Kinder im Gläsernen Labor

A holiday for Ukrainian children

Isolate DNA, ask questions, make new friends: During the Easter holidays, refugee children and young people from Ukraine were able to take part in free experimentation courses and experience guided tours of MDC research laboratories at the Berlin-Buch Campus.

The glass laboratory was bustling on the morning of 20 April: Twelve children and adolescents aged 13-17 extracted DNA from fruits, their oral mucosa and from bacteria. To get their own DNA, they had to gargle with a sip of drinking water and spit the result into a test tube. A sip from a test tube is already unusual, and many had to laugh at themselves at the latest when gargling in the lab.

Those who watched the goings-on could at first hardly detect any difference from the usual holiday courses at the school lab on the Berlin-Buch campus. Unlike usual, however, there was a language barrier. The number of supervisors was much higher than usual, as instructions were given in English and Ukrainian.

Offering the Glass Lab courses to Ukrainian children is an initiative of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). "The response to my email survey at the MDC was enormous. It's great how many are willing to help," says Dr Luiza Bengtsson, who is responsible for knowledge transfer at the MDC. The first course with the support of volunteers from the MDC already took place on 13 April.

Curious about biology

After lunch in the cafeteria, the children were able to relax a bit and then experience guided tours of research labs at the MDC. They learned about a technology platform for animal phenotyping, visited the working group "Anchor Proteins and Signal Transduction" of PD Dr. Enno Klußmann and the working group of Professor Thomas Willnow, which, among other things, researches causes and therapies of Alzheimer's disease.

MDC doctoral student Oleksandra Kalnytska was one of the volunteers who accompanied the children on this day. She experienced the children and young people as very open-minded. "Some of them came out of an inner curiosity about biology, others to see something interesting, still others to meet new people and possibly make friends. They were extremely curious and asked many questions, especially during the lab visits," says Kalnytska. "One 13-year-old girl kept asking me about Alzheimer's disease and if there are ways to prevent it. She was excited about brain organoids and wanted to know if it was possible to grow a real brain. She hopes to become a psychologist one day. Another girl, 14 years old, asked for learning material on biology as she would like to be a scientist later."

Dr Ihor Minia, a scientist at the MDC, was also one of the supporters of the courses for the Ukrainian children. He contributed some experiments to the course and was able to explain complex topics such as plasmid formation in bacteria so easily that even a 10-year-old could understand it.

Oleksandra Kalnytska , who like Ihor Minia comes from Ukraine, has been involved in aid and donations for Ukraine since the beginning of the war. She is very grateful for the holiday offer: "I think the day was a very positive experience for the Ukrainian children. Here, at least for a few hours, they could escape the burden of being refugees and immerse themselves in a new world of scientific wonder."

Text: Christine Minkewitz

Further information