Thursday, August 28, 2008

Final Post: Closing Report

I am about to return home. I am happy to be going home but sad to be leaving Germany. There is much more that I would like to see and more work that I would like to finish. Still, I am happy to be going home.

The RISE program, which provided my scholarship, required me to write a short report on my summer and my impressions of research in Germany. They will use this to promote the RISE program to sponsors and students. I think it gives a good account of my summer, so I post it here:

Let me first say thank you to DAAD and the RISE program for providing me with this internship. It has been a wonderful experience.

I found research in Germany to be efficient and effective, combining dedicated people with modern facilities and useful connections to colleagues in academics and in industry. I also found living in Germany to be pleasant and exciting. I am very glad to have had this chance to work in Germany.

A typical day at my internship started with turning on the heat, water flow, and gas flow for the chemical reaction I was currently running. For the rest of the morning I would take measurements or read literature about the chemistry or optical properties of my materials. For lunch, everyone in the research group went together to the mensa. After lunch, we would all gather in an office for tea. I liked this very much and by now I have developed a taste both for tea and for a moment of relaxation and friendly talk in the middle of the day. The afternoon was filled with more of the same work, but was often punctuated by a break for ice-cream in the sun. In the evening, I would turn off the heat, water flow, and gas flow for my reactions and leave the lab ready for the next day.

I worked at Technische Universit├Ąt Darmstadt in the Disperse Feststoffe group. I was impressed by the international nature of the group. Alongside Germans, there were people from Mexico, Spain, Romania, Italy, India, Brazil, China and Poland. Each of these people brought with them a certain flavour of their home, which was a treat for me, and all of them together agreed on English as the common language for communication, which was very convenient for me. Each of these people were also very knowledgeable in there area of science. I could sense a collective dedication to the work of building scientific knowledge.

I am grateful for the competence and independence I have gained in the laboratory. About halfway through the summer, my supervisor went away for a week or two for an academic conference. She gave me a list of tasks to finish while she was away. I leaped in to this work with a vigour I had never shown before. I was alone with a responsibility to do work which seemed real in a way that classes never could. I drew strength from this situation, and worked quickly and efficiently to finish the work. The experience left me more confident in my independence and ability to do work.

Later in the summer, I became aware of the competence I had gained. My supervisor said “go and get some deuterated benzene.” I did so, and only later realized the difficulty of the task I had just finished. In order to get the benzene, I had needed to overcome the language barrier while asking for the chemical in the office. In order to store the benzene, I had needed to carefully transfer this toxic chemical into a flask. And, in order to protect the benzene from air, I had needed to empty all air from the flask and replace it with non-reactive argon. All of this I was now able to do, thanks to my internship position.

My favourite thing at work is using liquid nitrogen. Ordinary nitrogen is a gas, and is all around us in the air. Liquid nitrogen, on the other hand, is fantastically cold. This makes it very useful when we want to make something else very cold. It also means that liquid nitrogen is in a great hurry to evaporate back into the air, causing an open container of liquid nitrogen to sputter, boil and smoke quite fantastically. Pouring liquid nitrogen from one container to another is always exciting.

I must admit that there were difficult times. Organizing reams of data from many measurements is difficult. Working with sensitive chemicals that must not be exposed to air is slow, tedious and careful work. And, of course, computers will always stop working properly at the worst possible moment. But despite all these trials, I feel that I accomplished something useful and I certainly gained a lot of valuable experience from tackling these problems.

There were some good highlights to my academic experience. I worked with Silicon Carbodiimide polymers which display visible fluorescence under ultraviolet light. I was happily surprised to find that what my eyes saw of a polymer under an ultraviolet lamp matched with the report of an expensive, complicated spectrometer. This is exactly what should happen, in theory, but seeing something with your own eyes is completely different from reading the theory of it in a book. The other highlight is incomplete but still exciting. At times I thought I could see hints that I might understand a connection between the chemical structure of the polymers and their light emission. Polymers are large, complicated molecules, and fluorescence is also a complicated process; the literature shows that fluorescence from these polymers is not well understood at this time. Even a small hint that my work might suggest some of the answers was very exciting.

Many of the highlights of my stay came as I was travelling. I climbed over the haunted, ruined castle in Heidelberg by night. Then, on the next day, I stood and marvelled at its grandeur in the daylight and imagined its glorious past. I walked across the border into Switzerland and went swimming in Lake Constance. I took a long train ride to Berlin and spent an afternoon in a furious trek to the many of the major landmarks and museums. I travelled to Vienna where I visited a friend who plays trombone. For this trip I brought my trombone and played along with him and his group of jazz musicians. I rode a fast car on the autobahn to watch the Euro Cup final at a tapas bar in Frankfurt. I even marched in a parade, waving a big Chinese flag in support of the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing.

I think my fondest memory of this summer will be my Tuesday nights, when I met with a group of old Germans, most of them retired chemists, to play jazz at a bar. Not only was this a fine opportunity to practice my trombone, it was a wonderful time to meet smiling faces every week to share in something that we all loved.

At this time, I am about to finish my internship and go back home. I think I do not wish to return to Germany for an extended stay for work or study. I feel the pull of home too strongly. However, I will always carry warm memories of my stay in Germany and will cherish the lessons and new strength that I found in here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Konstanz on Bodensee

It has been a while since I last posted, as some of my friends have pointed out.

For quite a few weeks I was working quietly in Darmstadt. Sooner or later I will try to post some description of what I am doing at work. Until then, ask me about it and I'd be happy to tell you something.

Last week Rob Niederriter visited me in Darmstadt and we walked 10Km to visit the nearby (relatively speaking) Frankenstein Castle. That trip was great and some pictures are on my Picasa sight.

This weekend, I met with Rob again and we went to the city of Konstanz, a German city on the border with Switzerland and next to a lake, Der Bodensee. I had a great time. We arrived a on the train a little after noon, then explored the city, seeing fancy old buildings and a great old church.

In the afternoon, we sat by lake eating a snack of bread and Nutella. I then got the idea to go swimming in the lake. The water was very clear and a little bit cold. I swam out to a post, which turned out to be the mark where boats have to go at half speed near the shore. It was a longer way than I thought. On my way out I heard a loud blast of a horn and saw an old fashioned steam ship coming right at my! I swam out of the way and the driver smiled and waved at me. When I made it back to the shore, I was cold and my arms were tired and I crawled slowly up the rocks and then on to the grass to dry off.

Before taking the train back home we were looking for a restaurant to have dinner but instead saw a grocery store with 1/4 pieces of huge watermelons on display outside. We bought that, a big round loaf of sesame seed bread, and tomatoes and cheese. We sat on a bench in town and ate this for dinner. It was the best dinner we could have had. I had too much fun cutting apart the Watermelon and then drinking the juice out of the shell.

Later, we even filled the watermelon rind up with water from a drinking fountain and drank from it again.

At this point I was giddy and ridiculous from a combination of watermelon sugar, high blood sugar, tiredness from the swim, and excitement from the beautiful city. After dinner, as we were walking to the train, I saw a hot-air balloon in the shape of a cathedral, and I jumped up and down clapping my hands and making inane happy noises.

It was a good day.

Now I am back at home, looking forward to going to bed early so I can be cheerful and productive for this week at work.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Last week I traveled to Vienna to visit recent Lawrence University Graduate and jazz trombonist James Hall. James lives in a neighborhood full of big, beautiful stone buildings.

His apartment is intended for musicians. Here, he can practice his trombone and hold practice with his jazz combo in his room. AND he gets a baby grand piano for 30 Euros a month!

On the evening I arrived, James was holding a rehearsal with his jazz combo. I got to listen for a while then play a few tunes with them. Then, James opened a bottle of champagne and his roommate baked fresh bread. I sat back, amazed at my luck to be treated to such luxury.

The next day I explored the center of Vienna, seeing baroque cathedrals, huge palaces and a small baroque church with a painting of cherubs playing trombones on the ceiling.

That night James took me to a Hueriger, a Viennese wine garden which serves this years wine. This is where the old Viennese people go to relax in the evening. I ate Wiener Schnitzel and drank the featured white wine mixed with fizzy water (apparently the style in Huerigers, I though it was very refreshing and a great summer drink).

Since the weather was chilly and I, having packed light, did not have anything warm to wear, James had generously given me a sweater, and had then proceeded to wear a matching sweater himself. We made quite the pair.

Thank you, James, and I hope you continue to find success in Vienna.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

RISE students in Heidelberg

This weekend I was in Heidelberg for a meeting of all the students (300 of us) participating in the DAAD RISE program this summer. The meeting featured visits to companies - I got to see a huge BASF chemical plant - and talks about opportunities for continuing study and work in Germany. In the evening, I spent my time exploring Heidelberg with new friends who I met at the meeting.

At the center of Heidelberg is a beautiful and mostly preserved medieval town, complete with cathedrals and Castle. I had a magical time climbing around and exploring the castle by day and night.

If you want to see more pictures of the castle, go to my picasa page:
You will see pairs of pictures taken of the same location by day and then by night.

Today, now back in my room in Darmstadt, I slept in then went to a big outdoor festival in the city center. I ate good German food and rode on a large Ferris wheel which was set in the marketplace and from which I could see all of Darmstadt. I saw red roofed buildings of modest height and occasionally a cathedral rising majestically above. Further from the city, I saw a few factories, many gentle hills covered in forest, and in the distance, the modern skyscrapers of Frankfurt rising sharply through the haze of the distance.

Tomorrow I take a train to Vienna to visit James Hall and, hopefully, to breathe in the great musical tradition of that city.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hello again.

I am having a fine time in Germany. I have taken a rest from traveling and have allowed myself to settle into my work and become acquainted to Darmstadt. The city is beautiful and the university campus is surrounded by fields and forest with wonderful running trails.

Tomorrow, the I begin traveling again. I will go first to Heidelberg for a meeting of all the students participating in the RISE program. Then I will travel all the way to Vienna to visit James Hall, a recent Lawrence University graduate who is living there and playing trombone. Both of these trips should be great. Following all this traveling I think I will sleep for a few days, which will be perhaps even better.

I have had few chances to play my trombone. I live in a student dorm where, of course, a trombone is much to loud. In fact, (and this was a surprise to me) buzzing on just the mouthpiece is too loud; my neighbor complained. This turned out all right though, because now I go to a nearby park to buzz on my mouthpiece. It is a very peaceful and pleasant way to practice.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Intense Tourist Day in Berlin!

6am - leave on train to Berlin
12pm - return home

in between: sightseeing in Berlin at a frantic pace.

In one day I visited two museums, explored through Berlin's pairlamentary and embassy districts, climbed up the victory tower to see a view of the entire city, and got my picture taken in front of quite a few major monuments.

Here is the climb up the Victory Tower (300 stairs), then the majestic view from the top.

And this is my favorite from the Museums that day. It is in the Pergamon Museum. What happened is, at some point the German Monarchy decided to go to to Greece, excavate an ancient city, pick it up, bring it back, and then proudly display it. Now, it rests in a public museum.

And now, back to a week of chemistry.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Parade in Frankfurt

Today I traveled to Frankfurt with a new friend who is also in Darmstadt for the DAAD RISE program. He was going to walk in a parade to celebrate the upcoming Olympics in China. I came along, thinking I would watch the parade from the sidelines, since I was a) not registered and b) the only person there who was not Chinese. Instead they gave me a T-shirt and a huge Chinese flag - probably because I was c) the tallest person there - which I waved proudly for the whole parade!

Other highlights of the day were a band with trombones, and accordion orchestra, and a horse drawn beer cart - all at a big street festival.

Now I need to try to sleep right away so I can wake up at 6 tomorrow to go to Berlin!