Take Home Lessons from Deutschland

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the Career Services Summer Funding grant.  We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending the summer.  You can read the entire series here.

This blog is by Blake Mergler, CAS ’16

Vielen Dank (Thank you) to Career Services for supporting my summer as an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Participant at the RWTH Aachen, one of the most renowned universities in Germany. While I still do not speak German very well, I did grow so much from this opportunity to do neuroscience research, study introductory German, and live in a foreign atmosphere. As a Penn student on the pre-medical school track, I really wanted to study abroad this past summer, and when I was selected for this program, I knew it was the ideal place for me. Here are a few of my take-home lessons about my summer:

1. Research abroad sometimes (or mostly) involves doing the unexpected.
Upon acceptance to the program, I was placed in a research assistant position in Professor Gerhard Grunder’s Lab on a project entitled “Neural and visual processing of complex social situations and the influence of oxytocin as a potential moderator: A combined fMRI/ eye-tracking study.” However, I did not meet Dr. Grunder the entire time. FYI: This is typical in Germany, as professors are not very accessible to students!

More significantly, my grad student supervisor informed me on my first day that the eye-tracking equipment had not arrived/ probably would not arrive during the entire ten weeks I was there, and that they are not up to the oxytocin phase of the research yet. So, my project quickly shifted, and in the end was entitled “Gender Differences in Emotional Processing during a Go/NoGo Task”—clearly very different than what I had in mind.

Additionally, before arriving, in my task description, I was told that I would have a lot of patient/subject interaction, which is something I was looking forward to as a future doctor. However, the subjects that came in mostly spoke German, so there was clearly a language barrier with that. Most days, I was behind a computer screen mainly analyzing the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioral data, and entering questionnaire data that was collected from German young adults, with whom I could not communicate. I was able to watch while fMRIs were being conducted, pre-process and analyze fMRI imaging using SPM, statistically analyze my results through SPSS, and conduct many literature reviews for others in my research group. Needless to say, while there were many expectations not fulfilled in the research aspect of my program, I still had an enormously enriching experience doing the unexpected.

2. Collaboration is powerful and important in research.
Even though my program was part of RWTH UROP with students from many universities in the US and Canada, there were four other Penn students assisting in my research group entitled the International Research Training Group (IRTG) in the Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. This is because Penn has an amazing collaboration with RWTH Aachen, which became so inspiring when everyone made their presentations at the end of the program to the larger research group. I realized that no matter what everyone did this summer, it is just so wonderful that Penn students can collaborate with amazing German minds and that German grad students can spend time in our labs. I was excited to find out that upon saying goodbye to my grad student supervisor, it was not really goodbye because she will be in Philadelphia next fall as part of her program. This aspect of my summer has allowed me to return to Penn this Fall feeling lucky to attend such a place where research is not only conducted by our dedicated professors but where partnerships are made to advance our knowledge and embrace the unknowns.

3. There are many cultural norms I take for granted in the United States.
Being in Germany was such an amazing experience overall, but the cultural differences addressed in a workshop at the beginning of the program mostly held true. Germans are not as into small talk as Americans are, and coming from New York, I am so used to that! Of course, this was not universal, and I had amazing conversations with some Germans (who were mostly English speaking), but it was noticeable for me that people made small chat with each other a lot less than they do in New York and in Philadelphia. In a similar way, Germans do not talk about their home life at work so much; it is not common to ask what someone did the previous weekend or what they were going to do after work. In this way, there is a larger divide between one’s home and work life.

Another major norm that was violated which I hinted at earlier is that the whole structure of professorship in research labs is different. In my lab at Penn, I work closely with everyone (the research assistants, lab coordinator, grad students, and principal investigator), while in Germany there is a more distinct hierarchy, and as a research assistant, I never even met the professor I was supposedly working for. And, this was not unique—we were told to expect this within the first weeks of the program.

Thus, in addition to the lack of big salads and no tap water offered at any restaurant, these larger cultural differences were very interestingly noted.

Thank you again Career Services for giving me the ability to travel to Germany and for allowing me to learn not only about research and German but also immeasurable things about myself.

Author: Student Perspective

Views and opinions from current Penn students.