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Biomaterials preferable to bread

In science, attending meetings and lectures is now made easier by video conferencing. However, there is no digital substitute for international research visits. Two young scientists from the priority research area KiNSIS report why their time in Boston, USA was so important for their doctorates.

Stefan Schröder (left) and Leonard Siebert
© Julia Siekmann, Uni Kiel

US elite universities are not perfect either, but a few months abroad are certainly benefical for researchers, materials scientists Stefan Schröder (left) and Leonard Siebert discovered in Boston.

To once walk between the red brick walls of the prestigious Harvard University or pass by the columns at the entrance of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT – this was an appealing thought but not the main reason why materials scientists Stefan Schröder and Lenoard Siebert decided to go to Boston on the US East Coast for three months during their PhD programmes. While both of them have already obtained their doctorates by now, the experience still lingers. Siebert’s paper on a new type of gel patch, the key experiments for which he conducted at Harvard Medical School, has recently been published. The patch contains additional active substances that can be activated with light as and when needed. "There is no one researching this type of biomaterial here in Germany. At Harvard there are experts with whom I was able to develop a method for producing such patches with special 3D bioprinters," said Siebert, elaborating on his motives for making the leap across the Atlantic Ocean. He was introduced to the colleagues from Boston by mutual contacts in his working group on "Functional Nanomaterials" headed by Professor Rainer Adelung.

At the Chair for Multicomponent Materials of Professor Franz Faupel, Stefan Schröder works with so-called iCVD processes (initiated chemical vapour disposition). This is a special method with which even surfaces with very complicated structures can be coated and made extremely water-repellent. "I really wanted to work with the person who developed this process, Professor Karen Gleason at MIT, and Franz Faupel simply wrote to her and introduced me. Being able to discuss the method with her in person and on site was a great opportunity, of course, and taught me so much."

Stefan Schröder and Leonard Siebert completed their doctorates this year. They know that if you wish to pursue a scientific career, it is, in a way, a must to have worked for a while at a university or research institute in another country. And renowned destinations like Harvard or MIT are always an asset. "However, at the end of the day, it is most important to find a working group that fits your research goals. Finding and refining your own research goals is not easy, and an international research visit can help," said Schröder, who received his doctorate within CRC 1261 "Magnetoeletric Sensors". This major research initiative, which extends over several years, provides financial support to its PhD students to gain international experience and establish important contacts. The working group thus covered Siebert’s travel, accommodation and visa costs.

Nevertheless, in addition to many great opportunities, scientific insights and new contacts, difficult moments are also part of the experience. In contrast to spending a semester abroad whilst studying, you have hardly any free time and tend to stay in the lab. "Many researchers spend their evenings until after midnight working at the institute, so relationships with colleagues tend to remain at the working level. The best idea is to join a rowing team, for example, or to buy a cheap bike so you can get around independently," advised Siebert.

On the other hand, the working relationships are particularly intensive and can lead, like in the case of Siebert and Schröder, to long-term cooperation and new research projects, which they are now continuing after having completed their doctorates. The renowned universities attract researchers and students from all over the world, which creates a special international atmosphere. "Even at the bus stop, you get asked what you do and why you are here. I never felt like a stranger there," Schröder recalled. There are only two things they missed in Boston, the two scientists agree: "German coffee and bread – they are really a disaster there," Siebert laughed.

Author: Julia Siekmann