Undertaking a fellowship at the Marie Curie (MC) training site of the University Eye Hospital in Tübingen wasn't something I expected to change my life. I was simply interested in the chance to use better facilities and deepen my training for a year, because opportunities for doing good PhD research are still limited in my home country.
Having finished my medical studies a year earlier, I was pursuing my doctoral research in the department of ophthalmology of the Medical University Sofia, combining morphological investigations, electron microscopy, and clinical work in the ophthalmologic ward. My supervisor, Professor Gougoutchkova, is one of the best vitreo-retinal surgeons in Bulgaria, and she urged me to apply for the MC fellowship in Tübingen. She had received a message from the Laboratory for Experimental Ophthalmology saying that they were looking for someone to undertake a 1-year training post there.
That was how I became acquainted with Dr. Konrad Kohler, Dr. W. Schilling, and Prof. E. Zrenner. With their help, we managed to write a scientific project proposal and a working programme for my 1-year stay in Tübingen. If you are interested in one of these fellowships, please plan your stay at least 6 months in advance, because the evaluation procedure is so long. You must also be prepared to write multiple documents and ask for lots of references. My future supervisors were extremely helpful from the very beginning and did not let the huge pile of papers we had to fill out and prepare discourage me. Altogether the writing and waiting period took about 8 months, and just when I was about to give up, I got confirmation that my application was successful.
I was out of this world from joy, which was just as well, since the bureaucracy was far from over. The difficulties involved in obtaining visas, making travel arrangements, obtaining permission from my home university for a leave of absence, and so on were numerous, but nothing could cloud my perfect mood.
New Experiences in Living ...
The biggest adventure of my life was beginning. Germany is quite an amazing country, where unlimited freedom to work and explore new directions meets strict order and iron discipline, where unlimited resources come up against strict planning and careful pragmatism, and where politeness and courtesy are mixed with a special sense of humour and generosity. For me, moving there felt like being a baby again--you have to relearn almost everything from scratch, because for even the simplest things there is a German way of doing it.
You have to get used to the perfect organisation of everything: the public transport coming at the very second on the schedule, and also leaving ahead of you when you are even 1 minute late at the bus stop; the local credit cards, which are no different from any other but are greatly preferred in most of the shops; and even the special way of sorting the garbage. Can you imagine, I had a special book/calendar giving all the instructions on how to recycle, what type of garbage would be collected on my street, and when. Unbelievable--it was like a doctoral thesis!
And of course, like a newborn, you have to learn the language. The faster you do so, the sooner you will be able to take care of yourself and not feel dependent on someone else's merciful translation. If you are going in Germany, please take the time to learn a little German, just the simplest and most common phrases--they can work miracles in everyday life. I can still remember the first time I went into a German bank with a short note written for me by a colleague from the lab. I just handed it over to the cashier, and she did everything without a word. It was totally strange and embarrassing, and I promised myself to do my best to learn German as fast as I could.
And in the Lab
In the lab I was finally given the freedom to choose what to do with my project, what extra experiments to do on top of those outlined in my research plan, and what new methods to explore. In my home country it was really difficult to reach my full potential. It was not that I did not have the ideas or that I was not given the opportunity to direct my project in the way I wanted. On the contrary, my supervisor and I often discussed new ideas, but because of the lack of resources and the lack of collaborations between different laboratories, none of my ideas turned into reality. All these problems had discouraged me a lot and had frozen my scientific enthusiasm.
Here in Tübingen everything was very different. I had the resources, I was in a big ultramodern laboratory with several different sectors collaborating fully together, and I had wonderful supervisors supporting my ideas in every way they could. I was "in the sun," so to say, and now I could give freedom to my scientific creativity. Germans can always see your potential and try to provide the best conditions for you to develop it. There were no limitations placed on my desire to learn and to do something new. I am really grateful to my supervisor Dr. Kohler, to Prof. Zrenner, and to everyone in Tübingen for giving me opportunities that cast a whole new light on my PhD thesis.
Although at first I found the atmosphere of the lab very reserved and a little bit cold, after several months I began to understand it, and finally I felt I was making connections with my colleagues. Don't make the mistake of thinking that living and studying abroad is a piece of cake; it is always a bit stressful, and there are lot of unexpected difficulties that will try to trip you up. But when you have the support of the people you work with, it is another story.
Germans don't accept you lightly, but once you become their friend, you are in their hearts forever. I will never forget how they helped me find a place to stay, which was really rather difficult in a small student town like Tübingen. They even offered to let me stay at their places when things were looking really hopeless. And the social side of my year in Germany provides many treasured memories: cheerful trips to the mountains, nice gatherings in someone's house, and the magnificent evening concerts in the small monastery nearby. Likewise I hope that all my friends will always remember the Bulgarian spring holiday of Martenizia that we celebrated together and the Bulgarian food and wine I shared with them.
More Changes Than Meet the Eye
Through knowing these people and spending a year in Germany, I learnt so much about myself and the things I can do. I became more self-assured, more open. On my return home, I might have looked like my old self, yet I was different. I started thinking sideways, which was not typical for me before: Now I evaluate every situation from many points of view and see the complexity in things.
The experience I had gained in new scientific fields gave me a new broader outlook on my PhD thesis, something I could not have had before. Now I see things not only from the medical point of view, but also from that of biology, biotechnology, and immunohistochemistry. In this way my work has become more interdisciplinary and, dare I say it, richer in terms of experiments and results. If someone had told me a year ago that I would be combining clinical work with in vitro experiments, I would have laughed. And yet here I was learning new technologies, exploring completely new fields of science from the ones I had studied in the university, and I have to say, I liked it a lot.
After this year in Germany, I am not afraid to take risks anymore or to make new turns. I have realised that although new beginnings may sometimes be connected with the fear of unknown, they are the only way to gain knowledge and to change yourself and your life. This is what happened to me. If you were to catch a glimpse of my desk now, you will surely recognise the German influence on me: Everything is perfectly ordered, labelled with different colours and fonts. That kind of impact can be found in every small detail, in everything I do, and hopefully will stay with me forever.
So if you are wondering where, and whether, to go, do not hesitate to head for Germany--it will be the adventure of your life. Like every adventure, it has its risks but also lots of positive opportunities. I don't believe that anyone could be indifferent to experiencing such a complex and absorbing culture. I feel I am a better person for having learnt to adapt to it. It is worth trying, believe me!