Visit from the next generation of female scientists

February 02, 2023

On December 01, the Fritz Haber Institute hosted the seminar NATürlich Studium! – Schülerinnen treffen Naturwissenschaftlerinnen in cooperation with the Schülerlabor NatLab of the Freie Universität Berlin. In this seminar series, girls meet female scientists in the fields of biology, chemistry and pharmacy to get an overview of cutting-edge research and to learn about possible career paths. The seminar series is offered each semester and is targeted to girls from 10th grade onwards who are interested in natural sciences and consider studying in the field. Carla Kirschbaum, a PhD student in the Molecular Physics Department, lead the participants through the exciting day.

In the first part of the seminar, the girls were introduced to the research topic in an interactive lecture entitled “Fat and sugar – from the kitchen to the analytical laboratory”. The lecture introduced the concepts of mass spectrometry and highlighted the difficulty to distinguish isomers, which have very similar chemical structures but often completely different biological functions. The groups of Prof. Gert von Helden and Prof. Kevin Pagel in the Molecular Physics Department use mass spectrometry coupled with infrared action spectroscopy to obtain deeper insights into the structures of biomolecules and to distinguish isomers. With illustrative examples from her own research, Carla showed how this technique can reveal subtle differences in immunologically relevant sugars and render altered lipid isomer distributions in cancer cells visible. The lecture was followed by a lively discussion, in which the girls present at the FHI as well as the girls who had followed the lecture online could participate.

The most important aspect of the NATürlich seminar is that it includes not only a theoretical description of the research topic, but also a practical experiment that involves all participants. This time, the girls had the opportunity to experience the everyday working environment of experimental researchers at the FHI. During the lab tour, they saw the mass spectrometer and the tools for sample preparation that they had previously seen in the lecture. Afterwards, they prepared their own sample by mixing the contents of sample tubes containing unknown fatty acids. To identify the fatty acids contained in the mixture, they measured their own mass spectrum on a time-of-flight mass spectrometer. The participants applied their knowledge from the lecture to convert the measured times of flight into molecular masses and identify the fatty acids. With the combined effort of all participants, all fatty acids could be correctly assigned.

In the final discussion, the girls affirmed that it was a very valuable experience to meet researchers in their working environment and to repeat activities that PhD students perform in their daily work. They felt that the experiments were less intentionally tailored to them than the experiments in the student lab and that they got an authentic impression on what it is like to work in a research institute. We are very happy to contribute to this seminar series and encourage young girls to study natural sciences. A big thank you goes to Prof. Petra Skiebe-Corrette and Luise Grapentin, who organize and accompany the seminar series.

More information about the seminar series and how to apply can be found here: 

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