Alec Nienhauser - Germany

As I sit in the lab the day after my final presentation, it is hard to believe I have been abroad for just three months. Most of my time in Germany has been spent in the lab synthesizing, experimenting and analyzing, yet every weekend seemed to bring a new, exciting adventure too. My study abroad experience differed from most; rather than taking classes and learning in a traditional setting, I chose a research project and spent 35-40 hours each week working in multiple chemistry labs trying to accomplish my end goal of creating a reusable, porous membrane that successfully filters water samples of high turbidity. In addition to working with a fourth year PhD student, I had the resources of the entire Fraunhofer Institute (Stuttgart Campus) at my fingertips.
 
Upon my arrival, I immediately began working on my project and experimenting with the properties of Chitosan, a polymer of which I quickly became fond. It was also apparent that my three-month time span would prevent my project from reaching fruition; however, I still managed to produce multiple deliverables. 
 
Chitosan is the deacetylated form of chitin, the main component of crustacean skin and a very large waste product throughout the world. I was tasked with creating a stable nanoparticle emulsion (water droplets in oil) of Chitosan. In order to determine the appropriate amounts of each phase, (water, oil and surfactant) one must become familiar with HLB values and conduct extensive tests with analysis. Nanoparticle syntheses take multiple days due to long reaction cycles, difficulty of dissolving, and the need to crosslink our end sample. 
 
After just three months in the lab, I was able to characterize 9 different types of Chitosan, all with differing polymer lengths. Using DLS (Dynamic Light Scattering) analysis, I successfully distinguished both the size of the nanoparticles and their surface charge (Zeta Potential), ultimately resulting in one graph that will be in my supervisor’s next published article. Over the course of this research, I was able to hone my organic synthesis skills, and master different types of emulsion preparation and nanoparticle analysis. Due to ongoing studies, I won’t go into deeper detail.
 
In Germany I was exposed to more chemical apparatuses than ever before. I performed analysis using the DLS and SLS, SEC (Size Exclusion Chromatography), SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) and mastered the use of the HLB (Hydrophile Lipophile balance) value test. This lab experience was more than I could ask for, as I was given freedom, full responsibility over my lab space, and more respect than I could have imagined.
 
While devoting my weekdays to research, I had the good fortune to spend weekends in Munich, Düsseldorf, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Prague. As a solo traveler, this experience has been eye-opening. In Rotterdam, I met two local Mechanical Engineers who spent four days with me traveling around Holland, learning what it’s like to be a student from a different country with very different customs. In Munich, I met another solo traveler from Israel who wanted, like me, to immerse herself in Bavarian culture. I haven’t had a summer to date with so many bright memories and new experiences. This semester abroad was more eye opening than I ever expected.
Overall, while my experience abroad was different from most, it still held similar values and lessons learned by anyone who experiences life overseas. Traveling alone was the best decision I made on this trip. It was easy to hop onto someone else’s plans and go on a group venture, but it wasn’t until I decided to go on adventures by myself and expose myself to a new city, ultimately becoming vulnerable to the surroundings and strangers, that I truly began to learn more about myself. Not only was I exposed to friendly and fun travelers, I was also graced with generous locals who housed me and relatives abroad who opened their doors. Europe certainly wasn’t the safest place to be traveling in this summer, and it was also quite a strange summer in the US as well. With that said, it was nice to be away from all the drama, and I never felt unsafe once. There is so much to learn in new countries with different traditions. I’m excited to see how my experiences across Europe this summer will help shape my future, but I am certain that I am a more well-rounded student in the laboratory and a more well-rounded individual overall.