A voluntary year in science – my slightly different way into research

Most of you might have taken the typical way after school by studying directly without even knowing what to expect from your future profession. There are actually always subjects that you liked more or less than others, but overall you have learned to love science. Still during your studys, many people dropped out because being a scientist did not meet their expectations. Now think about it: if you had the opportunity to get an insight into the ‘life of a scientist’ before going to university, would you have taken it? That is actually the way how I ended up in science!

When I finished school in 2011, I dreamed about studying veterinary medicine. Sadly, my grades were not good enough to be accepted immediately, but I also did not want to study biology instead. Not knowing what to do with my near future, I was very lucky when my mother heard about a new project called `Volunteer Science Year`.

But what is Volunteer Science Year? It is an offshoot of theGerman program volunteer social year founded by the Hanover Medicine School in 2011. The main idea was to give young graduates with an A-degree the opportunity to experience the real life of a scientist without pressure. This would give them the chance to figure out if they are made for this job beforehand. About 50 different projects were offered in the field of biology, medicine, physics or engineering. To realise such a great variety, different institutions like Fraunhofer e.V., Hanover Laser Centre, the University of Hanover and the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover took part in the program.

I did not want to let go of such an opportunity, so I sent my application to the coordination office. In the end, I was accepted in the group of Prof. Dr. Ingo Nolte in the Small Animal Clinic. Getting the chance to have an inside into clinical research as well as the clinical dailywork was perfect for me!

Instead of giving you a very detailed report about my experience, I like to write more about the stuff that really helped me later in my career. First of all, I realised that research is time consuming. For the first six month, I was performing day by day proliferation assays. Dealing with the frustration to perform the same experiment over and over again was no big deal for me. Being patient when something did not work as planned, was the bigger issue. Nonetheless, I learned to patiently endure and not to always search the faults within me.

Of cause, I was trained in many different techniques from basic cell culture to microbiology as well as general lab organization. Nevertheless, I learned to be responsible for my own research project. Under the guidance of a PhD student, I evaluated the MRI contrast properties of newly generated nanoparticles as well as their toxicity. Before I could start, I had to set goals in a timetable, understand the protocols, prepare my cells and check the needed materials. The progress was evaluated regularly in meetings. In the end, I did similar work as all the educated lab members.

I really loved the interdisciplinary character of my project with cell biology and clinical imaging. It gave me the perfect opportunity to have an inside in both fields. Next to being incontact with researchers, I was able to work with physicians. When I had to decide what to do after my research year, the idea of being a researcher was more comfortable. The hectic and harsh tone of the clinic, as well as little time for the patients did not seem to be the right thing for me. Therefore, I decided to study Applied Life Science in Kaiserslautern and for my Master’s degree, I studied Molecular Biomedicine in Münster. This year, I started my PhD thesis as part of Bo&MeRanG in the lab of Prof. Dr. Kolanus. Looking back, I do not regret any of my decisions!

After the Voluntary Science Year, most of the participants decided to study something else. Only the one, who were really into it stayed in science. I think this is the biggest advantage of this program. For me, I can say that it helped me to find my real profession. I learned many techniques, how to deal with frustration and being patient. Compared to my fellow students, I knew exactly what to expect in my studies and was not disappointed by it.

Overall, the response of the Voluntary Science Year was extremely positive. Right now, the Hanover Medicine School offers this program for the seventh year in a row. In addition, the program expanded from 50 to over 80 projects. I think this program really helps young peopleto orientate in the chaotic world of professions and support them to become the nextgeneration of excellent scientists.

Author: Nicole Dörffer