Travelling in the name of science

When I was asked to write a little report about the experiences I had made at the International Congress of Immunology I didn’t just want to write one of these travel reports containing the typical pictures of museums and skyscrapers. Instead, I want to tell you about the scientific way of travelling.

During my bachelor studies at the University of Applied Sciences Bonn-Rhein-Sieg I already had the chance to spend one semester abroad: I took part in a Life Science program offered by the Hogeschool of Arnhem en Nijmegen, Netherlands. The study programs offered by my university were funded through ERASMUS, which is a great organization helping you with the organization of your stay abroad. Part of the ERASMUS program was a 6-week Dutch language course. Living there and learning Dutch on a farm for six weeks I met people from all over Europe. The study program was also very well organized and I think I got a glimpse of how studying could enable you to travel the world and meet fantastic people.

First rule: If you pursue a career in science you should enjoy travelling. If you carefully look around you will have lot of chances to travel already during your studies.
-> Make use of established exchange programs (e.g. ERASMUS, AIESEC, DAAD, etc.)

When I started my master program at the LIMES Institute Bonn I was also very interested in the possibilities of spending some time abroad.

During my studies I performed one of the “lab rotations” with the Bayer AG. At that time Bayer had three main locations, Berlin, Wuppertal and Cologne. Surprisingly, they offered me an internship at their recently opened site in the USA. Several months later I started working in a laboratory in San Francisco for three and half months, which was truly one of the best experiences in my life.

Besides the amazing work in the lab and the beauty of the city, I made lots of new friends which was especially attributed to my living situation. In the beginning, I thought about renting an apartment, but after living in probably the tiniest and coziest hostel of SF I just wanted to stay there. However, by Californian law you are only allowed to stay at the same hostel for 14 days before you either have to move or start working there. As I got along with the manager very well, she asked me whether I would like to work at her hostel. This wasn’t an easy decision as I had to work at Bayer all day. We found an agreement where I would have to cook for the staff three times a week but still would pay half the daily price. One night I was invited to participate in a cooking challenge, which the manager was eagerly filming. Following the internship my girlfriend visited me and we did amazing roadtrips along the West and East Coasts. At this point I realized science really does enable you to travel.

Second rule: Being on my own most of the time, I really re-discovered myself!
-> Don’t be afraid to be on your own – it is a great way to learn to love yourself and increase your compassion for your friends, your family and even your neighbors.

Back in Germany, I started working on my master thesis in the lab of Prof. Pankratz. During the course of my thesis, the LIMES Institute organized the annual meeting with students from the WASEDA University, which was about to take place in Tokyo, Japan. As nobody of Prof. Pankratz PhD students wanted to go, he came to me and asked whether I would be interested in going. As you might imagine, I agreed and just two weeks later I was sitting on a plane to Tokyo. This was actually my first conference and I had prepared a talk and a poster with the results of my master thesis. Taken together I had a wonderful time in Japan, learned a lot about the Japanese (scientific) culture and their very different way of life.

Third rule: Prof. Pankratz probably came to me asking whether I was interested in going to Japan as I had talked to him about my interests in spending time abroad.
-> I recommend talking to your PI about your wishes as early as possible; this will definitely increase your chances to not miss out even on the smallest opportunities.

At the end of my master thesis the laboratory of Irmgard Förster moved to Bonn and advertised three PhD positions. As of now I am working in her lab on the function of the chemokine CCL17 for three years and although challenging, it is still a lot of fun. I really enjoy working on my project as it connects the two fields of immunology and neurology. Besides other organs we also found CCL17 to be expressed in a subset of hippocampal neurons where we are now trying to understand its function. As a PhD student I already had the chance to attend several conferences in Germany. I think conferences are one of the best ways to meet and get in touch with other scientists.

In January I read about this year’s International Conference of Immunology and I immediately asked Prof. Förster whether it would be possible for me to attend. The conference was about to take place in Melbourne, Australia, where I was also hoping to present some of my data. While preparing for the conference I got the idea of extending my stay in Australia for some time. However, I didn’t feel like travelling on my own, so me and my girlfriend planned a trip to explore the east coast between Cairns and Melbourne after the conference.

Fourth rule: In some cases your PI will come to you and ask whether you would like to go to a particular conference, however it is definitely a good idea to actively search for interesting conferences and then ask your PI if it would be possible for you to attend.

As we finally arrived in Melbourne we spent the first days exploring the wonderful small (and big) streets. One thing I particularly love about big cities is getting lost a little bit; it’s the time where your self-awareness raises and you suddenly find yourself in a different world. Cars are literally driving on the wrong side of the street, the moon smiles back at you (it actually lays on the side) and people are talking a different kind of English. As the conference started, I have to say, I had never come across a venue like the one in Melbourne. The first day almost felt like being on a music festival, despite the fact that all artists were immunologists. The meeting kicked off with a welcome reception, where we were introduced to Australian food and culture. We even had the chance to experience Australia’s fauna first hand, as they had brought wallabies and koalas to the conference.

Making new friends (by L. Fülle)

The next day, the meeting officially started with talks given by Ian Frazer and Charles Surh, which are both great speakers and scientists. In the evening I had enough time to prepare for my talk, which was scheduled for Wednesday. I was lucky to get the second talk in my session as I think waiting for a talk can be very intense. Little side note here, prepare to be introduced as a PhD although you don’t have the degree yet, so your introduction fails and you spend 30s clarifying that you are still working on your PhD, while a countdown is running on your slides. Following the talk, I started to enjoy the meeting even more; we could listen to more talks given by Kenneth Murphy (the main author of Janeway’s Immunobiology), Luke O’Neill (one of the most entertaining speakers I know), Shizuo Akira, Ido Amit, Michael Sixt and Florent Ginhoux.

In conclusion I can say that we really enjoyed our time during the conference, mostly due to its smooth organization, the great venue, the nice people, time-management of speakers (in fact almost all sessions finished in time) and, of course, Melbourne. But such big meetings wouldn’t be possible without all the sponsoring companies. Despite all the nifty gadgets you could get, one company even offered free coffee (you probably know you can catch scientists with free coffeeJ). So on the ICI2016 we made lots of new friends, listened to some of the best immunologist in the world, I got some feedback on my PhD project, won an iPad and visited the east coast of Australia.

Exploring Australian Nature (by L. Fülle)

In the end there was nothing more to ask for. I just recommend going to international conferences as it will get you a whole different view on how big science really is. Following the conference, we took our flight to Cairns where we picked up our campervan. For the travelling I will just let the pictures speak, but you should know that if you ever want to do a road trip from Cairns to Melbourne take at least 4 full weeks (~4500km). With that, I just want to thank you, science (and of course Irmgard), for this amazing trip!!!

Final rule:  While being abroad get to know as many people as possible – this will definitely help you shaping your future!


Our Campervan (by L. Fülle)


Author: Lorenz Fülle