Once upon a time there was a biomedical engineering student in Arizona, USA. Her name was Hasina Shir and she wanted to apply for a research internship in the "Stuttgart University Program for Experiencing Research - SUPER". She gave the application forms to her mentor, Travis Sawyer, to proofread. And he said enthusiastically: "I took part in this SUPER program at the University of Stuttgart in 2014. At ITO. It broadened my perspective and inspired my love of traveling! You should go there, too."
But ITO was not registered as a participating institute in this round of the SUPER program. But the organizer of the program, Babette Endrulat-Göhler from the International Office inquired there anyway. Alois Herkommer, professor of optical design and simulation at ITO, didn't have to think twice: "Travis was a brilliant mind; I was more than pleased with his research during his internship. And if he recommends another student and we have an appropriate topic, then we are happy to take her on."
No sooner said than done. And now Hasina Shir is working in the ITO lab on the Vaihingen campus, tinkering with an experimental setup about 30 centimeters high. "Yesterday, I spent hours setting it up and taking it apart and then setting it up again," she says, laughing. "Now it is finally complete." Next, she wants to pump water through the small tubes. The particles in it should flow along at the very bottom of the microfluidic chip. This should be possible using radiation pressure from a strong light source from above. "But that light source is not yet part of this setup," Shir says. That will be her next task.
The research project focuses on the development of an early warning system for infections
The aim of the project, which doctoral student Kathrin Doth is working on at ITO, and on which Hasina Shir is now collaborating for two months, is to detect bacteria and viruses using optical methods. The particles, later bacteria, must therefore be positioned in the right place on the chip so that they can be seen under a microscope. "The liquid that drips from the hands when disinfectant dispensers are used will be collected and examined - and used as an early warning system, so to speak, in hospitals, for example," explains Doth. "We will then be able to see on a daily basis how many pathogens are contained in the liquid. If the number increases significantly, then this signifies that it more likely that an infection going around the hospital."
SUPER is fantastic!Hasina Shir, Biomedical engineering student from the USA
It is precisely this application-oriented research in the health sector that attracted Hasina Shir to the University of Stuttgart. "As a biomedical engineering student from the USA, it is difficult to find a study abroad placement in Germany. There aren't many suitable programs", explains the 21-year-old, who has family in Germany and has often visited the country. "SUPER is fantastic! It suits my goals perfectly: I want to work in a company in the field of optical diagnostics after completing my bachelor's degree. But also because of my experience here at ITO, I'm considering whether a doctorate might be something for me."
SUPER brings coveted exchange places to US universities
Shir is one of nine North American students participating in the SUPER program this year. As a new start "after" Corona - in 2020 it was cancelled, in 2021 two people participated online - SUPER organizer Babette Endrulat-Göhler is very satisfied with the number of participants. What began in 2012 with 3 students from MIT and the University of Toronto grew over the years into a program with up to 20 participants. The program now includes the University of Arizona, Purdue University and the University of British Columbia. In return, the University of Stuttgart receives exchange places for its students at selected partner universities. This promotes internationalization.
SUPER is a great program. It promotes knowledge and cultural exchange and the whole institute benefits from this.Alois Herkommer, professor of optical design and simulation at ITO
"In science, international exchange is paramount," says Professor Alois Herkommer. "SUPER is a great program. It promotes knowledge and cultural exchange and the whole institute benefits from this." The ITO has already accepted SUPER students a few times, as long as their subject and interests are compatible with technical optics, a "special field". "SUPER also gives us a chance to connect with top universities in our field. We've already sent two students to the University of Arizona."
Endrulat-Göhler knows what awaits the North American SUPER students here in Stuttgart: "Organization in advance, scholarship, enrollment, accommodation: All of this is part of the service provided by the International Office." All students in the two- to three-month program receive monthly funding through the Christian Buerkert Foundation and come primarily from engineering backgrounds. They live in student accommodation with other German and international students. This contact to other students, exploring Stuttgart and Baden-Württemberg together, is also an important part of the SUPER program.
In a perfect world, everyone should have the opportunity to travel and live abroad for a while.Travis Sawyer, junior professor at the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona
For Travis Sawyer, one of Shir's mentors and now a junior professor at the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, this cultural aspect was almost more significant than the first hands-on experience in the research lab during his stay in Stuttgart eight years ago. "It was my first long-term travel," he recounts in a video call. "I got around a lot in the three months, visiting many cities in Germany and Europe, soaking up the culture. That opened my eyes." And it also motivated him to study for a master's degree in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and to spend more time abroad in South Korea and the Netherlands. "Learning different ways of solving problems and understanding a variety of cultural backgrounds is essential for thinking creatively and inclusively. It is a critical aspect of education and allows you to understand a lot of things more deeply," Sawyer thinks. "In a perfect world, everyone should have the opportunity to travel and live abroad for a while."
The team Sawyer leads at the University of Arizona also emphasizes broader learning and education through diversity and cultural experiences, he says. "I try to motivate the people in my group to go abroad. Who isn’t excited about travelling? After taking part in short conferences, I try to direct them to programs like SUPER for longer stays." This has worked out well for Hasina Shir. She can now imagine living and working abroad for a longer period of time later on. And Endrulat-Göhler also tells of students who participated in SUPER and then came back to Stuttgart to do a master's degree, or to work.
In the ITO lab, Hasina Shir completed the experimental setup during her two-month internship, with the support of doctoral student Kathrin Doth. The light source is in place and radiating light, but unfortunately it does not yet position the particles in the right place on the chip. Now Doth must continue to work on this.
And they researched together happily ever after. Not just in Stuttgart and Arizona, but in many laboratories worldwide.