A week in a scientist's shoes: Pupils visit MDC labs

Eric Niller and Pirmin Schmid won a special prize in the youth science competition “Jugend forscht”: they have now spent a week gaining work experience in two research groups at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). There are plenty of opportunities at the MDC for larger school groups, too. The research center runs various events to spark young people’s enthusiasm for the life sciences.

Science always begins with a question. The question Eric Niller and Primin Schmid asked themselves was: How can we modify flour without it losing its baking properties so that people with gluten intolerance (celiac disease) can eat it?

The answer the two pupils from Otto Hahn High School in Tuttlingen in south-west Germany came up with earned them the first prize in the regional round of the nationwide youth science competition “Jugend forscht” as well as a special prize in the federal state competition: one week’s work experience at the MDC. Here they got a taste of research in the labs of Thomas Sommer and Oliver Daumke, gaining insights into scientific work and helping with ongoing projects. But the two school leavers also got a lot of new ideas for their own project.

Thiemo Sprink, scientist in the Daumke lab, shows Eric Niller and Pirmin Schmid images made with the new electron microscope, which was acquired in March 2017. Photo: Wiebke Peters, MDC

Eric’s and Pirmin’s successful idea: inserting maize prolamins into wheat

The two young men have been doing research in the school lab since Year 7. They are particularly interested in molecular biology. For their gluten experiment they concentrated on the storage protein prolamin. “Gluten contains various proteins but it’s only this one that causes trouble,” says Eric. Permin and he isolated prolamins from maize and wheat and then inserted the maize prolamin into the wheat. The result was that the baking properties of the grain remained the same but it became edible for celiac sufferers.

In another experiment, they added rennet to normal wheat flour for a certain time before baking, thereby developing an amazingly simple method of making the flour edible for people with a gluten allergy. Rennet is a complex mix of enzymes and is usually used in cheese making because it separates the proteins in the milk causing it to form curds.

Purifying proteins, cultivating bacteria

At MDC, Eric and Pirmin worked with proteins, too, slipping into the role of basic researchers. Guided by Ernst Jarosch, a scientist in Thomas Sommer’s group, they purified the proteins. The researcher also showed them how gel electrophoresis functions, a method of separating molecules of different sizes. Publishing scientific papers was also on the agenda during Eric’s and Pirmin’s first two days at MDC.

“It’s incredibly valuable experience for us to be able to find out more about working practices and methods and sample the atmosphere of the researcher’s everyday life,” Pirmin enthuses. In Oliver Daumke’s research group, their second observation, the school students could use the skills they had learnt in the previous couple of days – as well as the knowledge they had brought with them: before embarking on the gluten project, Eric and Pirmin had worked on bacteria. At MDC, they used Escherichia coli to produce proteins and test the production efficiency of various clones of the bacterium. The material produced is stored in a freezer for use by MDC researchers in later experiments.

Preparing the sample. Photo: Wiebke Peters, MDC

“An all-round success”

Perhaps Eric and Pirmin gained most value from the advice they were given on their own work, such as the fact that proteins in gels move slower and separate better when the power applied is varied. Ernst Jarosch also encouraged them to investigate prolamins on the genetic level and recommended the relevant literature.

“For us, the work experience has been an all-round success,” Eric and Permin conclude. They are determined to continue doing research together even if their paths are now diverging. Eric will spend the coming year working as an au-pair in England and then perhaps study medicine. In the meantime, Pirmin will start studying bio and process technology at Furtwangen University (HFU). They are currently contacting firms in the food industry about their gluten project. Both could envisage taking their idea to market.

UniStem Day and Systems Biology Week: Opportunities for school students at MDC

The “Jugend forscht” work experience will probably be repeated in 2018. MDC is, however, also open to school students who do not take part in the nationwide competition: in 2017, the second STEM Excellence Academy was held at MDC and at the Life Science Learning Lab in the context of the “MINT EC-Netzwerk”. The subject was systems biology. Twenty school students from all over Germany took part. MDC will also host the next “MINT400-Forum”, also under the MINT EC-Netzwerk, in February 2018. The conference is designed to spark the enthusiasm of as many participants as possible in courses of study and jobs in the natural sciences. In 2015, 400 school students and 50 teachers attended. Since 2016, school students, especially from Berlin, have been able to discover more about stem cell research at the UniStem Day. This year’s event, organised by the German Stem Cell Network, welcomed 230 young people to the MDC.

Incidentally, school students do not necessarily have to come to the MDC to benefit from the expertise of MDC researchers. Schools can invite scientists to hold sessions at a science day – and anyone like Eric and Pirmin who wants to take part in “Jugend forscht” or is writing a research project can turn to the MDC for expert advice.

Featured image: Thiemo Sprink, Eric Niller and Pirmin Schmid. Image: Wiebke Peters, MDC