The weeks leading up to my stretch experience were among the busiest and most stressful weeks of my life. In a sudden mood of adventure and curiosity, I decided to spend my summer in Germany to improve my language skills and gain some experience working in industry. It’s funny that during the school year, we’re all itching to get out of Edmonton as quickly as possible. But when the snow melts and Festival City awakens, it’s not easy to move away for the entire summer to a new country.
I am majoring in biological sciences with a focus on genetics and biochemistry. I have always had an immense passion for research in my field and I have been working at various University of Alberta labs since I was in grade 11. I could have easily spent my summer continuing my work in the lab and enjoying Edmonton’s beautiful weather and festivals. Instead, I decided I would take a leap of faith and try something completely new and out of my comfort zone.
I had been thinking a lot about what I would like to do after I graduate and I realized that I had little understanding of what goes on in the scientific world beyond the lab. So, I applied to participate in the Alberta-Saxony Intercultural Internship Alliance and within a few weeks, I had my acceptance confirmed! I would be working at a mid-sized statistics and biotech company in Germany—QuoData.
QuoData is based out of the beautiful city of Dresden on the far eastern side of the country. With a population of just over half a million (and probably a comparable number of tourists at any given time), it’s not a large city. But, for what Dresden lacks in size, it makes up for in culture and beauty.
Dresden is situated on the river Elbe—the old part of the city borders the river with famous buildings such as the Opera house, the Frauenkirche, the Zwinger and a former royal palace of Saxon rulers. The city was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War but has been thoroughly restored. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this city… it’s beautiful, warm, calm and cultured. Berlin is only a couple hours away if I’m in the mood for a huge metropolitan atmosphere. But in Dresden, the community is cozy and united, and it’s easy to find a spot to yourself.
Perhaps the most intimidating part of moving to Germany is finding an apartment. Germany is a very dynamic country and Dresden is especially transient. There are constantly students moving to and from this city and there is high demand for apartments. One of the most popular living arrangements here for students is something called a WG. A WG consists of an apartment with several bedrooms, each rented out by a different person, with a shared kitchen and bathroom.
The problem is, most people are looking for someone to rent out a room for a year or at least six months. I was in the middle of final exams and thinking I’d have to camp out in a tent in Grosser Garten when I finally got a reply to one of my emails. The room wasn’t furnished but the girls were nice and, after one short Skype date, I had an apartment! By the end of the week, they had even agreed to furnish my room for me.
I’m living with two girls – Caroline is finishing her masters in Psychology and Lena is studying Art History. The three of us get along really well and living together has been a great adventure. The apartment has a very artistic side to it and our kitchen, in particular, is beautifully arranged, making it easy and enjoyable for us to cook or eat together. Most of the time we’re very independent – our schedules don’t always align very well and there are some weeks where we can go several days without seeing one another. But every time we start feeling distant, an evening comes along where we all happen to be home together and we end up cooking together and sitting on our balcony sharing stories.
Even when Caro and Lena are busy, Dresden is not a lonely place. Because of its transient nature, there are a lot of international students and young people adventuring here. On my very first day in Dresden, Natasha, a future colleague, invited me to her apartment to meet some people. Natasha works in QuoData’s marketing department. Originally from Beaumont, she came here almost three years ago as an intern through the University of Alberta and was then hired on full-time and permanently moved to Germany.
Natasha and I quickly became good friends—she has been incredibly helpful with getting settled here and we have bonded over a lot of Canadian-German transition moments (how do you bake with cane sugar instead of brown sugar? What does it mean when a German keeps their door closed all day? Do pedestrians ever have the right of way in Germany? – No, they don’t…). That very first evening, I met an incredibly international crowd. Natasha had guests from New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Jordan, France and other parts of Germany. But that’s the beauty of Europe – young people are constantly travelling and seeking out new opportunities.
This lifestyle has been incredibly eye-opening for me and, suddenly, my future path no longer seems so clear-cut. There are so many things I would like to try, so many skills I would like to learn and so many places I would love to explore before I settle. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I have learned here is that it is possible to live and only know what life will look like for the next half year—uncertainty is not a sign of failure, but rather the bridge to new opportunities.
Taking risks and challenging myself to try something unfamiliar and difficult may be the best way to learn. And when I manage to finally figure something out, learn a new theory, or discover a new German phrase, it feels like another piece of my puzzle has wiggled into place. And these few months here have shown me that I really don’t know what the final picture will look like, but, instead of being worried about that as I once was, I’m excited. I may only be here for three months this time, but I am confident that Europe and I will be meeting again very soon.
I leave for work very early because QuoData is on the opposite side of Dresden from my apartment and takes a while to get to. At work, I spend most of my time in the biotech research department. We are working on developing an assay using genetically modified yeast to test for water contamination (specifically to detect the presence of estrogenic substances). This work is very different from what I have done in the past because previously, the focus of my research has been biomedical, especially diabetes.
Working in a new field has helped me learn an array of new skills, not only in the lab but also in statistics. The implications of this project are incredibly important. Canada is a world leader in policies concerning water cleanliness and safety. As many of you probably remember, in 2008 Canada was the first country to label BPA (bisphenol-A, a precursor of many plastics) a hazardous substance and ban its use in baby bottles. This set the stage for international discussions about water safety and many countries followed suit and also banned BPA, including Germany in 2011. However, the discussion extends far beyond that small triangle with plastic #7 imprinted on bottles. Numerous animal studies have shown that BPA can have damaging effects on brain, immune, and reproductive development in babies and young children.
Alongside BPA is a whole list of endocrine substances including hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Water supplies are often contaminated with these substances and, unfortunately, it is very difficult to completely remove them in water treatment facilities. As a result, not only do these substances remain in our drinking water, they also get cycled back into the water cycle where they can have adverse effects on aquatic ecosystems. There is, therefore, a large demand for the development of assays and kits to test for the presence of these endocrine pollutants and the need for new methods of eliminating them from the water supply.
The two assays that we are developing at QuoData have the potential to make a large impact in the environmental industry and food and water safety industry. By using genetically modified yeast, we eliminate the need for animal testing in these experiments and provide a reliable biological model to test for the presence of estrogen-like compounds in aqueous samples.
As exciting as my lab work is, anyone who has ever done research knows that it is not always a 9-to-5 job and there are often large chunks of time in between experiments when you need to find other tasks to occupy your time. To keep myself always busy, I have gotten involved in the company’s marketing department. This began with helping organize a campaign for one of QuoData’s new software products, helping reconstruct the website and determining which clients the software is best suited for.
I soon realized in all of this that what could really attract more clients is making the company’s website available in more languages. The website is currently only available in German and English, but I am working on completing the Spanish and hopefully French translations. I often write and translate correspondence with Spanish-speaking clients, so it is apparent that there is a need for making the online information available in more languages.
Work keeps me busy Monday to Friday, and on weekends I try to travel as much as possible. I have already made two short trips to Berlin – one just to visit the city, and one to attend the Long Night of Science and find out more about the research and work being done at Berlin’s institutes. A couple weeks ago, I travelled to Prague for a short day trip, this past weekend I visited my parents in Munich and in the next few weekends I will hopefully visit family in Krakow, and travel to Vienna, Hamburg, and Copenhagen. The non-stop rhythm of work and travel can be exhausting, but in the end, it would be a pity to not take advantage of being in Europe and all of its wonderful opportunities while I’m here!
If you’re interested in reading more about my travels and time in Germany, check out my personal blog at zosiaadventures.wordpress.com.
Research intern at QuoData, Dresden, Germany