The land of thousand lakes, a nickname Finland has earned from the naturalists, elegantly describes the two colors green (land) and blue (lakes) at any point in the country. Add to that the possibility to see a ravishing nature of light known as Aurora Borealis and you get a couple of reasons that convinced me to make a research experience at the Nanoscience Center, University of Jyväskylä from October to December 2014.
Why I choose Jyväskylä?
Jyväskylä is known as the cultural capital or Athens of Finland. Therefore, an internship in the University of Jyväskylä was an appealing choice to learn about the culture and history of Finland. This decision also spared me from the gloomy winters of the north, because the university is in the central Finland. But of course there are also scientific reasons.
My interest in understanding the bio-molecular mechanisms with quantum and classical mechanics helped me narrow down my list to the University of Jyväskylä where I could gain experience working in the field of theoretical and computational chemistry. This decision was also encouraged by my supervisor in Bochum, Prof. Dr. Lars Schäfer. He was a former colleague of my supervisor in Jyväskylä, Dr. Gerrit Groenhof. A recommendation always gives an advantage in this kind of applications, and it helped in my case too.
A smooth application Procedure
As soon as I received my invitation from Jyväskylä, the administrative offices from both universities were extremely cooperative and helpful to ensure a comfortable stay and experience. The accommodation arrangement was quite elegant and the administrative staff in Jyväskylä were kind enough to guide me through the complete process. KOAS and Kortepohja are two government supported student organizations that facilitate accommodation for students in Jyväskylä.
During my internship I implemented different computational approaches to study the reaction mechanisms of a light sensitive protein called phytochrome. The photo-receptor phytochrome detects light on a time-scale of femtoseconds to picoseconds: Thereby it harvests energy in form of photon absorption in plants, bacteria and fungi to control their biological functions like photoperiodism (seasonal change in day/night change), circadian rhythms (physiological changes in organisms in the 24h), and photomorphogenesis (light-mediated development). For example, a strawberry plant regulates its flowering pattern more than 6 months in advance based on the circadian cycle. In our study we used the QM/MM hybrid molecular simulation approach: Quantum mechanical (QM) methods described the photo-reactive part of the protein, while the remaining system was modelled with classical force fields (MM).
Updating my computational skills to 2.0.
I enjoyed my brief stay working at the Nanoscience Center at the University of Jyväskylä. It is the only university in Finland with a separate state of art research facility for nanoscience. Besides, the interdisciplinary work environment is a boon for advancing in the field of computational chemistry.
Regular group meetings and interaction opportunities with different research groups helped me adapt to the Finnish university system and to the life in Finland. The research and administrative staff was competent in the English language. That made the communication easy and comfortable with everyone at the university. Coordinators assigned to the Erasmus students provided enough information about every available facility at the university.
Some of the skills I acquired during my stay in Jyväskylä involve critical assessment of the scopes and limitations of various approaches/approximations, team work and collaboration, visualization and graphical presentation of practical results, general knowledge of experimental and computational methods, acquaintance with work flow of conferences and seminars. The different perspective and way of thinking during assessment and discussions are some important experiences one should look forward to during such internships.
An aurora is well worth a wait.
It happened on my return flight to Germany. Within minutes after take-off, I noticed a glare on the window. I looked outside and found myself staring into the sky at something beautiful. It was racing through the vast space with striking colors ranging from different shades of green, red to pink. I had to wait for three months to capture that beautiful sight from Jyväsyklä. The further away you go from a city the better the chances to see the aurora in winters.
Sauna represents another great part of the Finnish culture and history. Based on surveys and statistics almost every household in Finland has a sauna. It is the perfect place to relax and get to know the Finns even better. An advantage of staying in one of these housings is the free access to the sauna. A swim in the lake after the sauna is must for anyone visiting Finland for the first time (even better if you have already experienced it before). It does not matter if it is summer or winter (when temperature drops below freezing point), a dip in the lake after sauna is an adventure you will cherish for a long time.
The central lane in Jyväskylä is famous for hosting different cultural events almost every weekend. A music lover can always find a gig or live event at one of the pubs in the city. Jyväskylä also hosts the Neste Oil rally every summer, which is the biggest public event in Nordic countries.
Summer is also a good time to experience the midnight sun, or the white nights, another remarkable natural phenomenon. The sun stays above the horizon for over 70 days in summer in the Lapland. For other parts of the country the nights are still white with the sun briefly dropping below the horizon and rises again masking the transition between dusk and dawn. On my flight back to Germany I considered that I still missed the white nights, but then life gave me another chance. In 2015 I came back to the Nanoscience Center, University of Jyväskylä, to start my PhD.
Where great things come from
A Finnish proverb says – ‘Great things come from small beginnings’. My time in Jyväskylä was an insightful experience and has helped me shape up my profile towards a better future in science. The opportunity to learn about a new culture with an optimistic objective from Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is something every student should look forward for. I hope my work in Jyväskylä brings a positive impact on motivating future collaborations between the two universities.
About the Author
My name is Elena Decaneto and I am a graduate student in Chemistry at the Ruhr University of Bochum currently working at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion (in Muelheim an der Ruhr) with a scholarship funded by the International Graduate School Solvation Science of the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV. In January 2015 I moved from Germany to Israel since I had the opportunity to undertake an internship of three months at The Weizmann Institute of Science (Rehovot), in the group of Prof. Irit Sagi in the Department of Biological Regulation.
From the first day I was able to learn from competent scientists and to discuss scientific issues in a friendly and challenging environment, comparing my knowledge with those of other students and researchers with different backgrounds. This internship was a valuable and necessary experience for me to learn a large number of biological techniques I will need in the future (both for a future in the academy and for working in a company), get practical tips on my current PhD project, using cutting-edge instruments for applied biology which are currently not available in the institution where I work in Germany, visit an experimental animal house, participate in international conferences and seminars, presenting and discussing my data to a group of pure biochemists and biologists and establish possible future collaborations.
The Sagi group is mainly focused on the use of advanced biophysical and imaging techniques for unravelling cellular environment molecular mechanisms, design endogenous-like inhibitors and modulators targeting matrix enzymes and studying molecular recognition of super-structured substrates.
My project involved the development of a fluorometric activity assay for the protein Lysyl Oxidase-2, the expression of different types of protein constructs both in yeast and bacteria and the development of protocols for high-level expression, purification and enzymatic characterization for crystallization purposes.
In addition to the scientific aspect, I enjoyed being part of a group of friendly and jovial people, participating in group travels and going out together even outside working hours. In Prof. Sagi`s group I found friends rather than just colleagues, and I go back to Germany enriched not only with new skills but with wonderful memories.
The Weizmann Institute of Science
The Weizmann Institute of Science is one of the most important centers of research and higher education in the world. Known for its scientific and technological research in the forefront, the interests of the institute span the entire spectrum of contemporary science: environmental science, drug development, from genetic to oncology, renewable and alternative energy technologies, astronomy, high energy physics, etc. Inside the institute the language is English and students are only Master of Science or PhD from 5 different faculties (Physics, Math/Computer Science, Chemistry, Biology and Biochemistry). The Feinberg Graduate School (of which Prof. Sagi is now the dean) is the greatest strength of the institute, which since more than 50 years aims to train researchers in the field of natural sciences.
All the students are exempt from tuition fees and receive a salary that allows them to spend all their time to study and research, and the duration of a PhD project is usually about 4-5 years. Surrounded by greenery, this institution is a veritable paradise for scientists thanks to the high quality of science (large equipped laboratories, new machines and cutting-edge instruments, high-impact publications, seminars, workshops and international conferences, international environment) and the high quality of student life (access to libraries, gyms, swimming pools, courses of all kinds, bars, pubs, restaurants, dormitories and apartments for students with common places and free wi-fi). Students visitors like me, stay in the international guest house inside the campus which is a perfect place to get immediately in contact with other students, get to know people from all over the world and organize together trips, parties and other activities.
Impressions of Israel
For over 2000 years this narrow corridor of land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean exerts an influence that has no equal on the planet. Linked to the three major world monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam and Hebraism), Israel is a destination full of charm that includes many biblical sites, churches and mosques, but it is also an area of natural wonders from the desert landscapes, to the lush green of the north of Israel, in addition to the white beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. While Jerusalem is an ancient city on a hill with a fundamental religious importance for millions of people around the world, Tel-Aviv is a seaside town that basks in the sunshine of the Mediterranean Sea with barely a century old. Traveling in Israel is really easy if you have a driver’s license. Rental cars are quite cheap and allow to visit from north to south all the wonderful places that this country offers: from the port of the ancient Akko to the Bahá’í gardens in Haifa, from the Dead Sea to the Negev desert. Anyway, Israel is not only history and wilderness: it is a real tourist area of the Mediterranean which offers beautiful beaches with modern infrastructures. In these three months I used to travel every weekend but nevertheless there are still many places I would like to visit and which represent a good reason to return.
It is a stereotype all too used, but it’s really hard not to draw attention on the incredible meeting of past and modernity in these places. In Jerusalem, you can meet next to each other, Orthodox Jews who wear traditional dress and Christian pilgrims with cutting-edge digital cameras, smells of incense and candles mixed with spices, sounds of bells intertwined with the song of the muezzin. In the Negev desert, the Bedouins use mobile phones with familiarity, while in Galilee palestinian farmers lead the oxen in the fields according to the rules of biotechnology. This great contrast is also reflected in the political situation of the country. My stay corresponded to the period of political propaganda for the election of Israeli prime minister and his party, so that I was inevitably spectator of the frequent and fervent political discussions during this period.
There is a very influential part of the society that believes that Israel should strictly abide by the laws of the Torah, while most people do not want that and look with horror to a confessional state. Despite the bad publicity in the European press and the frequent alarmist headlines with regard to safety, Israel and the neighboring territories of Jordan and the Sinai are perfectly safe for tourists and visiting students. Unfortunately it is not uncommon that political tensions explode in some act of terrorism but usually not undermine the safety of people and the Weizmann Institute can be regarded as a haven of peace. On the streets my attention was captured by the joviality of the people, their meaningful greeting “shalom” (“peace”) and the preponderance of the military: they are mostly citizens who perform military service which is compulsory from 18 years of age and lasts three years for men and two years for women.
Israelian food is often simple and modest but tasty and substantial, reflecting the great ethnic mix of this country. The oriental dishes mostly consists of meat and grilled fish, stuffed vegetables and a variety of meze. Quick meals like shawarma, humus with pitta and falafel are found almost everywhere.
Among the Armenian specialties, I especially enjoyed the malawach: a sweet flat bread with flask shape and different salty fillings. Jewish culinary tradition follows the rules of Kashrut: it is not allowed to eat “impure” meat (such as pig, rabbit and horse), while the meat from the other animals has to be deprived of any trace of blood before being cooked. Also, meat and dairy products cannot be eaten together in the same meal. During my stay I had the opportunity to celebrate the Passover, during which it is forbidden to sell and eat leavened foods like breads and pastries of all kinds. My favorite meal was definitely the typical Israeli breakfast, which consists of different types of bread, eggs, salad, cream of soft cheese, cream of olives and spicy sweet tomato. So different from a simple coffee and croissant and a great way to start the day in the lab (if you don’t fall asleep on the lab-bench!). Although Israel is often seen as a culinary desert by Europeans, I definitely had to change my mind after seeing that this country offers a wide culinary tradition, with very good food and lots of variety.
Despite wines (which are quite good in Israel, especially the white ones) during these years in Germany for my PhD I have inevitably stepped up my critical thinking about beers. It is hard to believe that until a few years ago the Israeli craft beers were practically nonexistent, but now many cafes and restaurants serve good craft beers of the place (mainly Ale beers) and I especially liked the unique taste of barley and bitter from the hop of Malka.
Link to Weizmann Institute of Science
About the Author
Elena Decaneto was born in 1988 in Fidenza (Italy). She got her B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Physics at the University of Parma in Italy. She performed her master’s thesis research project on “spectroscopic characterization of metal nanoparticles” at the Sarría Chemical Institute in Barcelona (Spain). Currently, she works on her PhD thesis about “the coupling of solvent water and enzymatic activity in a matrix metalloproteinase” at the Max-Planck-Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Mülheim a. d. Ruhr in the group of Prof. Lubitz and the Department of Physical Chemistry II in RUB under the supervision of Prof. Havenith.
In spring 2015, thanks to the RESOLV Graduate School Solvation Science, I was able to spend three months in Alicante, Spain. Internship at a foreign University is an exciting opportunity RESOLV is able to provide for young researchers.
Alicante is a city on the Mediterranean coast of Spain in the Valencian region and it is about the size of Bochum but completely different in so many aspects. The biggest difference is the touristic appealing the city has, it attracts thousands of tourists and during spring and summer the city is always crowded. In fact many Spanish from the inland cities (as Madrid) have their summer houses also next to the sea so they can drive down to the coast and enjoy a relaxing weekend at the beach.
Luckily, I started my internship at the end of April, just when the nice season starts. And what a nice season! Three months and one week during which it was raining for not more than four hours in total!
I could find a room in a flatshare thanks to the help of a Spanish friend while I was still in Bochum so I had no problems regarding the accommodation.
I was welcomed warmly at the University and I immediately got to know the whole research group of the Institute of Electrochemistry. They helped me since the beginning not only in the lab but also giving me advice on life (and food!) in Spain. The first impression of the University in Alicante is quite astonishing for someone who is used to the Ruhr-University Bochum: small buildings of maximum three floors spread around a big campus full of palms and flowers.
The atmosphere was welcoming and the other PhD students in turn helped me in the lab showing me their know-how. The lab-instruments were different and I was not independent during the first week but later on I managed to do everything on my own. It is very useful to learn different experimental techniques and how to handle different instruments than the ones I am used to. It was a unique opportunity because at the Ruhr-University one of the experimental techniques I learned cannot be performed because the instrument is not available.
At the Institute of Electrochemistry in Alicante I worked under the supervision of Prof. Victor Climent and Prof. Juan Feliu. The research consisted of two main topics. One was the study of the kinetics of defect formations on the surface on Pt(111) single crystals in alkaline solutions. The other one is the laser-induced temperature jump method applied on an Ir single crystal having a (111) preferential orientation. The technique consists of nanosecond laser pulses fired at the electrode-solution interface to suddenly increase the temperature, providing evidence on the net charge orientation of water at the interface. Thanks to this technique it is possible to differentiate between the responses of the double layer to a potential difference and the charge-transfer processes at the interface.
The first days I was communicating in English, but due to the similarity of my native language (Italian) to Spanish I soon started to pick up words and communicate in their language. The thought of learning Spanish was on my mind, but I didn’t think it was so easy to do it!
My coworkers were mostly Spanish but there were also Chileans, Mexicans, Colombians and Brasilians among them. They could all talk in English but the whole communication in the lab has been done in Spanish, so learning it helped me a lot on both scientific and social life.
The head of the Electrochemistry Institute is Prof. Juan Feliu, former president of the International Society of Electrochemistry and maybe the worldwide most known professor in the field of single-crystal electrochemistry. The group is a bit smaller than the group of Prof. Schuhmann in Bochum and it is split in two adjacent buildings. But we were gathering all together for lunch and we also had dinner together every now and then.
I had interesting results in one of the two topics I was investigating in Alicante and a collaboration is established now to finalize the project. With the collaboration of one of the PhD students of Prof. Climent we will perform another set of experiments. This internship was indeed a great opportunity to expand my scientific network outside Germany!
Link to the Institute of Electrochemistry in Alicante
About the Author
Alberto Ganassin was born in 1988 in Castelfranco Veneto (Italy). He got a bachelor in Material Science at the University of Padua in Italy and a master in Material Science at the Technical University of Munich. He is currently a PhD student in Prof. Schuhmann’s group and the topic of his PhD is “Electrochemistry of gas evolution reaction”
From September until December 2014 I did my iMOS internship at the University of California, Irvine. I joined the Tobias group which focuses on molecular dynamics simulation of biomolecular structure. My job was to simulate Hv1(a proton channel in a variety of organisms) under a depolarizing potential in order to investigate the opening mechanism of the channel. Fortunately for that purpose we got 75.000h computational time on Anton which is one of the fastest supercomputers for MD simulations. These simulations provided some interesting information about the opening mechanism and the work will be published soon.
I lived off-campus and shared a small house with five guys. Even though I just had approximately 20sq m the rent was about $950 per month. Finding a place to live in Irvine for such a short period is very difficult and expensive and if you are thinking about doing your internship in Irvine as well, search and apply for housing as soon as possible. The city itself is one of the safest places in the USA. It is very modern and beautiful as well. The university is around 5 miles away from the beach and the beaches in California are just awesome. When I arrived the temperature was about 32 degrees Celsius and during my time it did not go below 20 degrees. That is one reason for living in California. The other reason is UCI. It is one of the best public universities in the USA and the campus is modern, clean and well organized. The faculties are located around the Aldrich Park which is a botanical garden and the heart of UCI. There is no canteen or something comparable as known from Germany but there are several restaurants such as Subway, Panda Express or Blaze Pizza.
During my time I met lots of nice people, visited a few beaches of California and did a short trip to San Francisco with another iMOS student from Santa Barbara. Overall I enjoyed my time really much and can highly recommend UCI and especially the Tobias group for doing an internship. Last but not least I would like to thank Prof Marx who not only arranged the internship but rather gave me the opportunity being a part of such a great group.
Link to University of California
Link to Master course in Molecular Sciences and Simulation (iMOS) at Ruhr-University Bochum
About the Author
Hendrik Göddeke was born in Meschede and holds a BSc in Molecular Biology with a focus on Bioinformatics from Westphalian University Gelsenkirchen. He then moved to Bochum for iMOS. The international course was carried out in the Tobias lab at UC Irvine. He finished iMOS in September 2015 and is now doing his PhD in the Schäfer group.