/ SNI INSight, Portraits

Guest article by Nicolai Jung: An unforgettable year at Harvard University

Since starting my degree, I had always planned to study at a university abroad in order to expand my horizons. I’ve now made this dream a reality by spending an amazing year at Harvard University in Boston, USA. This exciting time not only provided me with valuable scientific experience outside of Switzerland, but also taught me a great deal about founding a company and allowed me to expand my network. I even learned to play Quidditch.

Master’s thesis was the ideal opportunity
Bearing in mind that the bachelor’s program in nanosciences involves a busy timetable of lectures, internships and block courses, I decided to plan my stay abroad during my master’s studies. This was relatively easy to do, as you only need to find one professor at the University of Basel who can supervise the research project as part of your master’s thesis abroad.

After completing various internships during the bachelor’s and master’s programs, I knew I wanted to write my master’s thesis on malaria research and therefore searched online for research groups in that field. I wrote to 15 scientists in the USA, the UK and Australia and subsequently took part in numerous interviews. When I was offered a place in my first-choice research group, with Professor Manoj Duraisingh at Harvard University, I was ecstatic. I asked Professor Till Voss from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) at the University of Basel whether he would be prepared to supervise the project — and I applied for over 30 Swiss grants in order to fund my stay in Boston. Of these grant applications, five were ultimately approved — including the Argovia Travel Grant from the Swiss Nanoscience Institute.

A challenging endeavor
It was very exciting to arrive in the USA, and I found it very easy to settle in thanks to the well-structured and well-organized matriculation process set up by Harvard University for international students. I was given a warm welcome at the laboratory and quickly began work on my project, which involved developing a system for the protein expression of vaccine candidates to tackle the malaria pathogen Plasmodium vivax.

It is not yet possible to culture this eukaryotic single-celled parasite in vitro, and most of its proteins cannot be produced in other organisms by means of gene transfer. Accordingly, it’s very difficult to develop vaccines against these parasites — which is one of the key objectives in the global fight against malaria.

My aim was therefore to design a new expression system that could transfer genes containing information about specific Plasmodium vivax proteins into malaria parasites that were genetically similar but, crucially, culturable. These pathogens would then produce the required proteins, which could be investigated with respect to their function, binding partners and structure. The proteins produced in this way could serve as the basis for developing a vaccine for the creation of therapeutic antibodies as well as nanobodies.

This work presented me with numerous challenges. Not only was I not used to that level of intellectual freedom when it came to solving a specific problem, but I was also solely responsible for the results. Although I suffered multiple setbacks and had to adapt the project several times, I ultimately learned a great deal and acquired many new skills.

For me, the time spent at Harvard served as an excellent springboard into the world of research. Since November, I’ve had a position at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia — once again in the field of malaria research. I might then go back to Boston next summer to do my doctoral dissertation, as I have only positive memories of the year I spent there.

Cultural differences
Over many long days, nights and weekends in the lab, I also saw how different the American and Swiss work cultures are when it comes to reconciling work and leisure time. Another cultural difference was the level of extracurricular commitment shown by my research colleagues, most of whom were involved in numerous sports and social clubs.

I, too, got involved in life outside the lab. For one, I joined the leadership team of Nucleate Boston, a student organization that supports the founding of companies in the life sciences. This taught me a great deal about the process of founding a company and about entrepreneurship, as well as allowing me to build up a large global network, as Nucleate is now represented at over 18 locations in the USA and Europe.

Initial laughter, then sweat
I also joined Harvard’s official Quidditch team. Yes, that’s right, Quidditch — the game from the Harry Potter books, in which players attempt to throw a ball into hoops or to catch the “Snitch.” Not only is Quidditch a contact sport, like rugby, but it’s also played while riding a broom.

When I first heard about it, I laughed, but I decided to give it a go because I wanted to try a sport I hadn’t played before. This ultimately turned into quite an intensive commitment, with training sessions three times a week — but it was a great way to keep in shape, and the communal breakfasts or dinners afterwards were a good opportunity to meet new people and eat healthy. Our team even enjoyed some successes at the regional and national level.

Valuable experience
It’s impossible to sum up a whole year of experiences and insights in the space of one or two pages. What has stayed with me the most, however, are the many talented people I met and how this year has furthered my personal development. I would recommend that all students do the same and spend some time abroad. It might involve some extra work at first, but it’s definitely worthwhile!

Further information:

Research group Duraisingh
Nucleate Boston
Harvard Quidditch Team
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne
Further travel reports by students in the nanosciences program