UniStem Day 2016 – First German stem-cell research day in Berlin

On March 11, 2016 stem cells were on the timetable for a number of students in Berlin with a keen interest in biology. More than 200 high school students from 15 Berlin schools attended Germany’s first UniStem Day, hosted by the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin-Buch. The new action day with a focus on current stem-cell research, organized by the German Stem Cell Network (GSCN), was all about arousing students’ curiosity, answering their questions, and providing them with information about stem cells.

More than 200 students flocked to the MDC research campus in Buch in the early morning, curious about the day to come – for the first time German students could experience a full day dedicated to stem-cell research. UniStem Days have been held across Europe with increasing popularity since 2009. This year, eight countries with a total of 27,000 students took part.

Prof. Thomas Sommer welcomes the high school students in the large auditorium of the MDC. Image: Anyess von Bock/GSCN

The event in Buch began on an international note: the students in the large Axon lecture hall were linked up with Milan, Belgrade and Sardinia. Loud and clear, the students received greetings, information about the daily program, and a taste of what was in store – all in English. “That in itself sent a powerful message – for young people to see that English is an important world language and the language of science,” said teacher Barbara Riedmayer. Thomas Sommer, Interim Chair of the Board of Directors and Interim Scientific Director at the MDC, greeted the students as future scientists and, with that in mind, introduced the program and its scientific content, and talked about the typical life and work of a scientist. MDC researcher Andreas Ofenbauer gave an entertaining talk about the love life of worms, the genetic tests he is carrying out on countless generations of worms, and the subsequent research findings he will use to develop pulsatile muscle cells in humans. The heart is a muscle that beats for a lifetime – heart surgeon Christof Stamm focused on this vital organ in his lecture on research into using stem cells in treatments for heart disease. The students seemed impressed: “We gained some fascinating insights into the life and work of scientist and doctors,” said one student, Leolo Straubinger.

Students in workshops. Image: Anyess von Bock/GSCN

“Stem Cells in Action” was the theme for the subsequent group activities, which included various workshops. Some of the groups discussed the ethical aspects of targeted genetic engineering and the issue of untested therapies and stem-cell tourism, which involves patients desperate for a cure undergoing untested but promising-sounding treatment, often abroad. Others visited the biotech companies on the research campus and learned all about where science and business meet, and the way in which treatments are developed from lab findings and brought to market. “The evaluation of the UniStem Day shows that career aspects play a key role in students’ interest in science,” said Daniel Besser, Managing Director of the German Stem Cell Network (GSCN).

Guest speakers at the UniStem Day: Prof. Erwin Böttinger (BIH), Prof. Thomas Sommer (MDC) and Dr. Daniel Besser (GSCN). Image: Anyess von Bock/GSCN

Many of the students even delved deeper by talking to PhD students and young scientists. “They wanted to know what life as a scientist is like – from course of study and daily routine to job prospects,” said Annika Fendler, a researcher at the MDC, who was pleased about the lively discussions the day provoked. The microscopy workshop was also very well received, as were the stem-cell games that involved reconstructing the developmental journey of a stem cell. At the end of the action-packed day, moderator André Lampe had one last surprise for the young students: in his newly developed science game Die wunderbare Welt der Stammzellen (“The wonderful world of stem cells”), the students could use a laser pointer to choose which stem-cell videos would be shown or which of the experts present would answer questions, creating an exciting mix of information about stem-cell research. “That was a great stem-cell day!” exclaimed a group of students at the end who had traveled all the way from Neumünster to learn more about stem cells.

UniStem Days are a European initiative: more than 27,000 students in Italy, Spain, the UK, Sweden, Poland, Serbia, Denmark and, for the first time, Germany, took part in this year’s event on March 11 to learn more about stem cells in research and application. In Germany, more than 1,000 high school students took part at various institutes and universities in eight German cities.

The goal of UniStem Days is to bring information about the current state and potential of stem-cell research closer to students and teachers. This is because stem-cell research is currently developing so rapidly that it can hardly be properly reflected in the school curriculum. The German Stem Cell Network therefore adopted the European idea for Germany and organized the UniStem Day in Berlin in collaboration with the MDC, the “Labor trifft Lehrer” program, the “Gläsernes Labor” teaching lab, the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and the Berlin-Brandenburg Center for Regenerative Therapies (BCRT), and encouraged similar events in Bonn, Bochum, Hanover, Jena, Dresden, Münster and Heidelberg. A total of 1,000 students took part this year – who knows how many it will be in 2017?


Text by Stefanie Mahler

Photos by Anyess von Bock/GSCN