No research without IT girls

Life sciences research generates enourmous amounts of data; their analysis is thus no longer possible without machine learning or artificial intelligence. On Girls' Day, students from grades 6 to 12 found out what female mathematicians and computer scientists do at the Max Delbrück Center.

Vor der Untersuchung im Elektronenmikroskop überprüft eine Schülerin die Probe.

The sample is barely bigger than a fingernail. The girls, who are visiting the electron microscopy technology platform, examine a small piece of nerve with great curiosity. A diamond knife cuts it into extremely thin layers. To attach the pieces to a sample holder for analysis, technical assistant Christina Schiel has a special tool: cat whiskers. They are thin, but stable enough to maneuver the sample onto a tiny net. Meanwhile, Dr. Séverine Kunz, the head of the platform, has prepared the electron microscope in the adjacent room, with which the students can look at the structures of an intestinal organoid, among other things. Once the images have been taken, computer-based image analysis comes into play.

Ulrike Ohnesorge greeted the attendees in person on-site. The visitors from BIMSB joined online.

Every year, around 20 female middle and high school students can find out why computer science has become an integral part of the life sciences during Girls' Day. "The spots are fully booked within a few days," says Ulrike Ohnesorge, who organizes the on-site visits together with her colleagues Dr. Christiane Nolte and Dr. Grietje Krabbe. In small groups, the girls then visit the laboratories, technology platforms and the IT department.

At the electron microscopy facility, the girls get a detailed look inside a cell. With the help of Dr. Mara Rusu, the girls focus in on the structure of the mitochondria. "They really do look just like in the textbook," the girls note. The team also has the structure as a 3D model at hand. And as a parting gift, the girls receive an electron microscopic photo of a cell to take home.

Programming a game yourself

In our IT department, the participants learned how to program a simple game.

In the IT department, girls also get hands on experience. Under the guidance of Almuth Galley, Jeannette Haß and their colleagues, the girls assemble a computer and program a simple game themselves. Afterward, they visit the heart of the IT infrastructure: the server rooms. With their numerous chambers and cables, they are somewhat reminiscent of a human heart. This is where huge amounts of data are processed. The storage capacity available here is around 13,500,000 gigabyte, which corresponds to around 26,000 standard notebooks. The IT experts ensure that the flow of information runs smoothly – they really are at the heart of things.

Alongside Jeannette Haß from the IT department, the girls had the opportunity to tour our server rooms.

There is a lot to discover in the laboratories in Buch and Mitte, which open their doors to the girls: Carla Mölbert from Dr. Laleh Haghverdi's team shows how their lab analyzes complex single-cell data in order to better understand the processes in healthy and diseased cells. Pia Rautenstrauch and Pascal Wetzel from Professor Dr. Uwe Ohler's laboratory show the students how we can use bioinformatics to better understand how genes are switched on and off and that cells can also have different states. Sarah Gräßle and Viktoria Flore from Professor Dr. Simon Haas' research group visualize the impressive diversity of our immune cells – in healthy people and in leukemia patients. "We use artificial intelligence to look for patterns that show us why a person becomes ill," says Flore. The visit to Professor Dr. Sofia Forslund-Startceva's lab also centers around diverse organisms and their impact on our health: Together with Theda Bartolomaeus and Mina Kaufhold, the girls are investigating the connection between our intestinal bacteria (microbiota) and obesity or cardiovascular disease.

All of the hosts have studied very different subjects: they are chemists or biophysicists, data scientists or systems biologists, mathematicians or biotechnologists, computer scientists or physicians. Some have always been enthusiastic about programming, others came to it later by chance. "It's not such a set way of life," says Professor Jana Wolf in her opening remarks. "We work together in a very interdisciplinary way to solve research questions in a team and find out, for example, why one person responds well to cancer therapy – but another doesn't at all." Such role models are important for the students. "You can't be what you can't see," as the saying goes.


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