, in cooperation with RESOLV, at the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory. There, students should think and discuss about methods and challenges of scientific inquiry, experience them first hand and also look over the shoulder of real scientists. These are high expectations, but how does the project work in practice?

One day in high resolution…


On the lab bench ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

Students – usually a class of 14 to 16 year-olds – and teachers arrive at the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory at 9 am. They are welcomed by a member of the science education staff. First of all, they get an introductory example on the early stages of systematic science – 18th century Joseph Priestley’s research on air. The gap to the 21st century is bridged when the students discuss how Priestley would present his findings today. Then they are introduced to JoVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, where real scientists publish their papers as videos. The big take-away from this introduction is that scientific inquiry is not only about finding things out, it is also about communicating your inquiry to other people. With this in mind, the students enter the laboratory at 10 am. They learn about the methods and the aims of scientific inquiry.


Time to measure ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

They get training in using chemiluminiscence and microscopy to investigate cells. They then develop their own research questions about various plants, they carry out their investigations and have to come up with their own conclusions. Most importantly, once they found something interesting, students are asked to shoot and edit a video on their inquiry using tablet computers. Just before lunch, the final take and cut have to be done.

After lunch, the students enter one of the RESOLV laboratories. They visit the group of Jun.-Prof. Simon Ebbinghaus, who investigates protein aggregation using fluorescence microscopy. Usually, one PhD student in Ebbinghaus group presents his/her research on protein aggregation in model cells, and introduces the students to the fluorescence microscope and how to operate it manually and via computer. Most importantly, teenagers get a chance to ask questions concerning science, how to become a scientist and life in academia.

At the end of the day, the students return to the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory.

“That’s funny”…students get to know the puzzling of science under the guidance of Dr. Magdalena Groß ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

They watch and evaluate their movies, trying to make a fair and honest judgement whether they have performed and presented convincing inquiries. It turns out that many would have wanted to be more rigorous. But they all agree that theirs was only a first step on the long and winding road to becoming a scientist. Hopefully, they’ll remember that day, when they look through an ocular at something puzzling and thought: “That’s funny…”.

Work in progress

The school laboratory project has been offered, booked and evaluated since the beginning of 2015. So far, eight groups with about 170 students have participated in the project. Students from regional and national schools as well as high-achieving students (“Chemie-Olympiade”, “Biologie-Olympiade”) have taken part in the initiative. We continuously evaluate the program by asking participating students, teachers and science educators for their opinions. The students particularly like the opportunity to carry out their own inquiries, they enjoy making videos about their experiments and they highly value the chance to see and talk to a real scientist. The project will continue to change if necessary as the main priority remains to keep the focus on research.

Additional material and publications

Braun, S., Strippel, C. G., Sommer, K. (2016). Naturwissenschaftliche Erkenntnisgewinnung in Schüler-Videos. Proceedings of the Gesellschaft für Didaktik der Chemie und Physik. Berlin: Lit Verlag.

Strippel, C. G., Tomala, L., & Sommer, K. (accepted). Klappe, die Erste! – Schüler produzieren eigene Experimentiervideos. Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlicher Unterricht.

About the authors

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

Christian Strippel was born 1988 in Bochum and holds a M.Ed. in Chemistry and English. His (scientific) motto of life is: “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
He studied in Cambridge (UK) for one year and holds a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (Chemistry, University of Cambridge). Currently, he works on his Ph.D. project “Communication about scientific inquiry during experimentation”.


Prof Dr Katrin Sommer © RUB, Marquard zu nennen.

© RUB, Marquard

Katrin Sommer is Professor of Chemistry Education at the Ruhr-University since 2004. She is also head of the Alfried Krupp-School Laboratory since 2012. She has a 1. Staatsexamen in Chemistry and Biology from Leipzig University (1995), a 2. Staatsexamen (1997) and a PhD in Chemistry Education from Nuremberg-Erlangen University (2000). She was recently presented with the Award from the German Polytechnik Society for the parent-child-project KEMIE.


Solvation science into focus at historic Solvay conference.

Three members of the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV attended last October the renowned Solvay-Conference on Chemistry in Brussel, an event open to invited scientists only. Prof. Dr. Martina Havenith, speaker of RESOLV at RUB, Prof. Dr. Frank Neese, director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Energy Conversion, and Prof. Dr. Benjamin List, director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Coal Research, both based in Mülheim an der Ruhr, were among the fifty attendees.


2016 Solvay Conference group picture ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Belgian chemist and industrialist Ernest Solvay, the founder of the chemical company Solvay S.A., initiated the first series of international conferences on physics in 1911, while the first meeting on chemistry occurred in 1922. Since then the Solvay-Conferences on Chemistry and Physics had been held every three years. The conferences have become extremely famous after the 1927 physics meeting on ´Electrons and Photons´, when Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, among others, met to discuss the newly forged quantum theory.

The 2016 meeting evolved around the theme ‘Catalysis in Chemistry and Biology’. We briefly interviewed Havenith, List and Neese about their experience in Brussels.


What was your impression of the conference?


Discussing at the 2016 Solvay Conference ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Martina Havenith: It was very impressive for many different reasons. First of all, it’s rare to see five Nobel prize winners together! – and it’s even rarer that they are listening to your ideas and discussing the future direction of chemistry. Besides, it was an intimate meeting, and we had much more time than usual for discussions. It was also remarkable to witness the special engagement of an industrial family into science. And it was impressive to read the names of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie in a guestbook!

Benjamin List:  One of the best conferences I have ever attended!

Frank Neese: The conference was unlike any other I have ever attended. There obviously is an impressive history associated with Solvay conferences and it was a major honor to be invited to participate. It takes place in a fairly unique setting in a beautiful historic hotel in Brussels with a closed circle of only invited international speakers and an outstanding accompanying program. The format is also different from usual: The talks are just ten minutes long and the discussion takes first place among the members of the session, only later it involves the other guests.


What was the take-home message? How was solvation science portrayed?

Martina Havenith: This meeting focused on the main challenges in catalysis. It was not about the details of the field but it rather provided a big picture of what we have learned in the past and what is still unclear. Most interesting for RESOLV: In the end it was noted that the solvent has not yet been taken much into consideration, but in the future we should have a closer look into it and its important role in catalysis.


Session begins at the 2016 Solvay Conference ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Benjamin List: I was able to identify three unifying principles of catalysis – including heterogeneous, homogenous organic and metal catalysis, and biocatalysis: 1. Turnover frequency (an index of a catalyst’s activity: The larger the frequency, the more active the catalyst); 2. Confinement (a well-defined and confined local environment of a catalyst’s active site); and 3. Solvation! Everybody in the field is aware of the unique relevance of solvation to catalysis – understanding this defines one of the grand challenges of the field.

Frank Neese: It became very evident that an open dialogue among the various disciplines of catalysis, in particular homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, is really needed. At the end of the day, the problems are the same (what are the intermediates? How is selectivity controlled? How is the energy loss minimized?). Yet vocabulary, cultures and challenges of the various disciplines are vastly different, hence there hardly can be any 1:1 transfer from one field to the other. However, it was interesting to see how biochemists have achieved the most detailed understanding of individual reaction mechanisms in biological catalysis. That’s partially because they are willing to devote their entire career to study few reaction mechanisms and to involve experts from neighbouring disciplines in the endavour. Clearly, quantum chemistry has evolved as a very powerful partner of experiment and it’s becoming a universal tool for catalysis research as a whole.

About the author

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.



Want a glimpse beyond academia? Ask the professionals!

On 24th of November 2016, in a nice restaurant in Bochum, 40 PhDs and early postdocs within RESOLV discussed possible future career options with seven professionals from the industry – CEOs and Founders, R&D Managers, Consultants and Product Specialists. Five RESOLV PhD students who participated in the meeting have drawn the following comprehensive picture of a lively discussion that was filled with striking statements, valuable advices and lots of human touch.

I. The kaminabend

Stefanie Tecklenburg: The evening started with a short introduction round to get to know the guests from industry. It was fun, and it helped warming up the atmosphere, to hear the guests talking about their childhood dream job: The wishes ranged from veterinarian over entrepreneur to mad scientist.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-21-37-39Stefanie Tecklenburg was born in Germany. She received her BSc in Biochemistry and MSc in Chemistry from RUB. She  is a PhD student at MPI für Eisenforschung in Düsseldorf in the group of Prof. A. Erbe. Her area of interest is water/semiconductors interfaces investigated by spectroelectrochemistry. She would rate her probability to remain in academia in ten years to be less than 10%.

Yetsedaw A. Tsegaw: It helped me a lot. Before the event, many of us were just thinking about entering R&D after the PhD. We just didn’t know about the variety of jobs that industry can offer, such as development, management, human resources, etc.

Oliver Lampret: It was a perfect opportunity to get to know people from the industry.

II. Academy vs. Industry

Yetsedaw A. Tsegaw: I’ve learned that careers in both sectors can be very much interesting, offering unique benefits and challenges. In academics, you have more freedom, but you may struggle for funding. In industry you have no funding issues but you have to deliver a product in time.


Yetsedaw Andargie Tsegaw was born and raised in Ethiopia. He has a BSc in Chemistry from Bahir Dar University and a MSc in Chemistry from RUB. Currently he is a PhD student working on matrix isolation experiments at RUB in the group of Prof. W. Sander. Tsegaw would rate his probability to remain in academia in ten years at ca. 50%.


Oliver Lampret: One professional argued that pressure in industry is indeed significantly higher compared to academia, especially concerning responsibilities towards your team and staff.

Stefan Schünemann: One guest revealed how research in the chemical industry is different from the academia: Industry’s major focus is on product development rather than research.

III. What working for the industry looks like

Yetsedaw A. Tsegaw: You should be ready to work in a team and perhaps travel worldwide. Thus you’ll have to deal with international colleagues, different cultures and habits. For example, one guest recalled going to southern Italy for an appointment at 9:30 AM, only to be able to meet the other person five hours later than planned!

Oliver Lampret: A position in industry involves more responsibilities and excellent expertise, but tasks and activities may vary a lot within the same job: From very difficult projects to organize the bus tour for the annual outing, which can be quite relaxing.

Stefanie Tecklenburg: The career path you can follow is not as fixed as it might have been in former times. Besides, working conditions have changed tremendously over the last decades: While there used to be strict working hours, flexible working time and half positions are now frequent. Thus, a meaningful combination of working and family life can be much easier to accomplish than before – today, also fathers are going on parental leave in big companies. Equal opportunity may still be an issue in only few companies, fortunately.

 IV. Small vs. large companies

Stefan Schünemann: I was startled to learn how many small/medium enterprises and startups in the Ruhr area are desperately looking for well-trained scientists. Certainly, working in a rather large company has its pros: A good salary, career prospects, and a good reputation for example. However, small to medium enterprises offer unique advantages that may lack in a DAX listed company: A familiar atmosphere; the possibility to make an impact and be personally rewarded; an atmosphere filled with gumption and enthusiasm.


Stefan Schünemann received a BSc in Chemistry from RUB and a MSc from the MPI für Kohlenforschung at Mülheim an der Ruhr. At the MPI, he’s currently a PhD in the group of Dr. Tüysüz, working on the nanostructuring of heterogeneous catalysts for biomass conversion and of organometal halide perovskites for solar cell applications. He would estimate his probability to remain in the academia in ten years to be 5%.

V. Becoming an entrepreneur

Stefanie Tecklenburg:  It seems to me that entrepreneurship calls for a certain state of mind. This includes the will to work hard, being tough, confident and direct, but at the same time light-hearted, positive and open. Contacting people who have raised their own business is a good step to gain first-hand advice and potentially help.

Dennis Pache: A guest stressed that fear of failure should not stop you from pursuing your own ideas – something everyone should be used to from their own PhD studies. Actually, even a failed business idea can still make a good addition to one’s résumé since it shows ambition and skills like leadership and organization. The most important thing when trying to found your own business is not the initial idea. A good idea can still lead nowhere if it is approached in the wrong way. It’s a solid execution that matters, for it almost always guarantees some degree of success. I also got surprised to learn how many subsidies are available, and how comparatively easy it is to get funding in contrast to academia. Sums in the 6 to 7-digit range do not seem to be unusual for middle sized businesses.


Dennis Pache was born in Germany. He acquired a BSc and a MSc at RUB. He’s currently a PhD student at RUB, investigating solvent behavior in the vicinity of charged surfaces via polarizable force fields in the group of Prof. R. Schmid. He would rate his probability to remain in the academia in ten years to be 5%.


VI. Your mindset towards the next job application

Yetsedaw A. Tsegaw: If your “dream job” is in industry, you may think that your current studies are too specific for it. Yet, they come with other skills: How to do independent research, how to find the right reference, how to deal with methods/instruments, how to solve scientific problems, etc. You’ll have a better shot to your “dream job” if you tell the company why your scientific achievements are useful and what problems you can solve.

Stefanie Tecklenburg: First, make up your mind on what you really want and then, when applying, try to establish early connections with the target company. For example, you can call the contact person in the job advertisement to get more information; or you can talk to a company representative – at the Kaminabend, but also at conferences and fairs – even before a job ad is made public; working in industry labs for your research both brings you forward with your research and allows you to stand out from the crowd in way more detail than any job interview ever could, giving you a head-start for job openings. However, you should also not forget to ask yourself if a company suits you, your abilities and needs.

 VII. Important skills for your CV

Oliver Lampret: A “modern scientist” should do good research, but also have a broader spectrum of skills. Before all, one should be able to present himself/herself in a special way.


Oliver Lampret was born in Germany and achieved both a BSc and a MSc in Biochemistry at RUB. He he is working as a PhD at RUB in the group of Prof. T. Happe. His work focuses on studying the catalytic properties of the [FeFe]-hydrogenase from a green alga for a possible industrial application in the future as an alternative renewable energy source. His goal after the PhD is to work in the industry.

Stefan Schünemann: Companies are not much interested in your scientific background but rather in the skills you acquired by working on your project – one should emphasize them in the application letter. We were given a very simple recipe: “Be different”.

Stefanie Tecklenburg: Tolerance towards frustration and the ability to learn are key skills on the market – you don’t get a PhD without them. Thus, it’s basically irrelevant if you already know the techniques demanded or not. You’ll always be able to learn the ropes quickly.

Dennis Pache: People with a wide spectrum of skills, especially in the digital field, and the willingness to try something new will have it easier to find their place in the shifting industry landscape. It is seldom mentioned how much important social and interpersonal skills are.

VIII. Life after all – and after a PhD

Oliver Lampret: I was kind of reassured to hear that “As a PhD you are in the middle of you 20s, an age where you are stressed the most. But the older you get, the more relaxed you will become, especially on your work”. Another striking statement came from a guest who founded a company and later became professor at the age of 58: “Be ready to change and, most importantly, to expect changes in life, because they keep you powerful and fit”.

Photos of the Kaminabend

img_1571 img_1575 img_1578 img_1582 img_1587 img_1595 img_1596 img_1598 img_1603 img_1604 img_1613

The Ombudsman and the art of settling scientific disputes.

Your boss has just thrown you out of the paper you have worked so hard in the last months. Or you accidentally discovered that your colleague has copied the results from another article. Or maybe your student has fabricated the data of his/her thesis and also the paper that followed is not immaculate. What should you do? Shut up and bite your fingernails, forever? Confront him/her, make a scene? Go to the police?

Actually, there’s another move you may opt for. Many European countries have set up a body dedicated to handle scientific misconduct. The German ‘Ombudsman für die Wissenschaft’ was established by the DFG in 1999. Based in Berlin, the board is made up by three scientists, which dutifully listen to other scientists’ stories of misconduct and ponder if it’s appropriate to further investigate and take action. One member of the board, Prof. Dr. Joachim Heberle from the Free University of Berlin, presented the Ombudsman activities at the 52nd Symposium on Theoretical Chemistry (STC2016) ‘Chemistry in Solution’ in RUB last September.

What misconduct means.

Heberle has a friendly and gentle approach, yet going to the Ombudsman is not an easy step. First of all, you have to be aware of the problem, recognize it. The case of Jan Hendrick Schoen is an extreme example of misconduct. Schoen, a German physicist working on molecular transistors at the Bell Labs, US, falsified and fabricated data in more than 20 articles appearing in prestigious peer reviewed journals. His acts were discovered by fellow physicists that noticed data anomalies, such as identical noise traces through various publications.


Fig. 1: The German Ombudsman inquiries a broad spectrum of issues ©Ombudsman-für-die-Wissenschaft

Fortunately, data fabrication is a pretty rare issue for the Ombudsman –in 2015, only 3% of the inquiries dealt with it. More popular disputes involve plagiarism, authorship conflicts, inadequate mentorship, even mere scientific disagreement (see Fig. 1). The DFG has drafted a series of recommendations for safeguarding good scientific practice. For example, scientists should adhere to absolute honestly and should keep track of primary data used in publications (i.e. raw data, probes) for at least ten years! Authors should bear full joint responsibility for a paper content, including the raw data. And supervisors should offer adequate, fair support to early career researchers.

Becoming a whistle blower

Once you present your case to the Ombudsman, you become a whistle blower. The Ombudsman is bound to confidentiality, fairness and transparency. “Of course this is a narrow path”, admits Heberle, ”to combine confidentiality and transparency is not always straightforward”. The whistle blower is protected by confidentiality, but self-identification is paramount to guarantee truthfulness – anonymity is allowed only in the most severe cases.


Fig. 2: The number of inquiries in Germany since 1999 ©Ombudsman-für-die-Wissenschaft

The Ombudsman then evaluates the motivations of the whistle blower, the allegations to the defendant and the justification to follow up. Seeking an ad-hoc reviewer to scrutinize a publication, and contacting the defendant to ask for his/her take on the issue are also steps the investigator may take. Finally, a decision is made: “These are highly emotional issues, but we try as much as possible to moderate, to find a compromise that satisfies both parties”, said Heberle. Only in very severe cases, when the scientific misconduct might have legal consequences, the Ombudsman hands an inquiry over to a local university commission or to the German Research Foundation – which in the end may decide about sanctions.

The scientists going to the Ombudsman.

If you worry about being alone seeking justice or compensation through the Ombudsman, rest reassured. The number of inquiries for scientific misconduct is increasing since the dawn of the German Ombudsman (Fig. 2). “This doesn’t mean that the scientific enterprise is becoming more prone to misconduct”, explained Heberle, “only that the system we established works”.


The scientific groups seeking advice by the Ombudsman ©Ombudsman-für-die-Wissenschaft

But who are the candidate whistle blowers? Biomedical scientists constitute the most numerous group seeking help by the Ombudsman, but inquiries have covered the whole spectrum of scientific disciplines (Fig. 3). Misconduct is a stumbling block in the scientific journey that can happen anywhere, anytime. Hard science is not immune from it, but the participants of the STC2016 conference were relieved to hear that hardly any case has been related to theoretical chemistry.

About the author

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.


Inspiring the scientists of tomorrow with fascinating experiments

Sixty children were looking in awe at those ten weird persons, dressed in white robes and strange glasses: Were these aliens invading their kindergarten Auf dem Backenberg (Bochum) on that morning of the 11th of October? The reality, they were about to discover, was more down to Earth than that, but fascinating nonetheless.


The JCF Bochum at work ©JCFBochum2016

We, the men and women in white, were chemists of the JungChemikerForum Bochum – the 1998 founded local group of young members of the GDCh. And we had brought several intriguing chemical experiments that encouraged them to participate and solve some of nature’s mysteries.

Why don’t water and oil get along?

Ranging from only two-year-olds up to fourth graders, our audience was very mixed. Still, fascination unified them from the very beginning. In their first experiment they had to mix water with oil – but wait, they don’t want to mix?!? That result was quite unexpected for most of our little experimentalists, but we soon explained:


Water and else ©JCFBochum2016

The difference in polarities and intermolecular forces between water and oil makes them like cats and dogs – they form small groups of one kind, but simply don’t get along with each other because of their differences. But what if we take a drop of ink and let it fall into the mixture (of course after multiple attempts with these tricky pipettes)? Ink seems to prefer the company of the polar water molecules, making for a nice visualization of the underlying principles of solute-solvent interactions.

Is brushing your teeth really necessary?

The little explorers then switched to the next experiment: We had to convince them that brushing your teeth in the morning and evening wasn’t just a huge waste of time – a challenge indeed! As model for their teeth a hard-boiled egg was chosen that first had to be properly coated on one half with tooth paste. The children performed this task with vigor and enthusiasm (though maybe not as diligently as we had expected, so we cheated by secretly coating the eggs some more).


Brush the egg ©JCFBochum2016

Next, the egg was lowered into a glass full of vinegar, symbolizing everyday’s assortment of acids passing our teeth. Also the young participants understood the aggressive properties of this vile liquid after putting their noses over the glass as could be told from the grimaces they made. Having put the egg into the vinegar they observed that bubbles were only formed on the uncoated side of the egg. This being probably the first time these children had ever consciously perceived a chemical reaction our JCF instructors very slowly explained: They carefully introduced the concepts of acids and bases to them, how the stuff that had attacked their noses earlier would react with the egg shell (i. e. calcium carbonate, see below) and produce carbon dioxide, the same gas they knew from soda or lemonade.

2 CH3COOH + CaCO3 –> CO2 + H2O + Ca(CH3COO)2
Acetic acid + Calcium carbonate –> Carbon dioxide + Water + Calcium acetate

However, how come the side they had coated with tooth paste earlier did not show any bubbles? This, we explained, was because the tooth paste contained fluoride, a special ion that helps to prevent damage to teeth by reacting with the hydroxylapatite contained therein and making them more acid-resistant:

Ca5(PO4)3(OH) + F– –> Ca5(PO4)3F + OH
Hydroxylapatite + Fluoride –> Fluorapatite + Hydroxyde

What magical substance surrounds us all?


Chemical tools ©JCFBochum2016

Finally, the children arrived at their last experimental setup, the sight of gummy bears having magically attracted them there. But before they could find out what to do with the sweets (and possibly how they tasted) they had to perform a deceptively easy experiment by submerging an empty glass upside down in a bowl of water. When asked to get out the glass and feel the bottom of it surprise crossed their faces: How could it be that the inside stayed dry? There had been nothing in the glass to prevent water from coming in… or had there been? Could it be that something surrounds all of us at any given time and thus is also inside seemingly empty glasses? When asked these questions the children got thinking: “Nothing”, some children pouted, “the environment” was another cute attempt at solving this riddle. “The sun” was actually an answer that showed quite a lot of insight since light is of course an entirely valid answer.

After some coaxing and hinting the small researchers indeed arrived at air as the substance we were searching for, but as true scientists were very skeptic about it. An invisible substance that is everywhere? We clearly had to visualize this mystical air to convince them. So we let them produce some bubbles by slightly tilting the submerged glass and thus see the otherwise invisible air. As crowning experiment we asked the children to let two gummy bears inside a small boat (made from aluminum foil) take a dive to the bottom of the water bowl without letting them get wet! The kindergartners soon figured out that they could use the same protective hull of air inside the glass to achieve this task and received some sweets for their accomplishment.

We were very delighted by the children’s remarkable enthusiasm to experiment and eagerness to learn about nature’s secrets. Although they probably did not realize it, they had experienced some of the fundamental principles of Solvation Science: The interactions of and interfaces between hydrophilic and hydrophobic solvents (water and oil), the preference of a polar molecule (ink) for water as polar solvent, acid-base reactions in aqueous media (egg shell plus vinegar), water as “tool” in experiments to probe and visualize certain effects (air bubbles). Besides teaching the children these important principles from physics and chemistry, another goal was to inform about them the puzzling work of chemists. Most of them had never even heard of us before and found our alien coats and safety-glasses very interesting. All in all, a very fascinating and instructive day for these small explorers!

This event has been organized in cooperation with the Young Spirits program of Evonik. Please contact us if you are also interested in teaching science to children, so we can supply you with contact to Evonik’s Young Spirits program or the actual procedures of the experiments described in this blog entry.

About the authors
dsc00024_aTim Schleif is a PhD student in the group of Prof. Sander working on matrix isolation experiments at the Ruhr-University Bochum since 2015. He is also the speaker of the JungChemikerForum Bochum that organizes talks and excursions for the students of the faculty.



Christoph Schran is a PhDstudent in the group of Prof. Marx working on nuclear quantum effects at the Ruhr-Univeristy Bochum since 2016. As an active member of the JungChemikerForum Bochum, he organized the event at the kindergarten.

Solvation science exhibition ‘Völlig losgelöst’ hits the road in Recklinghausen


Cable car in the museum ‘Strom & Leben’ © Lutz Tomala

There’s a cable car parked in the middle of a room, and a wall covered with radios. Switches, electricity generators and coils? There are so many of them that one expects Nikola Tesla to appear every second. Then, nearby a generator, there’s a table with colored chemical solutions. And in another room appear huge modules, similar to oversized overnight bags wide-open, portraying persons in space suits and explaining about chemistry in solution. Such a striking combination of physics and chemistry got the visitors’ attention at the museum ‘Strom & Leben’ in Recklinghausen on the 6th of November. It was the inauguration day of the Solvation Science exhibition ‘Völlig losgelöst’, taking a first detour since its launch in the Blue Square in Bochum at the beginning of 2016.


Chemistry and physics © Lutz Tomala

“It’s wonderful news that this itinerant exhibition has finally hit the road. Scientific research is an exploratory expedition in the unknown, but the trip itself should not remain undisclosed to the public”, said at the opening Katrin Sommer, Professor for „Didaktik der Chemie” at RUB and one of the designers of the exhibition.

But what do solvation science and electricity have in common?  As the museum’s director Hanswalter Dobbelmann pointed out, “there is indeed a strong historic connection between chemistry and electricity. For example, the discovery of electricity dates back to the first attempts with chemical batteries made by Volta and Galvani.” But the links between chemistry and electricity are not only a thing of the past: “Solvation science is much important for current topics like energy storage”, said Prof. Dr. Havenith, speaker of the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV, “therefore, we currently witness increasing research on solvents used in energy storage media, with the aim to improve their efficiency as well as their safety”.


The exhibition is open, the journey begins © Lutz Tomala

Under these premises, ‘Völlig losgelöst’ will occupy a well-deserved spot in the ‘Strom & Leben’ museum in Rechklinghausen until Spring 2017. Besides presenting the actors and the themes of the RESOLV cluster, the exhibition will offer visitors the possibility to perform small experiments related to solvation science. School classes from the 3rd to the 5th year have also the possibility to book a special experimental program and to dive for two hours into the world of solvents. In the end, as Dobbelmann, Havenith and Sommer hope, by showing the scientists’ journey through a new research expedition, ‘Völlig losgelöst’ might well electrify the young generations to hit the same road in the future.

About the Authors

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

Christian Strippel was born 1988 in Bochum and holds a M.Ed. in Chemistry and English. His (scientific) motto of life is: “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
He studied in Cambridge (UK) for one year and holds a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (Chemistry, University of Cambridge). Currently, he works on his Ph.D. project “Communication about scientific inquiry during experimentation”.


Embedding nanoparticles into porous materials for greener chemistry.

Chemical and pharmaceutical industries are constantly seeking new ways towards sustainable chemistry that allows for less waste production and reduced energy consumption during industrial processes. One way, which I investigated in my PhD research, would be to use nanoparticles to speed up chemical reactions – a process called catalysis.

Nanoparticles are tiny objects or combinations of several atoms that can be as small as 1 nm and show unique properties, different from the bulk material. Take gold, for example. We are used to its shapes and colors in jewelry, but gold nanoparticles show completely new properties, such as red color in solution or the ability to behave as a catalyst in an efficient and selective manner. Similarly, nanoparticles of Platinum (Pt) and Palladium (Pd) can also act as catalysts in various processes (i.e. hydrogenation, the reduction of organic compounds). Nanoparticles promise to be highly selective, to greatly increase the reaction rate and to lower energy consumption. However, one major disadvantage of nanoparticles is the tendency for aggregation and thus the loss of their unique catalytic properties.

MOFs support nanoparticles for catalysis

In my PhD, I successfully encapsulated catalytically active metal nanoparticles of Pt or a combination of Pt/Pd into stabilising support materials called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which prevent aggregation. Inside MOFs, the tiny metal particles could maintain their unique capacity to hydrogenate nitrobenzene-based compounds and additionally be very selective towards the target products. Moreover, I could show that the combination of bimetallic nanoparticles of Pt and Pd with MOFs can surpass the catalytic hydrogenation activity of the monometallic Pt nanoparticles. This alternative solution may help to reduce the costs for the use of noble metals, replacing parts of the expensive Pt by Pd.

Especially in view to catalysis, MOFs exhibit two beneficial properties: Storage capacity (sponge-like property) and molecular selectivity (sieve-like) – in fact, due to the unique microporous structure of the support, the embedded nanoparticles are only accessible by molecules that fit the dimensions of the MOF pores (see Figure 1). MOFs are porous materials, formed by interconnection of organic linker molecules and metal ions or clusters. Thereby, a three dimensional network with a huge inner surface area is formed, which simultaneously possesses enough space to accommodate small sized nanoparticles or other guest molecules and solvents (water, nitrogen, carbon dioxide). Hence, MOFs feature the ability to absorb and/or separate a certain amount of substances at the molecular level, very similar to sponges or sieves.


Figure 1. Top: Schematic representation of encapsulated nanoparticles inside a MOF with shape-selective, catalytic properties. The smaller substrate A1 is able to infiltrate the framework and can be converted to the target product B at the embedded nanoparticles – the larger molecule A2 is instead unable to infiltrate the MOF. The MOF consists of metal clusters (blue tetrahedra) interconnected by organic linkers, building up a 3D structure, where metal nanoparticles are exclusively embedded. Bottom: hydrogenation of sterically different nitroarenes to the corresponding amines, where aniline is selectively produced (size selectivity).

In my work I choose the Zirconium-based metal organic framework named UiO-66, which appears in a 3-dimensional structures with tetrahedral and octahedral pore geometries. A major advantage of this particular MOF is its extraordinary high thermal and chemical stability against water, acids and several organic solvents. Therefore, UiO-66 represents an appropriate candidate for heterogeneous catalysis, while other MOFs would decompose during the applied catalytic conditions.

Low-cost bimetallic Pd/Pt into MOFs show promising catalytic activity

Following a template approach, we exclusively embedded preformed mono- and bimetallic Pt and Pd/Pt nanoparticles without undesired deposition at the outer surface of the porous material, which in fact represents the key feature for shape-selective catalysis. Then we elucidated the structural integrity of the material and the exact spatial distribution of the nanoparticles (fully embedded into the MOF crystals or not). For instance, powder x-ray diffraction (PXRD) measurements indicated the crystallinity of UiO-66, even after the encapsulation process; transmission electron microscopic (TEM) measurements showed the successful and exclusive encapsulation of the nanoparticles into the core of the MOF crystals.

Afterwards the materials were further studied for selective hydrogenation of nitrobenzene-based compounds to the respective anilines. Direct comparison of the embedded Pt and Pd/Pt NPs showed a much higher catalytic activity for the bimetallic species, while the shape-selective character, originating from the microporous MOF, was maintained. Hopefully, this may become another possible solution towards sustainable.

About the author:

picture2Christoph Rösler received his MSc in Inorganic Chemistry at RUB in 2012 – supervision of Prof. R. A. Fischer . During his Master thesis he visited the labs of Prof. H. Kitagawa at Kyoto University, designing metal nanoparticles, especially multiphase systems. Since 2013 he is a PhD student in the group of Prof. Fischer, tackling metal nanoparticle inclusion into metal-organic frameworks. He also investigated catalytic properties of NP@MOF composites at the the Instituto de Tecnología Química of Prof. A. Corma in Valencia.

Tinkering with solvent helps to regulate the crystallization behavior of amino acids

During my PhD research, I investigated the possibility to influence the crystallization behavior of glycine by means of crystallization experiments under ambient conditions. I could show that it is possible to control the crystal formation of glycine from aqueous solution by isotopic exchange (H/D-exchange) on the solvent or the addition of mineral powder.

Glycine, the smallest amino acid, can crystallize from aqueous solution in different stable solid forms that are called α and γ polymorphs. I could show, on a statistical basis, that glycine forms the γ polymorph from heavy water (D2O) solutions instead of the α form, which is known to crystallize from normal water (H2O). Additionally, my studies regarding the introduction of inorganic powdered material, like fluorapatite (Ca5[F(PO4)3]) or calcite (CaCO3), into the crystallization system, also lead to γ formation. That is, our studies showed that the H/D exchange as well as the introduction of inorganic surfaces to the crystallization system influence and even regulate the crystallization behavior of glycine immensely.

The scheme illustrates that either deuteration of the molecule (top) or the application of biominerals (bottom) can lead to crystallization of γ-glycine (right) instead of α-glycine (left) from solution.

As methods the experimental grazing-incidence X-Ray diffraction (GIXRD) investigations accompanied by force field simulations were carried out to describe the interface between the amino acid solution and the biomineral surface structure. The support by computational methods offered an insight into the molecular interaction level and thereby provided nice approaches to explain the observed phenomena.

The video shows force field based molecular dynamic simulations regarding the dissolution of an interacting glycine dimer in aqueous environment of H2O and D2O molecules. Further, it shows the crystallization of glycine from a water solution droplet on fluorapatite (100) surface and calcite (101) surface.

Link to the PhD thesis of Anna Kupka: “Untersuchungen zur Steuerung des Kristallisationsverhaltens von Aminosäuren in Lösung durch den Einsatz von Deuterium oder Biomineralien”

Link to Graduate School Solvation Science

About the Author

anna_kupkaDr. Anna Kupka has recently accomplished her PhD research in the department of Inorganic Chemistry I at Ruhr-University Bochum, as a stipend holder from Graduate School of Solvation Science, GSS, RESOLV. She has had research stays in various scientific institutions in Spain, Italy and France including her GSS internship in Spain, and has attended several conferences.

A theoretical study to unveil the working cycle of an elusive enzyme causing tissue diseases

Living far from my family makes me look forward to every meeting with them. And here I am, just arrived at the airport, everyone is looking at me, smiling and asking lots of questions, including a dreading one: “Ok, tell us what your work is about?” For me, as a theoretical chemist, this is a mission impossible! Should I bore them with equations and certain words, such as quantum mechanics, level of theory, potential energy surface? It’s hard to be general while speaking about such a specific topic, but I shall give it a try.

In one of my PhD projects I investigate the working cycle of an enzyme called MMP-2 (Matrix Metalloproteinase type 2), finding out the important role of an acidic residue of the enzyme and of the surrounding water.

MMP-2 is located in tissues of animals and humans. It regulates the proper protein composition of the extracellular matrix by cutting collagens (structural proteins of the tissues). At certain conditions MMP-2 may get too active doing its job, it will cut gelatin too fast and too intensely, causing inflammation processes, tumors, metastasis and similar illnesses.

A long-range aim is to find a way to control the activity of MMP-2, for example by designing a molecule (a drug), that would block the active site of the enzyme and stop the excessive degrading of gelatin. But before doing so we need to know in detail how the enzyme works: where the active site of the enzyme is and what rearrangements occur during the chemical reaction. Unfortunately, the experimental techniques cannot give exhaustive information on all the chemical steps, this is where theoretical chemistry comes into play.

The theoretical models we construct are based on experimental data, but we must always keep in mind the approximations we make and the limitations of the theory we use. Nevertheless, our models let us see atoms in molecules, atom movements during chemical reactions, and we can also estimate energy penalties for chemical processes.

Enzymes are big molecules, therefore they are treated by a special “divide and conquer” computational approach, called QM/MM (quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics). Our MMP-2 model system was divided into two parts: a small part, where a chemical reaction takes place, was treated by accurate but computationally expensive (quantum mechanics) methods; the rest (the environment) was treated by fast “balls on springs” approximation, called molecular mechanics. By using this trick we managed to perform accurate calculations on big biomolecules in a reasonable computing time.

The following video shows the four main steps of a chemical reaction in MMP-2: 1. a water molecule attacks the substrate (ES → TS1 → I1)1, 2. O-H group rotates (I1 → TS2 → I2), 3. a proton is transferred from an oxygen atom to nitrogen (I2 → TS3 → I3), 4. a bond between carbon and nitrogen breaks (I3 → TS4→ I4). We see that the acidic residue (which is a glutamic acid) plays a crucial role in the chemical reaction and that water molecules act as a reagent. By not letting water into the active site or by changing a substrate in a way that at least one step of a chemical reaction cannot proceed we can stop MMP-2 from working.

I have also modelled a product release step and found out that it may very likely be a rate limiting step of the whole process. In a similar fashion, I’ve studied a mutant of MMP-2 as well.

At the end I’d like to say that a valuable scientific discovery can be made only with the combination of theory, experiment and something as simple as a groundbreaking idea.

1 The abbreviations stand for ES: enzyme substrate complex, TS: transition state and I: intermediate.

Link to Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

About the Author

Tatiana Vasilevskaya was born in Minsk, USSR. She obtained her Diploma in Chemistry at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Currently she works on her PhD thesis at MPI für Kohlenforschung at Mülheim an der Ruhr in the group of Prof. Walter Thiel.

The Host*: Developing new tools to engage next generations with science

The topics of scientific inquiry and nature of science are the major foci of our work in the Department of Mathematics and Science Education at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago.


Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex (85%) ever discovered, at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History © Shoffman11

For example, we worked on the High School Transformation Project (HSTP). HSTP was dedicated to changing the way science is taught at 23 Chicago high schools. We designed curricula in biology, chemistry, and physics that enhance foundational science knowledge, inquiry skills and knowledge, and nature of science through authentic and relevant learning experiences.

For example, in a class lesson designed to learn atomic structure, students had to follow various learning steps: Read the related book chapter; answer questions like “What are living things made up of?” and “What are elements made of?”; work hands on with true objects (in this case beans, peas and strings) to represent the atomic structure, and so on.

To ensure the success of the HSTP program, we provided each participating teacher with continuous and intensive support including on-site, expert, experienced instructional coaches, science faculty and graduate students. There were weekly networking meetings for all teachers. Scientists and educators from IIT and the Field Museum provided monthly professional development. Materials and activities were designed to specifically connect with each school’s diverse cultures and community interests.

Internship zone

I hosted Christian Strippel from the Chemistry Education group at Ruhr-University Bochum for his RESOLV internship in two stints: Fall 2014 and Spring 2016. During his first stay at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), we discussed preliminary ideas on the RESOLV exhibition and it was exciting to see how these ideas turned into the exhibition “Völlig losgelöst”. We also worked with Christian on a paper about research on teachers’ implementation of scientific inquiry in German Chemistry classrooms, which was recently published in the International Journal of Science Education.


Business dinner for young researchers at Peggy Notebart Nature Museum © Christian Strippel

Currently at IIT, we are conducting an international study on seventh grade students’ views about scientific inquiry. Science education researchers have been so far disappointed at what students learn about inquiry in schools, but this has been a feeling mainly based on perception. In fact, until recently, there has never been a comprehensive valid and reliable assessment of students’ understandings of inquiry. The Views About Scientific Inquiry (VASI) was developed at IIT and we are now working with researchers all over the world (i.e., 18 countries) to get a baseline assessment of what seventh grade students understand about inquiry. This will lead to a better idea of how we can engage the next generation with the practices and processes of science – be it as future scientists or as citizens in a global society influenced by science and research.

*The host is a new series of blog posts, revealing the perspective and the work of the scientist hosting RESOLV students for an internship.  

About the author


Norman G. Lederman is Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Science Education at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He has a Ph.D. in Science Education from Syracuse University (1983); M.S. in Secondary Education from Bradley University (1977); M.S. in Biology from New York University (1973); B.S. in Biology from Bradley University (1971). He is internationally known for his work on students’ and teachers’ understandings of nature of science and scientific inquiry.