UCD Genetics student Béga describes her first two months in her internship at the European Molecular Biological Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany…

As part of a new initiative within the Science programme at UCD, I have the privilege of taking part in a six-month internship at the European Molecular Biological Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. This new initiative involves undertaking a six-month research internship, which will replace the standard ten-week final year research project that is usually completed in the first semester of final year in UCD. I had already been intending to carry out a summer internship in order to develop my laboratory skills, so I decided to take this option, as extending an internship to six months seemed like an excellent learning opportunity as well as offering valuable insight into the lifestyle that working as a scientific researcher entails.

My application to EMBL was to work within the Korbel group of the Genome Biology Unit of this institute. This group focuses on genomic structural variants, both the underlying mechanisms and resulting phenotypic effects. I was interested in this group due to their combined use of computational and laboratory techniques for performing their research, as I have wanted to also expand my bioinformatics skills for quite a while. I was delighted to be offered a Skype interview in early March, and as a result I was thrilled to be offered a place there from June to December of this year.

I apprehensively began my placement here on the sixth of June, nervous about how I would fit into this lab, as well as the country itself. I had no German, with “bitte” and “danke” being the extent of my vocabulary, and even though EMBL is an English-speaking institute, I was still unsure of how I would manage living over here. I was also worried about what level of knowledge would be expected of me in the lab, as even though they knew that this would be my first laboratory placement, the prestigious name of the institute made me wary.

However, I soon realised that I had little reason to be worried, and the following months went by in a whirl-wind of learning, meeting new people, and gaining a lot of new experiences. The initial month was focused on me being introduced to the project, which I would be working on, and training me in the various lab techniques which I would need to use throughout this project.  This involved a lot of cell culture; learning how to expand cell lines, and the correct treatment and storage of cells, as well as introducing me to the various machinery, such as a flow cytometer and a cell observer microscope, that I would be required to use. I spent most of this month terrified, as some of the machinery that I am using at EMBL is more expensive than all of the money I will earn over the next decade, combined! The second month was more focused on bioinformatics, as I was involved in analysing proteomic data, which had been produced prior to my arrival at EMBL. Through this, I have been learning how to code using R, as well as developing my skills in various annotation and pathway analysis tools.

Luckily, however, this internship experience is not all about work. EMBL has a great range of social activities, clubs and events, which I have eagerly attended. Within my first few weeks, I got to experience their famous summer party and lab day party. It was at these events, as well as at the weekly Friday evening beer and pizza sessions, that I began to get to know many fellow interns, predocs, postdocs and various other staff that all work here. Most of the people here come from various places all over the globe, and it has been extremely interesting to hear about different cultures and education systems around the world. Meeting so many ex-pats really helped me to feel at home here in Heidelberg, and it is with these new-found friends that I have spent many of my weekends exploring near-by cities and towns, as well as going on hiking and camping excursions in the beautiful landscape in this region of Germany.

Experiencing the German culture has been very enjoyable so far. They have a huge variety of traditional foods, which I had never heard of before, and I was surprised to find that they produce quite a lot of wine here too! The beer is, of course, excellent, and I am eagerly awaiting Oktoberfest, which EMBL will host another party for on the campus.

The language barrier has rarely posed a problem here, as the majority of German people whom I have met have spoken excellent English, and so it has been quite easy to get by. Living here has definitely broadened my horizons, and I feel that I am learning just as much outside of the lab as I am in it!