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Sophie Hapak - What I Learned from a Summer at the Leibniz Institute of Molecular Pharmacology in Berlin

I received a BRAVO! grant for the summer of 2013, and when I was asked to write an article for the newsletter, I was skeptical. An summary to incorporate everything I learned this summer about science, new cultures, and life in general? In my opinion, effectively comparing and contrasting my life in Arizona with my trip to Europe cannot be accomplished in anything shorter than a novel. But I'll do my best.

To start, this trip was truly exceptional in terms of the science. Working in Dr. Philipp Selenko's lab means learning in-cell (or in-lysate) NMR. This method is relatively new in the field of structural biology, and works great when the aim is to study post-translational modifications in a time-resolved fashion. It was the perfect extension of my project in Arizona, where I helped characterize the biochemical interactions of the aPKC isoforms and Par3 in the context of axonogensis, or the growth of an axon in a newly born neuron. The finding that one neuronal aPKC protein interacting with Par3 leads to an axon while another interaction with a different aPKC isoform will lead to dendrites led us to pose the question: do the phosphorylation capacities of the aPKCs differ? A summer of work in Dr. Selenko's lab has revealed that indeed, yes, these two proteins phosphorylate their physiological substrate, KIBRA, with different rates. The implications of this finding in terms of neuronal polarity (as well as potentially other types of polarity) are exciting, and I think that both labs are pleasantly surprised and pleased with the success of this small summer project.


But this trip for me was much more than working in a lab. One of the highlights of my time in Europe was attending a biophysical chemistry course in Erice, Sicily. Here, I learned the theories behind many structural biology methods, including computational biology, X-ray crystallography, and NMR. Between classes, I had time to fall in love with Italy, as well as visit ancient ruins and, of course, the beach. I made a lot of friends, some of whom I visited after the meeting. Because of this course, I had an excuse to travel to Zurich and London. I wrote the first part of this newsletter article on a plane ride to Rome. One year ago, I never imagined myself doing what I'm doing right now, and I'm not referring to the working-in-a-foreign-lab part. In Europe, I’ve encountered a stereotype about Americans, and that is that we don't travel beyond America very much. And, at least in my case, this stereotype was correct. The only other country that I had visited outside of the United States before this summer was Mexico, and even that can be attributed mostly to proximity. I was born in Arizona, grew up in Arizona, and went to college in Arizona, so the idea that I would one day have the opportunity to explore Europe never really crossed my mind. And even if it had, the prospect of traveling by myself would have been a little frightening. Because of BRAVO!, I have not only been able to crush the stereotype of Americans not being too keen on traveling (at least when it comes to this American), but also I have returned home with an increased sense of confidence in my ability to overcome entirely new challenges, no matter how foreign they may be.

As with anything worthwhile in life, this trip has not been without its difficulties. Along with battling the occasional bout of homesickness, I've had to learn how to adapt to a place where English is not the main language and supermarkets are not open on Sundays. I was at a grocery store in Berlin for the first time one day and, after paying for my things, I looked up at the cashier expectantly as my things remained unbagged. But the cashier had already forgotten about me and had moved on to the next customer. Experiences such as these are more embarrassing than anything else, and they have happened to me all too often since I've been abroad. I ended up getting my groceries home alright, in case you were wondering, and I learned for the future to always purchase bags as I’m checking out. Another notable incident was when I accidentally bought toothpaste for dentures because I thought it was simply travel size toothpaste (it tastes terrible, by the way). It was in making these small mistakes that I learned how to live in Berlin for the two and a half months that I was there.

It has been such a privilege to explore different countries and meet people from different cultures. I've learned that even people from completely different backgrounds can still communicate and become friends. From Casa Grande, Arizona, to Berlin, Germany, it's safe to say that I've travelled pretty far. But it's comforting to know that my ability to relate to people is not necessarily linked to nationality. Finally, I would like to thank everyone who made this experience possible, including my Arizona PI, Dr. Sourav Ghosh, my German PI, Dr. Selenko, as well as everyone on the BRAVO! committee. I would also like to note that this trip was funded by a grant to the University of Arizona from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (52006942).