Summer vacation with top researchers

17 September 2015

The International Summer School (ISS) organized by the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz offers students from around the world an opportunity to participate in an exceptional program. Every year IMB selects a small group of budding scientists from hundreds of applicants and, next to lectures, directly involves them in current research projects for a period of six weeks. The Mainz University Medical Center and the Faculty of Biology of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) also participate in this project which contributes towards enhancing Mainz's reputation as an international science hub.

The diagrams that Daniela Kaiser, the ISS Coordinator, lays on the table are colorful. She has broken down the group of students participating in the 2015 International Summer School of the Institute of Molecular Biology by country of origin – and the group really is very international: 20 students from 16 countries have traveled to Mainz to learn and do research in the fields of gene regulation, epigenetics, and genome stability. They are from countries as diverse as Brazil, Bulgaria, Japan, Pakistan, and the Ukraine.

Internationality is important to IMB. This becomes very clear in the office of the Director of Scientific Management, where posters depicting conferences and symposia with international speakers adorn the wall behind Dr. Ralf Dahm's desk. One poster invites doctoral candidates from around the world to the International Ph.D. Program (IPP) held in Mainz; another advertises the International Summer School, which IMB organizes with great commitment and dedication.

The Summer School with a difference

"Most of the Summer Schools I know of are designed for the students to sit down and listen. Basically the learning material is presented to them", says Dahm. "We do things differently here. Every participant is integrated in one of the existing project groups. These groups do not re-address themes that have been rehashed many times before. They focus on highly topical research. The students join in and even work on their own research projects."

"We started out four years ago with twelve students", says Kaiser, who is responsible for the organizational side of the IMB Summer School, among other tasks. "At the time we received 128 applications." This year we had 382 applicants from 57 countries. This increase is also depicted in one of the colorful diagrams.

Alan Kavšek from Zagreb was allocated one of the coveted Summer School places. "My group is working with a protein that is important for DNA repair in cells", reports Kavšek. "We are researching how the activity of this protein is regulated." Kavšek works in a related field at his current university. He intends completing his Master's degree in a year from now. "I came here because I hope the time spent at the ISS will advance my professional career", says the 22-year-old. "The research is interesting and we work closely together."

Judit Carrasco Sala shares this opinion. She is originally from Barcelona but is currently studying and researching at the famous Pasteur Institute in Paris. "The people here at IMB are very nice. We can always find someone to compare notes with. Everybody is helpful and the institute is full of young people." She likes the short distances at IMB. "It's completely different at the large Pasteur Institute." Carrasco Sala has already accomplished her Master's degree. The 22-year-old from Spain is currently contemplating what to do for her PhD.

Joining outstanding researchers

Neither student knew much about IMB or Mainz prior to applying for the International Summer School. "All I knew was that the city existed", says Kavšek. His voice cannot hide a touch of embarrassment. In the six weeks that have since passed, the group has got to know not only IMB but also the local area. A comprehensive social program ensured they had an opportunity to experience Mainz and cultural aspects of this region of Germany.

Not everyone in the world has Mainz immediately on their radar as a science hub – a fact that Dahm, too, is aware of. "We simply don't have as many institutes here as Berlin or Munich. But we do engage in excellent research here in Mainz." It is something the International Summer School intends to convey and the ever-growing number of applications shows its success in doing so is increasing.

"IMB is under development", says Dahm. "We currently have around 200 people working here, but that number is growing continuously. We have a very family-like atmosphere at the institute. We are all on first-name terms. We bring people together in our central Science Lounge. The group leaders are always somewhere close at hand. We are very good at networking our people. It is something the students benefit from too."

Furthermore, IMB has a clear thematic focus. Gene regulation, epigenetics, and genome stability are the three fields in which all groups are engaged in intensive research. Here, they are at the cutting edge of research. And the International Summer School reflects this as well.

Developing one's own ideas

Fortunately, the financial expense is manageable for students and the institute alike: the lion's share of the Summer School is financed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Nonetheless, it remains a challenge with regards to organization and personnel. "Of course, we have to check each time to see who have the capacity to take someone on", says Kaiser. "Not every group is able to do that." The Mainz University Medical Center and the Faculty of Biology at JGU participate in the Summer School alongside IMB. "This year we have integrated four students into four of their research groups." The remaining 16 participants are researching at IMB.

Dr. Holger Richly, for instance, has welcomed a Spanish student into his Molecular Epigenetics group, which has nine researchers in total. "One area we are studying is how stem cells are turned into specialized cells during development. Our Summer School student has joined us in researching the influence of a specific gene on the development of heart cells." Richly has been welcoming students into his research group for some years. "It does, of course, present additional work. We have to keep an eye on them to start with when they are learning new methods. But they catch on pretty quickly and are then able to do their own thing. It is very important to me that my people develop their own ideas."

Kavšek and Carrasco Sala will soon be returning home. But before that they will both be presenting the results of their research at the Summer School's closing event. It will follow a similar format to the academic conferences held at IMB. They have been preparing for the event during the past six weeks.

Perhaps one or two of them will even return to Mainz in the future as doctoral candidates. "That is also one of our goals", says Kaiser. "We want to showcase who we are and to present ourselves as a new and vibrant institute. One fifth to one quarter of our International Summer School students will later apply for admission to our doctoral program." Regardless of what happens, the group members definitely want to stay in touch with each other. "The others have asked me whether I could organize a get-together", reports Kavšek. "We may well meet up again next summer."