From plastic cups to chemistry degrees
Young individuals find educational support at the Teltow Institute of Biomaterial Science in future-relevant topics
Charlotte Biese bends over the grassy patch and digs into the dark soil – not an unusual occurrence in the Teltow-Seehof area, which is populated with many gardens. The student of the Weinberg Gymnasium in Kleinmachnow along with Nina Heldt, her chemistry teacher, are not, however, in one of their own gardens, but at the research campus at the Institute of Biomaterial Science, a branch of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG). Biese has been carrying out a school project on the degradation of plastics here for several months under the academic guidance of the HZG Student Coordinator Dr Michael Schroeter.
Charlotte Biese, Michael Schroeter and Nina Heldt (from left). Photo: HZG/ Patricia Ebel
The scientist and the high school student have buried two yogurt containers made of polylactide (PLA) plastic in the soil. The student's objective is to scientifically document the gradual degradation in a written project. “We are intensively studying the topic because plastic degradation also plays an important role in medicine, for example, in the degradability of suture material and in many other applications. The degradability of plastics is an important topic for us environmentally and has immediate relevance for the next generation’s future,” explains Michael Schroeter.
Charlotte Biese’s project is part of a broad palette offered by the institute for students of all grade levels. The programs serve as an important approach in supporting youth development: Together with the Information Centre for Professional Orientation (IZB) at the Industry Museum Region Teltow, study orientation weeks for 11th graders are offered to students from nearby high schools (Gymnasiums). Advisors from regional universities conduct project days covering academic requirements, and the scientists from the Helmholtz-Zentrum provide concrete glimpses into the fields of study undertaken at the institute. Twenty students will visit the campus on November 25th and will personally meet with biologists, chemists and materials scientists.
Those with no idea if they would be interested in a career or university degree in science can apply for a two week student internship at the institute. Students are provided with the opportunity to further narrow in on their own career paths by touring the various departments twice a year. Students ranging from 8th to 10th grades from Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen, Thuringia and Saxony have so far taken advantage of this opportunity.
Photo: HZG/ Patricia Ebel
Whether they participate in the annual “Day of the Future for Girls and Boys” or in a student excursion, the young researchers carry out their own experiments in Teltow. A showroom has been set up specifically for this purpose at the institute. There they can discover how to imprint memory into plastics, what this means for medical science applications and what scientific fields are involved in this process.
“It is of great concern for us that we directly reach the students, that we inspire their scientific interest and that we individually cater our educational programs to their interests,” stresses Andreas Lendlein, Director of the Institute of Biomaterial Science. It is not unusual to see the Director in the classroom personally speaking to students within the framework of scientific outreach days. He has also been asked to address school pupils by the Call a Scientist Network sponsored by the Biotechnology Association Berlin-Brandenburg (bbb).
Prof. Dr. Andreas Lendlein. Photo: HZG
One advantage to the programs is its institute-spanning links to the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht infrastructure, which has been active for more than forty years in offering apprenticeships and has educated over 150 young individuals in the last ten years alone, seventeen of them at the Teltow location. Whether a chemical or biological lab technician, computer scientist, industrial mechanic, technical product designer, specialist in logistics or office management—there are eleven areas to choose from, three of them in Teltow.
“In relation to our promotion of youth development, we view ourselves fully within the tradition of our research campus, which is now nationally and internationally recognized as an important centre for technology and science and has been directly influencing regional development since the 1920s. It is not only our research topics that are relevant for the future, but also our educational endeavours,” explains Andreas Lendlein. Due to the institute’s network activities and the potential for innovation within the region, the forty graduate students and ten post-doctoral researchers currently employed also profit; here they lay the foundation for their scientific careers and professional development, for example, through their integration into graduate schools and support programs.
The Helmholtz organisation’s aim, “to conduct research into pressing matters that affect society for securing our future,” is focused on long-term thinking and on beginning to pave the way today for the (research) generations of tomorrow. The plastic continues to degrade, and so the student and the scientist will meet a few more times on campus until the project concludes—a sustainable project, which perhaps leads to a degree in chemistry.