Being a visiting student in Irit Sagi Lab

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.

Weizmann Institute of Science / Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology Joint Conference on Cell Communication in Translation Research, 22-23 January, 2015, Rehovot, Israel.

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.

Science Zone

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.

Koffler accelerator of the         Canada Centre of Nuclear Physics inside the campus.

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.

Sentence spoken by the scientific visionary first president of Israel        Dr. Chaim Weizmann written on a wall of the campus.

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.

Non conventional view of Jerusalem from the roofs of the market.

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.

Rosh HaNikra grottes, a geological formation on the Mediterranean Sea at the border with Lebanon.

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.

Israeli Food

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.

At the market in Akko you can find hundreds of different types of spices, along with the special “Said’s humus” famous for being considered the best humus of Israel .

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.

Different kinds of Israeli almond and nut cakes and sweets made with halva (from semolina, tahini or sunflower butter).

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 Graduate School Solvation Science

Link to Weizmann Institute of Science

About the Author

Profile picture_597x768Elena 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.



Visiting Cardiff during the Rugby World Cup

I had the great opportunity to have a research stay for two months in the laboratory of Prof. Hutchings at the Cardiff Catalysis Institute in Wales in the end of 2015. RESOLV Graduate School of Solvation Science gave me the financial support to be able to make my journey. My project during my stay there consisted of several tasks. First of all, I had the opportunity to test my materials for various catalytic reactions which were not applicable in our laboratory. My PhD project mainly focuses on photocatalysis, that is, the utilization of (preferably visible) light instead of heat to run heterogeneously catalyzed reactions. Due to my experience in photocatalysis, I could help my colleague with whom I worked closely together during my stay. Her project also focuses on photocatalytic reactions and she started her PhD round about 6 months ago at the time when I arrived. The idea was to build a set-up which is quite similar to the set-up I use at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung. Although we had some great progress, we couldn’t finish the job before my flight back to Germany. Anyhow, I am pretty sure the set-up will be ready in the first weeks of January.

Safety first! My colleague and I putting on proper UV-safety eyewear before setting up the Xenon lamp. – Safety first! My colleague and I putting on proper UV-safety 
eyewear before setting up the Xenon lamp.

The third part consisted of a detailed investigation of the support effect on glycerol oxidation for various kinds of catalysts. I’d chosen this as a small project which was also an important aspect of the side-project of my colleague and I felt glad to contribute to this topic. All in all there was plenty of work to do during my two months stay at Cardiff University. It turned out to be a very productive task and the results might be published in the near future. Splitting your working time on several tasks seemed to be the way to go for my stay.

Science Zone

My research project consists of the utilization of the visible light absorption properties of nanosized gold particles for the chemical transformation of glycerol to value-added products. The whole progress of utilizing light for driving chemical reactions on a catalyst is known as photocatalysis. The purpose of my stay was the investigation of various gold containing catalysts for different reactions (glycerol oxidation, H2O2 synthesis, CO oxidation, benzyl alcohol oxidation etc.). On the other hand, the group was about to build a photocatalytic set-up. My experience in photocatalysis would help to build the set-up and investigate photocatalytic reactions.

Typical picture during the photocatalytic reaction: Illumination of the reaction solution through the glass window of the stainless steel reactor with green light from the top. My colleague in Cardiff will eventually be able to have a similar set-up at the end of January 2016.– Typical picture during the photocatalytic reaction: Illumination of 
the reaction solution through the glass window of the stainless steel 
reactor with green light from the top. 
My colleague in Cardiff will eventually be able to have a similar 
set-up at the end of January 2016.

I arrived on a Friday afternoon in Cardiff with a flight time of only one and half hour and had a very warm welcome from my colleagues. Luckily, they were all heading to the pub after work, so I could quite early get to know many faces. I used the weekend to get familiar with the city and – most importantly – to get used to the fact that people drive on the left side in the UK. This and other things which were different compared to other countries (like the plug sockets, the safety switches on the plug sockets, the lack of plug sockets in the bath room due to safety reasons, the lack of good bread etc.) were something which gave us always plenty to talk about when having conversations with my colleagues from abroad. Cardiff offers lots of things to do during your spare time. Every weekend there is a 5 km run through the Bute Park along the River Taff. The first time I joined the run, there were about 500 participants! Roath Park which, unfortunately, is way smaller than Bute Park was the next place I visited for my running session. Beautiful and informative places like Cardiff Bay, Cardiff Castle and National Museum Cardiff were also visited. Luckily, the weather was untypically dry and calm. Rainy and windy days accumulated only at the end of my stay.

Top: The chemistry department of Cardiff University (left) and the National Museum Cardiff (right). Bottom: Rugby ball “smashed” into the wall of Cardiff Castle due to the Rugby World Cup 2016 (left) and the two teams Cardiff Blues (in red) and Nottingham playing against each other in the British & Irish Cup.– Top: The chemistry department of Cardiff University (left) and the 
National Museum Cardiff (right). Bottom: Rugby ball “smashed” into the
wall of Cardiff Castle due to the Rugby World Cup 2016 (left) and the 
two teams Cardiff Blues (in red) and Nottingham playing against each 
other in the British & Irish Cup.

Of course, there are a lot of pubs where you can try various kinds of beers. Talking about a good beer – I really appreciated my curiosity for trying new things out like different Ales or IPAs (India Pale Ales). The fact that they also served Lager beer saved me from my curiosity and helped me to enjoy more familiar beer types. A full English breakfast on the other hand is for me unarguably the best thing you can get to eat in the morning. Last but not least, a visit to Wales or UK in general will not be complete if there is no rugby game. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a ticket for the quarter finals Wales against South Africa but I managed to join a game after the Rugby World Cup trouble – the Cardiff Blues against Nottingham. The matches of the Rugby World Cup were watched in the fully crowded pubs. Football requires a lot out of a body but I think Rugby puts some things into a new perspective. When you have enough from Cardiff, you can easily reach Bristol or Bath in England in about one hour by train. The highlight of my stay was the trip to London for one weekend with my cousin and some friends of her. I was really satisfied that I achieved a lot of things in the laboratory and also could manage to see a lot of Cardiff and other cities in the UK.

 Last get-together before leaving Cardiff.– Last get-together before leaving Cardiff.

Eventually, I would like to thank Prof. Hutchings, my supervisor Dr. Simon Freakley and my colleague Laura Abis who not only gave me the opportunity for this research stay but also made every effort to have a productive and nice stay in Cardiff.

Link to Cardiff Catalysis Institute

About the Author

ProfilePicGDGeorgios Dodekatos, born 1988 in Minden, achieved his      B.Sc. in Chemistry at the Georg-August Universität Göttingen and his M.Sc. in Chemistry at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, where he decided to focus on heterogeneous catalysis, especially photocatalysis. Currently, he works on his PhD thesis about glycerol valorization via plasmonic photocatalysis in the group of Dr. Tüysüz at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung.
His scientific motto is: “A scientist has to work very hard to get to the point where he can be lucky.” – R. B. Woodward