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.

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