Our PhD Students Ermanno and Marius Report on Their Lab Rotations

What did they learn and take away from the three short research internships?

January 19, 2023

In three three-week lab rotations in different research groups, our students have the unique opportunity to get to know our faculty, and to learn more about different methods, techniques and projects within the IMPRS on Cellular Biophysics before starting their PhD work with one of our faculty members. With this innovative concept, we aim to enable our students to make a better-informed decision about the direction of their career path in research.
Read about some first-hand experiences with lab rotations in the interview with Ermanno and Marius, two PhD students from our 2022 cohort.

Interview by Katharina Kaefer


Which labs did you choose for your rotations and why?

Ermanno: For my lab rotations, I chose three very different environments: the electron microscopy (EM) facility at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Biophysics, led by Sonja Welsch, the cell-free protein synthesis group of Volker Dötsch at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main (GU) and the lab of Melanie McDowell at the MPI of Biophysics focusing on membrane protein biogenesis. I chose them because of their diversity - the EM facility's focus is on the technical knowledge of cryo-EM, while the two other labs are more focused on biological questions. They also differ much in size: Volker's lab is populous, Melanie's lab was just newly established in is small, and the EM facility is somewhere inbewteen.

Marius: I chose the labs of Martin Beck (MPI of Biophysics), Edward Lemke (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU)) and Christian Münch (GU). I decided for those labs because I'm very interested in the fields of structural biology, bioengineering and proteomics. All three labs are well-known for their state of the art research and are also strong in method development, which is very important to me.


What did you learn during your rotations? Have you learned anything new?

Marius: Since in all three cases, I was asked what I would be interested in working on, I always had the opportunity to choose topics which I did not have too much experience with yet. In Martin Beck's lab, I learned the basics of cryo-electron tomography, in Edward Lemke's lab I worked on microfluidics and fluorescence lifetime imaging, and in the lab of Christian Münch, I learned a lot about sample preparation and mass spectrometric analysis for quantitative proteomics.

Ermanno: In the EM facility, I learned to prepare samples and to use electron microscopes to collect data from these samples. In Melanie’s lab, I was taught to use two different species of yeast for protein production and purification. In Volker’s lab, I was introduced to their cell-free protein synthesis system.


What was the structure of your rotations? Did you have any specific tasks?

Ermanno: The three rotations shared the same approach: I first shadowed experienced people and was shown how to carry out experiments and analyses. Then, I had to repeat what I had learned on my own, under supervision. I found this particularly useful because it gives you the possibility to correct mistakes, ask questions, and really understand what you're doing and how the system works.

Marius: After an initial phase of theoretical introduction and assessment of my practical skills, I either shadowed a post-doc from the respective lab or was given a set of tasks for the week to work on independently. My supervisors always made sure that I did as many parts of the entire workflow as possible on my own. This means that I prepared buffers and took care of cultured cells, but also carried out measurements at high-end devices and analyzed data.


Did the lab rotations help you to decide which lab to choose for your PhD?

Marius: To be honest, no. Before the rotations started I was pretty sure which group I want to join in the end. Now that I worked in the other groups, I could also imagine joining those labs. I still have a preference for one of the three labs, but the rotations made the decision more difficult for me. I haven't fully made up my mind yet. However, I nevertheless consider this as a great chance. It is a luxury problem to decide between three very renowned working groups.

Ermanno: I was very indecisive about which lab to join and the rotations played a critical role in my final decision. They made me understand what topic, what environment, what techniques and what biological questions I liked the most.

Was the decision for you also as difficult as for Marius?

Ermanno: I needed some time during the weeks following the rotations as the decision was quite tough. I am really thankful to the people who flanked me during the rotations as they helped me to understand what is best for me.


Do you think that the rotations prepared you for your PhD work?

Ermanno: Yes, during the rotations I performed experiments and faced issues that could await me during my PhD. The rotations also helped me to build up networks, and made me aware of different methods that could be useful for my project and of their strengths and weaknesses.

Marius: For me, that's hard to tell. Of course, I got an idea of the topics I might be working on and could figure out if I would be able to apply specific methods independently. But neither did I work on projects that I could continue during my PhD, nor did I work independently enough to have to organize my own research project, which is probably one of the most difficult and important parts in the initial phase of a PhD. But I can totally see that this is just not doable during three weeks of a lab rotation.


What did you like most about the lab rotations?

Marius: I liked most, that we got the opportunity to really get to know the labs. Like that, you not only get an idea about the research, but also an impression of the general working environment within the research group and of how you get along with your potential future supervisor.

Ermanno: The possibility to learn new techniques and check out working environments.


Anything you did not like or you would like to improve?

Ermanno: I think three rotations and three weeks for each is the perfect amount of diversity and time. I want to highlight that it is NOT common in Europe to have the priviledge of doing rotations before choosing your PhD lab.

Marius: I think the concept of the lab rotations is very good and helpful for the students. I hope that future generations of students will also have this opportunity as a unique feature of the IMPRS-CBP compared to other PhD programs!


Thanks a lot, Ermanno and Marius! We wish you much success for your PhD journey!

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