Interning in Berlin

My name is Graeme Splinter and I am a fifth-year neuroscience student and Peter Lougheed Leadership College Scholar. As you likely know by now, PLLC scholars complete a “Stretch experience” in the summer between years one and two of the program. When planning my stretch, all I knew was that I wanted to travel, so I looked into UAlberta abroad and stumbled onto an exchange program with Freie Universität Berlin.

international house

International house, Freie Universität. Location of German classes. FU Berlin

Since it is now August, there is a lot to catch up on. For the first month, I spent four and a half hours a day at Freie Universität learning German. Ermüdend… Following a month of German classes, I began my internship at Le Charité hospital in central Berlin, which has quite an interesting history. Back when Berlin was split into east and west, there was one main university in the East, Humbolt Universität, and one in the West, Freie Universität. Both had medical schools. As university is almost entirely funded by the state, having two medical schools in one city put a huge strain on the state and taxpayers. In 1997, the two medical schools were merged into one school, centralized at Le Charité, located in Berlin Mitte (middle). Le Charité hospital itself was founded in 1709 to help with the bubonic plague that was spreading throughout the continent (1).


Le Charité, Campus Mitte, Berlin. I worked just down and to the left of this building. Wikipedia

I interned in an inner ear lab in the Ear, Throat, and Nose section of Le Charité. My supervisor, Dr. Agnieszka Szczepek, is interested in the effects of Chemotherapy drugs, particularly Cisplatin, on the auditory system. Long story short, Cisplatin is highly Nephrotoxic (toxic to the kidneys) and Ototoxic (toxic to the auditory system). The nephrotoxic effects have been widely studied; however, research into the ototoxic effects is lacking.

This is unfortunate, but understandable, due to the immediate impacts the nephrotoxicity has. Hearing loss, on the other hand, takes longer to manifest, and the effects are much slower to develop. Hearing loss at a young age leads to delays in social and cognitive development, which will impact the individual for the rest of their life. It is for this reason that Dr. Szczepek is interested in how chemotherapy and hearing loss are related. My role in the lab was to develop a new protocol for testing the role inflammation plays in the ototoxic effects of Cisplatin.

Adjusting to the lab was quite exhausting at the beginning. I had never worked in a wet lab, never worked with rats, and certainly never worked in a non-English lab before. Adjusting to work in a wet lab was easy, the only strain being on my right shoulder from the endless hours of pipetting. As for the rats, once I got used to the telltale *snap* that came with the removal of the rat’s head, it was all pretty straightforward. Most of the other lab members spoke excellent English, so it didn’t end up being much of an issue. Other than at lab meetings, which were entirely in German…

All in all, this experience has opened my eyes to a new area of research that I am interested in, as well as the massive opportunity for growth that international study offers.

– Graeme Splinter


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