A Biochemist’s Discovery of Neurobiology

It is said that traveling broadens the mind. However, what is important for new experiences and a wider world view is the attitude when traveling. An enthusiastic traveler once said, ‚There is nothing wrong with setting goals, as long as you don’t let it keep you from setting interesting detours’. This little quote from Mark Twain describes quite well how Cole Wilson came to Forschungszentrum Jülich. The objective is quite clear in this comparison: gaining experience abroad and in research; the detour is the research field that awaited the young biochemist in Germany. But let’s start right from the beginning.

New countries, new research areas
A Fulbright Scholarship enabled Cole Wilson to live and conduct research in Germany for a year. The young American had previously been able to spend time abroad at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam with a DAAD RISE Internship. During this stay, he discovered Germany as an interesting country: ” Working there not only provided me with research experience, but also reignited my interest in language learning and other cultures. I continued studying German both on my own and in University afterwards,” Cole recalls. So embarking on another research stay in distant Germany and getting to know another research institution, Forschungszentrum Jülich, was very interesting to him. But there was a snag. At the Forschungszentrum, he was to conduct research and work in the field of neurobiology, a completely unfamiliar terrain for Cole up to that point. ” I worried about my lack of prior experience and education in the field. My prior research experiences were in yeast, plants and lipid vesicles,” he recounts his thoughts leading up to the trip, adding with a smile “So I spent time during the summer reading about the electrophysiology of cells and trying to learn how to read circuit diagrams. I still ended up very lost in all the new information and research at the institute.” But fortunately, this did not deter the biochemist from his journey. Once he arrived at the Institute for Biological Information Processing, Bioelectronics (IBI-3), he was able to quickly approach the new research topic.

A short story about neurobiology and interdisciplinarity
Mark Twain would have been delighted with Cole Wilson, because he did not let the detour, or rather the new path into neurobiology, stop him from his journey and broadened his horizon of knowledge. He aligned his research work in Germany with the new research topic. “My project involves studying in-vitro neuronal networks, which are growing outside an organism, such as on a glass coverslip. The goal is building logic gates from neurons that can be monitored and manipulated in vitro,” Cole says, explaining his research. He took the approach of using protein-printing on top of glass to encourage the cells to grow in a particular pattern, then using viruses to transduce them to express two proteins: one that allows him to monitor the activity of the cells and one that allows him to activate their activity with light. He was able to organize and carry out his project independently. But of course he was not left alone at the institute and was able to benefit from the interdisciplinarity. ” The people at IBI-3 come from a wide range of academic disciplines and work together to accomplish complex tasks,” Cole reports. “While overwhelming at the start, this has also allowed me to expand my own scope of knowledge beyond what I would be able to do in a typical biochemistry department.” The young biochemist is returning from his stay in Germany feeling well-prepared for his future. At Northwestern University, he would like to start his PhD in a program focusing on interdisciplinary biosciences. Neurobiology should also accompany Cole in this phase of his career. “During the rotational phase of my PhD program, I am planning to work in a few labs with a focus on molecular neurobiology,” Cole says. He hopes that the skills he was able to acquire in Jülich will enable him to make a positive contribution during this time.

Stay abroad? With pleasure!
Of course, any long-term stay abroad always requires a bit of courage, but you are usually rewarded with new experiences and great adventures. For Cole, the work experience was certainly an important element of his stay in Jülich, but the differences within a country have also been enlightening. During his DAAD RISE Internship in Potsdam, he got to know the facilities and working methods at the Max Planck Institute very well: “Apart from the size of the premises in Potsdam and Jülich respectively, the two research facilities differ mainly in their orientation. I really liked the broad spectrum of research at the Forschungszentrum, which made the work very diverse as a result,” Cole explains, adding with amusement “However, oddly enough, the two departments I worked in both have a secretary named Susanne and a technician named Tina.” Whether this is found in other German research facilities can only be explored in further research visits.
Perhaps Cole will come back to Germany one day; for example via a fellowship opportunity or research grant. Sometimes, however, it takes a little push to even get the idea to apply for such a program. In Cole’s case, it was a friend who gave him the nudge in the right direction: “She told me about her DAAD-RISE internship in Germany. As someone who was already looking for internships and has always wanted to step outside my “bubble,” I applied and was lucky enough to receive a position,” he says. Corona prevented a second stay with a DAAD-RISE scholarship in 2020, which would have already taken Cole to Jülich. Another tip from his acquaintances then led to a successful application for the Fulbright scholarship.

Scholarships, a good foundation
Scholarships offer excellent conditions for spending time at a foreign research institution. But concrete steps toward initiating an international research stay have to be taken by everyone individually. This usually begins with an application, and the requirements for this vary from program to program. A Fulbright scholarship, for example, is master’s level, research-based, and requires collaboration with the host institution. Students can expect to spend one to two semesters abroad if their application is successful. DAAD-RISE Worldwide is aimed at students in a bachelor’s degree program in science or engineering and allows students to spend several months abroad.

Cole Wilson has a positive summary regarding his scholarship and time abroad: “I’m glad I received this grant and had the chance to spend these last months researching at Forschungszentrum Jülich, as this grant period has felt almost like a trial run for being a PhD student. Since I had my own project and my own grant, I was given roughly the same expectations as that of a junior PhD student.” The young biochemist will soon return home, taking the positive feeling and experience with him.

Further information
Website of the Institute for Biological Information Processes, Bioelectronics (IBI-3): https://www.fz-juelich.de/en/ibi/ibi-3
Information about DAAD-RISE Worldwide: https://www.daad.de/rise/en/rise-worldwide/about-the-programm/
Information about Fulbright on the Internet: https://www.fulbright.de/startseite Scholarship and funding programs at
Forschungszentrum Jülich: https://www.fz-juelich.de/en/ue/departments/relations/funding-scholarships

About Sabine Clemens

Sabine Clemens ist Pressereferentin für den Fachbereich Nationale und Internationale Beziehungen in der Unternehmensentwicklung. Daher schreibt sie in diesem Blog über die verschiedensten Themen der Internationalität. --- Sabine Clemens is press officer for National and International Relations in the department of Corporate Development. She therefore writes about a wide variety of topics relating to internationality in this blog.

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