The graduate student exchange program between the University of Mainz and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center was started in October 2000. The idea of the program, which originated with Claudia Koch-Brandt (Mainz) and Joachim Herz and Nancy Street (UT Southwestern), is to give life science graduate students from both institutions the opportunity to work in a foreign laboratory, learn new methods and technical skills, and experience another country with, possibly, a different philosophy of science. The Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung Foundation has generously provided the financing to make this possible, offering a scholarship for up to 1 year for selected Ph.D. students (see box).
I was fortunate to be one of the first students selected to participate in this program while I was working toward my Ph.D. at the Institute of Biochemistry in Mainz under the direction of Dr. Koch-Brandt. Before making my transatlantic journey, I had to select a mentor and obtain a formal invitation to work in that individual's lab. I approached Dr. Richard G. W. Anderson, mainly because he has published frequently in well-known journals and because his research focus was similar to the work I was involved in at Mainz.
Before my arrival in Dallas, I had never met Dr. Anderson or any of the members of his laboratory but, reflecting on this past year, it is clear that choosing to work with him was a step in the right direction for my career. He treated me as a full-time member of his lab and integrated me into his research focus. In addition to attending weekly lab meetings, Dr. Anderson and I would meet one-on-one to discuss recent publications, and he would explain his philosophy and views on science.
Together, we worked out a research project that would not only benefit his research efforts but also would be something I could incorporate into my thesis project back home in Mainz. The project itself turned out to be exciting, fascinating, and challenging, which in turn made it fun for me. I was able to learn many new methods to accomplish my goals and to modify familiar techniques for my specific project--and all within a realistic time frame geared to the 1-year duration of my stay. My laboratory colleagues were always helpful and patient with me as I learned new methods and techniques, which is very important to a young scientist. In addition, the university has four Nobel laureates, as well as many other world-renowned scientists on staff, which made it easy for me to get experimental advice and technical assistance from people at the cutting edge of basic scientific research.
I found the laboratories in Texas to be quite different from those that I had grown used to in Mainz. And it was quickly obvious that the hierarchy among the researchers was not as steep as in Germany. Young scientists are therefore more equal colleagues. Senior scientists also seem to be less involved in administrative affairs and therefore have more time to focus on their scientific work. I was also impressed by the quantity and quality of the seminars at UT Southwestern: It was possible to attend seminars with top-notch speakers twice a day, 5 days a week! Another advantage of my laboratory was that it had no windows, so I was shielded from the sweltering Texas sun.
As life in the laboratory was different, so was life outside the lab. Dallas may not at first blush appear to be as beautiful or as rich in cultural events as, say, New York or Chicago, but it does have its own unique character. Common leisure activities include going to the cinema or attending one of the four major sporting events that Dallas has to offer (baseball, basketball, American football, and ice hockey).
Dallas is also the gateway to the old American West and, perhaps as a result, the mass transportation system is certainly not as well established as it is in Europe. Therefore, I needed a car to handle everyday tasks such as going to the supermarket or grabbing a bite to eat at a local restaurant. Fortunately, gasoline is really cheap compared to prices in Europe. The streets are packed with big trucks and SUVs (sport utility vehicles)--not at all like the cars you see throughout Europe--but in spite of this, you hardly ever have a problem finding a parking space! My German driver's license was not valid in Texas, and I had to acquire a Texas license, which is very easy (I took a driving test that lasted for approximately 10 minutes). As for purchasing your essential "wheels," you can visit a professional dealer (where the prices are often higher), but I can also recommend checking out the bulletin boards at the university. With the information there, you can buy or sell a car (if you are experienced enough to see the difference between a good car and a "wreck").
Looking back over the last year in Dallas, I highly recommend a visit to the United States. I learned new methods and gained new insight and experiences, scientifically and otherwise. I also saw another side of science on the other side of the Atlantic, in terms of a different philosophical and practical approach.
I am very appreciative that the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation gave me this wonderful opportunity to go to the United States and do research at a world-class facility. The freedom to do my experiments and the stimulating scientific exchange with my colleagues, and now friends, have given me new insight into what is available to me as an up-and-coming scientist. Upon leaving the United States, not only do I have an offer from Dr. Anderson to come back to do a postdoctoral fellowship, but I am also leaving richer in experience and knowledge.