A summer in Germany pays off for biomedical engineering undergraduate

Jamie Oberdick
January 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Matthew Aronson, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering at Penn State, spent the summer of 2019 in Germany as a scholar in the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE) program.

Aronson, from Newtown, Pennsylvania, was one of approximately 300 undergraduates from North America, Great Britain and Ireland selected from nearly 2,000 applications to conduct research at top German universities and institutions. The internships give each student an opportunity to perform research at one of Germany's top universities or research institutions. Aronson’s internship took place at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

Aronson investigates the presence of antimicrobial compounds secreted by terrestrial blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria. He works to extract, purify and characterize the compounds for use in cancer and antibiotic research.

“I worked in the bioprocess engineering department at the university, where they focused on understanding different culture conditions of different kinds of bacteria and plants,” Aronson said. “One part of the lab works to optimize growing the bacteria and plants and another part extracts different bioactive compounds from the plants or bacteria. Once this is done, the researchers then study how to use those compounds to kill bacteria, fungus, other plants or cancer cells. They then develop new pharmaceuticals based on those compounds.”

In Germany, Aronson and his fellow researchers grew the terrestrial cyanobacteria in 10-liter tanks. Once grown, he extracted the compounds from the algae and used several different techniques that he learned to characterize them. 

The bridge connecting research at Penn State and Germany 

“One of the reasons why the internship was a very good experience was because of how much of the work I did at the University of Kaiserslautern relates to the research I do here at Penn State,” Aronson said.

Aronson is an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Scott Medina, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. His research involves working with peptides, short chains of amino acids, extracted from compounds similar to what he worked with in Germany.

“These peptides are naturally produced by tons of organisms like bacteria, and I find the sequences of how the amino acids are joined in the peptides in the existing literature,” Aronson said. “This enables me to make synthetic peptides that can hopefully be used to kill cancer cells and harmful bacteria.”

The ultimate goal of Aronson’s research is to develop new cancer drugs with fewer side effects. During his internship, Aronson was exposed to every sector of pharmaceutical research using peptides, complementing the engineering-heavy work he does at Penn State.

Man taking a selfie with a lab behind.

Matthew Aronson in a lab at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

IMAGE: Matthew Aronson

“In Germany, there was a lot less engineering and more discovery-focused research compared to here,” Aronson said. “In Dr. Medina’s lab, there’s a lot more engineering as I take the sequences from literature, then I engineer new sequences that have similarities and then I work on repurposing them into anticancer drugs. By combining both experiences, I better understand how the process evolves, from culturing the cyanobacteria to making the compounds to delivering the compounds in real systems. It’s great to piece together the entire story.”

Making new friends a half a world from home

The trip for Aronson was not his first overseas experience. He participated in the study abroad program at the National University of Singapore during the spring 2018 semester. Aronson holds a fellowship in Penn State’s Global Engineering Fellows Program, acting as both an ambassador for College of Engineering study abroad programs and as a peer advisor for other engineering students studying overseas. 

The experience still came with some challenges, though. Aronson doesn’t speak any German and learned to navigate a lab where protocols and directions were often issued in German. 

Initially, the language barrier also was an obstacle to another benefit of the fellowship — networking and socializing. Aronson said that, at first, it made it difficult to socialize and make friends.

However, Aronson learned in the Global Engineering Fellows Program to be patient and be persistent in reaching out to others during a study abroad trip. This enabled him to build relationships during events like the University of Kaiserslautern lab’s daily lunches and frequent barbecues and hikes in the nearby forests. 

“We became friends and would do things together like go to the festivals that happened all the time there,” Aronson said. 

Along with trips to German festivals, Aronson also traveled with his new friends via Germany’s extensive train system to sight-see in places like Salzburg, Munich and Austria. While his leisure travel was memorable, he also was able to attend two conferences thanks to the fellowship’s travel stipend, which helped him learn interpersonal networking and communications techniques with individuals from other nations. 

The first conference was in Heidelberg, Germany, and organized by the DAAD program.

“This conference provided an excellent networking experience, since most of the attendees were students in the same position I was — an intern in a different country,” Aronson said. “It was also good practice to discuss my science with others in different fields and to hear about the experiments and work they were conducting.”

The other conference he attended was the Controlled Release Society’s Annual Meeting and Exposition in Valencia, Spain. At this conference, he presented on his research at Penn State. This was another memorable experience for Aronson, one that he felt combined everything he learned during the fellowship. 

Man standing on an overlook holding an event program with a city behind him.

Matthew Aronson after his presentation at the Controlled Release Society’s Annual Meeting and Exposition in Valencia, Spain.

IMAGE: Matthew Aronson

“In Spain, I got to meet people who knew about the DAAD RISE program and were very interested to know what I was doing with my internship, which was great,” Aronson said. “And then the conference had very few bachelor's students, it was mostly graduate students, post docs and professors. I was able to really network with them because I learned via the internship how to communicate effectively in such a situation. It was, like the internship itself, a great experience.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated January 14, 2020