At the museum, looking at atoms
To visit Christine Wamsley at work, take the route past the Viking ships, the aeroplanes and the huge turbines. Christine is a Euroscholar, and is spending a semester with a research team at the end of a long, brightly lit corridor – in the Open Research Lab at the Deutsches Museum.
Sitting in the midst of a maze of apparatus, cables and monitors, Christine Wamsley is about to insert a sample into a scanning tunneling microscope. The object of interest is a tiny drop of quinacridone, an industrial pigment, sitting on a flake of graphite. The term “open research lab” means what it says: Visitors to the Museum can watch her at work and put questions to her – and Christine has already learned the art of explaining in simple terms how this microscope allows her to visualize the atomic structure of the sample. “The tip of the microscope is so sharp, there’s only a single atom at the end of it,” she explains. When she turns on the apparatus, the tip nears the sample and is moved across its surface. A voltage is applied to the tip, and at each point the electrical current that crosses the minuscule gap between the atoms of the sample and the atom on the tip is measured. Christine points to the patterns that appear on her computer screen: “Now I can see how the molecules assemble on the surface – and potentially identify them.”
Basic research in the heart of a museum
The enthusiasm with which Christine talks about her work is highly infectious – even though she ended up studying biochemistry largely by accident. She caught the biochemistry bug during a compulsory course in the subject at her alma mater, Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “I loved it – and I decided to make it my major subject.”
Christine‘s other major is German, and that too resulted from a chance encounter. While still at school, she visited Oelde near Münster as an exchange student. She planned to stay for 11 days, but plumes of volcanic ash over Iceland kept her there for a further 10 days. In these three weeks, the Varsity soccer player developed an enduring passion for FC Bayern Munich, and made lots of friends, which sparked a desire to learn more about Germany. In her search for an exchange program that would enable her to extend her horizons at a foreign university, she discovered the Euroscholars Program, which gives gifted undergraduates from Canada and the US the opportunity to do a research project at one of 11 European universities, including LMU and the universities in Heidelberg and Leiden.
Captivated by Bavaria
Euroscholars can choose their host university, and Christine chose LMU. “The project in the Open Research Lab spans the interface between chemistry and nanotechnology, and I was immediately fascinated by it,” she says. “The observations that I make here could provide the foundation for my undergraduate Honors Thesis.” And the research experience gained in the group led by her Munich mentor Frank Trixler will certainly help her to realize her dream of going on to medical school.
In the meantime Christine is making the most of her semester in Munich. At lunchtime she often goes out onto the roof of the museum. “One has a wonderful view of the city from there, all the way to mountains,” she enthuses. Colby College is located in a town of 15,000 inhabitants. “When I heard that LMU has 50,000 students, I knew there would certainly be lots to see and plenty to keep me busy,” she says. She has indeed made many new acquaintances and, on her days off, she plays football with other enthusiasts. And in order to follow the fortunes of FC Bayern, she no longer depends on the sports channel. Since her arrival in September she has attended three of their home matches in person. On weekends she likes to travel, visiting her old friends in Oelde, or venturing farther afield to Vienna and Helsinki. “There was a meeting of all the Euroscholars in Helsinki recently, and that opened up the prospect of further excursions and encounters.”