Graduate Studies Without Borders: A Canadian Student’s Research and Life in the Rhineland

By Eric Will Doerr, CBE Graduate Student | October 22, 2015

Eric Will DoerA journey can rarely be surmised by the conclusions drawn once the main endpoint is reached. The strangers that have become new friends, the lessons learned from the stumbles and mistakes along the way, and the sights experienced all culminate in the bettering of a person, usually in more ways than the original intent of departure. As a current graduate student enrolled in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Western University, the calling for an exchange research opportunity at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) Aachen University in Germany was an experience I knew would be priceless both technically and personally.

Professor Lars Rehmann, my thesis advisor at Western, who is currently also visiting the RWTH as a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, is a member of BioFuelNet Canada, which is a network that aims to both support and accelerate research, development, and deployment for commercialization of advanced biofuels. This network offers assistance with associated members through its HQP Exchange Program (HQP stands for ‘highly qualified personnel’). These personnel are students like myself, and the program allows Canadian students and researchers to have international research exchanges abroad. As my advisor maintains an active collaboration with a group at the RWTH, and as several German students have spent time completing parts of their theses in Prof. Rehmann’s lab, I was the first Western student to now have the opportunity of spending time with this group at the RWTH Aachen thanks to the support from BioFuelNet’s HQP Program.

ResearchOne aspect of my work at Western was to feed a gaseous substrate of carbon monoxide (CO) to microorganisms that need this gas to be dissolved in water in order for growth to occur. This proves a rather challenging task at ambient pressure as CO has very poor solubility in water in these conditions. The project in Aachen focused on feeding another poorly soluble gas (oxygen) to organisms producing high-viscosity xanthan gum. While the process is different, the fundamental challenge remains the same, and I had the opportunity at the RWTH Aachen to use a high-pressure bioreactor during experimentation. As this system is not available at Western, it offered invaluable research opportunities for my work, as well as opportunities for future graduate students, who could continue the work with CO instead of oxygen.

As one of 11 German Universities of Excellence and a prominent recipient of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) – the largest German and European funding research organization – the RWTH Aachen has received international acclaim for its engineering programs (mechanical engineering in particular), with a strong record on research commercialization. However, the success of this institution does not solely depend on what advances and equipment have been developed, but rather it is a result of the world-class professors, students, and researchers determined to yield the best data in a thorough and precise manner.

Unlike Canadian universities with smaller research groups usually led by one professor, the research hierarchy here at the RWTH is in a more pyramidal scheme. One professor will likely have a few junior professors working under him or her; from here, each junior professor will have several postgraduate researchers and PhD students conducting research somewhat related to the junior professor’s area of study. In turn, PhD students and postdoctorates will have several master’s students working under them, and finally master's students may have undergraduate students working on theses under their supervision. In this structural schematic, a clear chain-of-command is made fundamental in daily work; each researcher knows to report to their superior if an issue or question arises in order to streamline the amount of work a lab group can produce while maintaining the high quality required for significant publications to be made. Overall, this system proves beneficial to all associated parties as it simplifies work flow while creating a sense of independence with lower members of the hierarchy and a reinforcement of technical knowledge and experience with the upper echelons involved.

ResearchWith all of the above now considered, I set out along my scientific journey of discovery, under the supervision of both Professor Lars Rehmann and Professor Lars Regestein, with critical oversight provided by Professor Jochen Büchs of the RWTH. The main focus of the research done in Aachen was determining an optimal medium for xanthan production from a selection of eight options available. To do this, the Respiration Activity Monitoring System (RAMOS, an in-house product) was initially employed. With the use of finely calibrated pressure sensors, agitators, and a bevy of hardware and software development, the RAMOS device is able to take a host of online measurements including current oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to provide the user with important biological information. The RAMOS device experiments were able to determine which two media were comparatively the best, and after a series of lab-scale fermentations, the optimal medium along with the new trace elements solution were run in the pressurized fermentation system. The work done at the RWTH Aachen allowed me to provide a well-rounded investigation and analysis into the various effects dissolved gases have in gas-dependent biological systems. Similar scale-up will occur for the CO-system. The provision of this information along with the networking opportunities with various professors and students here have given me invaluable assets and advantages I could not have achieved without this excellent exchange.

GermanyThe experimental plan and findings stated above not only provided me with excellent data generated from methodical planning, but it tells me the story of my development and overall education provided here at the RWTH. Not only did I learn about different and existing biological techniques and practical expertise, but the way in which I saw the world and steered myself in it has drastically changed as well. I wished to adopt the well-rounded and plentiful education that my German colleagues have received, and in turn I took experimental down time as an opportunity for historical inquiry into European leaders, or for the understanding and further comprehension of languages like German, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish, or to participate in day-to-day customs and practices that I would have previously abandoned in the pursuit of idle fancies. Additionally, any free time I had away from my lab work setting was almost always used to see the amazing sights that western Europe provides. Be it the hardworking metropolises and rolling countryside of Germany, to the rich and decadent culture of the Belgians, from the deterministically routine and jovial cities of the Netherlands or the carefree yet interesting principles of the Czech people, to the baroque and gilded beauties of the Austrian and French capitals and the corporeal and verdant majesty of the British Isles, every place I visited was pursued in a systematically exuberant manner to ensure I could gain a true sense of where I actually was in the world. In my explorations and investigations, I had found myself reborn both as a naturally curious student of the sciences and as a free journeyman open to the endless riches of the Old World.

In turn, the research I was able to organize back in Canada and here in Germany will not only prove useful towards the advancement of bioprocessing throughout industrialized economies, but by also providing me with an invigorated outlook on life and the necessity to live each second along this great journey in search of what truly matters. Special consideration for this opportunity was funded by Western University, RWTH Aachen University, and BioFuelNet Canada, with personal recognitions towards Professor Xiaomin Zhou and Angie Webb for allowing this exchange to happen. My most heartfelt thanks and appreciation goes towards Professors Büchs, Regestein, and Rehmann for the timeless mentoring and considerations paid towards a young man just starting out on his way in the world.