Aaron Lee on Environmental Research in Germany

by Aaron Lee, CE/German/German Studies ‘09

Aaron LeeBefore this summer, I had figured that lab research would be very similar anywhere in the world. Like Gertrude Stein said, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” and although there may be some slight differences from lab to lab, I thought that in the end, a test tube is still a test tube. However, this summer allowed to me see that while some things will be the same, it is not necessarily the equipment or protocols that make a lab, but the ideas and backgrounds of the people working in it. This summer I had the opportunity to conduct research at the UFZ-Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany through the Research in Science and Engineering (RISE) program from the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD). This year, the RISE program offered over 500 internship opportunities and funded 270 scholarships for North American students to conduct research with Ph.D. students throughout Germany.

During my internship, I first worked in the Department of Environmental Microbiology followed by the Department of Isotope Biogeochemistry. Both projects were similar in that they used stable isotope analysis to study microbial activity from contaminated sites. Stable isotope analysis takes advantage of the fact that bacteria are more likely to consume organic contaminants containing normal carbon-12 because of energy efficiency. Therefore, a concentrated presence of the heavier isotope, carbon-13, indicates biodegradation. In the first project, I studied the degradation rates of a model organic contaminant (toluene) in a multi-phase system (gas, water, and oil) by a specific strain of microbes.

This study fits into the research on bioavailability, whereby microbial decontamination of waste material is dependent on the availability of these contaminants to the bacteria in the actual site. One of the major hindrances to in situ biotic decontamination is that some contaminants are simply trapped, such as in micropores of soil or in an oil phase, so that bacteria cannot degrade them. Therefore, by studying the conditions in which these contaminants can become available to the microorganisms, we can then try to make natural decontamination a more efficient process. In the second project, I developed clone libraries of bacterial cultures that degrade chlorinated ethenes and studied anaerobic bacteria from the highly contaminated site of Bitterfeld, Germany.

Besides learning from the research, I gained a perspective on the German work environment and culture just by living there. The UFZ was a very international and diverse working environment, with Ph.D students and interns from all over Europe and the world. It was interesting to see that the official working language was English, but that there were almost no native speakers. My supervisors were Finnish and Polish, and while the technicians would almost always speak in German (or Sachsisch, the local dialect), I would hear Spanish, Polish, Chinese, Italian and a myriad of other languages everyday at work.

From living in a suite with three German students, to returning all of my plastic bottles for Pfand (deposits which were sometimes more expensive than the product itself) and eating wondrous German bread, I became immersed in the German lifestyle. During weekends, I also had the opportunity to travel with other RISE interns from Leipzig to countries such as Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, Finland and several others by the extensive European train system.

In the end, we may all still use the same kind of pipette or plasmid isolation kit, and scientists and engineers may forever be bound by the same concepts and principles. But this summer has shown me that we definitely still have much to learn and to see beyond the walls of the laboratory.

For more information about RISE, visit daad.de/rise/en.