A Chemist Abroad: Dispatch #1

University of Minnesota undergraduate student Kadir Hussein is studying abroad this fall in Freiburg, Germany. This is the first of what we hope will be a series of updates from him throughout the semester.

Map of Freiburg
Freiburg, Germany (image from Google Maps)

I am happy to let you all know that I am enjoying the life in Freiburg and I am slowly settling into the day-to-day and research lab life here. Freiburg is a university city in the Southwestern part of Germany and it is considered the warmest/sunniest city in Germany. After my departure from Minneapolis, I had a connecting flight in Amsterdam before flying into Frankfurt, Germany. From there, I took a two hour train ride to Freiburg on the InterCity Express (ICE) train, which is a high speed train that connects all of the major German cities. During my travel I met a lot of nice people that were kind enough to direct me whenever I had questions. For some odd reason I was super ecstatic and just kept smiling throughout my travel even though I barely slept. I was also mistaken for a basketball player once during my train ride.

The Freiburg city center is extremely compact and you can easily get around either on foot, bike or their excellent public transportation (somehow it’s always on time).

So many bicycles!  (image by Kadir Hussein)

The research lab that I am visiting specializes in polymer synthesis and surface engineering. This chemistry-physics interface lab is a part of Institut für Mikrosystemtechnik – IMTEK located at Georges-Köhler-Allee. It is an engineering focused center for the most part. I started my first synthesis this week, which means that I am reacting two or more compounds together to form a longer molecule with interesting chemical properties. When chemists synthesize something, it is similar to a chef combining different ingredients to make a meal. They know what the properties of each ingredient are, and use that knowledge to combine them into something new.

I am highly intrigued by my project because I want to pursue research and development in the area of nano-medicine and drug development, which requires a great deal of synthesis and analytical skills. Through my personal experience growing up in different countries, I have come to appreciate the importance of medical discoveries in combating public health issues. Therefore, honing my skills in a synthetic lab at such a renowned institution is a great way to prepare myself for a career in scientific research. The polymers that I make will actually be used by a collaborator in the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology so I am hoping my synthesis will be successful so I can contribute to the mission of the Center.

Institute building
Institut für Mikrosystemtechnik = Institute for Microsystems Technology (image by Joergens.mi/Wikipedia)

A few other observations:

  • My most-used sentence when they start talking too fast in German: “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” Overall, a lot of people speak English in the city so the transition has been fairly easy so far. I took German language courses during my middle school and high school years, but I haven’t been using them for the past 5 years or so, so my speaking ability is a bit rusty.
  • Things that are heavily loved here besides beer: chocolate, coffee/tea, bakery items (especially cake) – I am surprised that weight maintenance is not an issue around here unlike the U.S. I must admit their chocolate, bakery and cafe life is pretty awesome. It’s good to be blessed with high metabolism.
  • Sunday life: When they say everything is closed on a Sunday, they literally mean everything. Luckily I did all of my grocery shopping on Friday and Saturday (advised by the research group). Families and friends use the day to rest, socialize with each other or with their neighbors, playing sport or relaxing inside. Loud noises are kept to a minimum.
  • Transportation: The public transportation is extremely efficient and it is heavily utilized. Additionally, I have never seen so many bikes in one place. From the youngest to oldest, everyone uses bikes to get around. It’s common for people to use a mixture of walking/bike/train/car to get around on a regular basis.
  • Sustainability: Freiburg is known for being eco-friendly but I was surprised to see people use clotheslines to dry their clothes in such a technologically-advanced country. Things related to waste management are regulated by the government (for example, you can only receive transparent recycling bags for anything containing plastic from the government and they check it thoroughly when the materials are being picked up). Plastic bottles are returned to the store so the companies that made the product can properly recycle them.

That’s it for my first little update from Freiburg. I am still getting settled down and adjusting to the time difference here, but I will conclude with a picture of me happily working in the lab. More to come soon!

the author in lab
(selfie by Kadir Hussein)

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