German Undergraduates Researching around the World
“It opened my eyes that my subject has more in it than you can see in the university,” says Miriam Strake. The biology student had just completed her third semester of study in biosciences at the University of Heidelberg when she got the chance through the “RISE worldwide” program to work as a research assistant in China. The RISE worldwide program, run by the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst – DAAD) , is built on the belief that international teamwork is at the heart of good research, and that this principle is best instilled early on in research careers. In 2011, its first year, RISE worldwide supported 247 research internships at universities and research institutes in 22 countries, sending students to work as research assistants abroad for up to three months.
RISE worldwide – What It Is, How It Works
Underpinning the program is an online database of registered internship offers from accredited universities and non-profit research institutions. Professors, research staff, and PhD students around the world post offers in the hope of finding a qualified and fully funded German student to support their research efforts. Students register online and undergo an eligibility check. If approved, each student can apply for up to 3 projects, with final selection based on academic merit and the host organisation’s assessment of the application. The internships last for up to 12 weeks and take place during the summer break.
The RISE worldwide program is part of a suite of RISE programs run by the DAAD. The original program, simply called RISE (Research Internships in Science and Engineering), was launched in North America. In operation since 2006, it gives undergrads from American and Canadian universities the chance to do summer research projects in Germany under the supervision of a mentor at a university. Today, it is open to students from the UK as well. In the meantime, “RISE professional” has also launched, which places students in professional internships at German companies during the summer.
Bringing Research to Life
Miriam Strake spent three months at the Institute of Desert Meteorology in Urumqi, located in the remote western Chinese province of Xinxiang. She worked on a team researching desert ecology and long-term climate change by analysing tree rings, requiring teamwork between biologists and geologists. This kind of interdisciplinary research environment was something Strake had never experienced before: “Geography people working with biology people… I had never thought of that. If you are studying biology, it is more physics, chemistry, biochemistry. This was a totally new area for me.”
Working on bone mechanics in a university medical engineering laboratory in Brisbane, Australia, brought engineering to life for student Markus Mehnert, an undergraduate student from Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg: “I realized that a lot of the theoretical things I have learned at university are really useful for doing research. When you sit in university lectures, you sometimes can’t believe that all the stuff you hear is actually useful.”
The opportunity to work closely with top researchers was a highlight for Johannes King, a bachelor’s student in physics from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, who joined the particle physics lab at McGill University in Montreal, Canada: “In Germany, I usually have lectures with 150-200 people so I don’t know any professors personally. In Canada, I talked to my supervising professor 3 or 4 times a week.” Furthermore, working as part of an international team analysing data from the ATLAS experiment, part of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, has been great for his resume. He is set on a research career and is now considering a master’s degree in particle physics as his next step.
A Cultural Experience
Proximity to and support from senior staff was another benefit for Strake. “From the moment I arrived in China I had people who would be there for me 24 hours a day if there was a problem. The vice director of the institute took me to a lot of workshops and official meetings. There was a lot of support from all the people at the laboratory. I made some really good friends in China,” says Strake. Markus Mehnert received similar attention: “My supervisor really helped me and took care of me in the first days and weeks, making it easy to settle in.”
RISE is as much a cultural as an academic experience. Mehnert found that as an outsider in Brisbane, he got to know other international students in a way that would not have been possible at his home university. In Canada, King was struck by how much more approachable people are in North America. For Strake, the Chinese culture was completely different to any she had experienced. She also managed to improve her fledgling Chinese, and returned to Germany enthused about both research possibilities and the country she had gotten to know: “China has a lot to offer that we have no idea about,” she says.
In early 2012, the RISE worldwide program will select participants for its next cohort of talented, young, internationally mobile researchers. The students who have benefited from the opportunity so far are have no doubts that it has shaped their outlook and prospects. They have found the program to be very organised, and the application process straightforward. Scholarships are generous, and cover most of the travel and accommodation costs, though students have to organize their own visa and flight. As Strake says: “You get so much help and support. If you have a question the answer comes through promptly. I’d recommend the RISE program to anyone.”
For more information about all three DAAD RISE programs, visit http://www.daad.de/rise-programs/en/index.html
To learn how to become a research mentor and host a German student through RISE worldwide, go to http://www.daad.de/rise-weltweit/en/12015/index.html
For more information about the German research landscape, career and funding opportunities, please visit www.research-in-germany.de