Berlin Long Night of Science Award

Berlin Long Night of Science Award

Berlin - the city we’ll never forget!!

By Niamh Carolan and Líle Hensey, Ursuline College Sligo, Finisklin, Sligo

Berlin Long Night of Science Award Winners, SciFest National Final 2021

We couldn’t believe it when our alarm went off at 1:30 a.m. that the day had finally arrived. Berlin! We made our way to the airport, anticipation building. Landing in Berlin was utterly surreal, and it was only when we stepped off the plane and we were hit by a wave of heat that we realised this was actually happening.

Upon arriving at the hotel and checking in we prepared ourselves to meet Fatma Deniz, a cognitive computational neuroscientist and a data scientist working at Technische Universität Berlin. We were incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to share our project and talk to someone so passionate about their field of expertise and to have the chance to listen to her discuss her current postdoctoral research. We found ourselves enrapt by the world of research and debate surrounding us. As we strolled through the college grounds, time seemed irrelevant and the evening passed with discussions of the future of AI, the novel uses of EEG technology in communication with comatose patients and new exciting developments in the field of neuroscience. It was obviously a dream come true for two nerdy scientists to meet and share ideas with such an eminent academic and we are incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to meet a kindred spirit in these surroundings. It was amidst these discussions that this life being a potential future truly felt possible for us. We were also given a tour of the university’s other facilities including the physics department’s ground-breaking new applications of environmental technology. This was especially interesting as our previous SciFest project was on the optimisation of photovoltaic cells.

The following day was our first chance to properly explore the city and get a glimpse into its rich architectural history as we walked to the Irish embassy. Once there, we were greeted by John Lynam deputy head of mission, who gave us a tour of the embassy and taught us a little about German international relations throughout the years. Following this, we visited the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate with our wonderful guide Ilias Ben Mna and ventured through Potsdamer Platz to see preserved sections of the Berlin Wall. He also brought us into the heart of Berlin, where we got to explore some of the historic memorials from the war such as the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, which was an incredibly moving structure that attempted to show the horrific devastation that was imposed upon the Jewish people throughout the Holocaust. Made up of 2,711 concrete pillars, the memorial invoked feelings of oppression and isolation onto those within, a mere feeling incomparable to the loss and suffering felt by the Jewish community. These explorations of the heart of the city would not have been possible without our guide Ilias whose passion for information brought the city to life around us. Ilias was kind enough to bring us to one of his favourite spots for lunch before leaving us off at “Illuseum” Berlin, which is home to an eclectic collection of holograms, puzzles, and optical illusions. These exhibitions provide a playful reminder that our assumptions about the world are often nothing but illusions. And after watching our teachers miraculously appear to shrink due to the curvature of a room, and gravity disappear before our eyes we understood why their motto is “You are the museum and the illusion".

Niamh, Líle and Ilias in front of the Brandenburg Gate.jpg Líle defying gravity in the Iluseum.jpg Líle viewing the zebrafish on a high-power optical microscope.jpg
Niamh, Líle and Ilias in front of the Brandenburg Gate Líle defying gravity in the Iluseum Líle viewing the zebrafish on a high-power optical microscope

It is worth noting that while it was our primary focus, our trip wasn’t entirely centred around the scientific elements of the city, we also had the chance to experience some of the culture, architecture and art Berlin has to offer. Although we believe it would be a misnomer to call these experiences unscientific, for after all “science is derived from the Latin, scientia which meant knowledge, a knowing, expertness, or experience, so in some ways there is nothing quite so scientific as marvelling at art which has inspired countless people for generations or looking at how the early studies of anatomy influenced sculpture. And so, as the day drew to an end, we found our way to the Alte Nationalgalerie, which houses one of the largest collections of 19th-century sculptures and paintings in Germany. Nationalgalerie owns approximately 1800 paintings and 1500 sculptures from the Neoclassical and Romantic movements of the Biedermeier to French Impressionism and early modernism. It was quite serendipitous that some of our all-time favourite works of art were housed here, such as Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, a version of the famous "Isle of the Dead", paintings by Hans von Marées, and several works by Claude Monet.

While each landmark and exhibition presented its own attraction, the highlight of our trip was, of course, the famous Long Night of Science; when more than 60 scientific and academic institutions in Berlin open their doors to the public. With spectacular experiments, exciting lectures, science shows, guided tours and much more to look forward to we were ecstatic. It is a truly electric atmosphere with the entire city taking on the buzz of a giant science fair. As we walked through the city, we decided to kick off the night by attending several fantastic lectures. Our favourite being a lecture on motor neurone degeneration and its implications on our body. The night was filled with more interesting experiences than we could have imagined. We talked to undergraduate students working to enter a variety of different fields of research, from molecular biology to physics, to chemistry, each of whom gave us helpful pointers on how to get started in the world of research and showed us the plethora of experiments and exhibitions they were presenting. Such as viewing specimens of Zebrafish (Latin name Danio rerio) at various stages of their lifecycle under a microscope. Or using virtual reality technology to view the anatomy of a mouse’s brain in 3D about our own heads, left us dizzy and optimistic about the future of medical imaging. Overall, we were utterly entranced by the research surrounding us.

Our evening ended on the roof of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine listening to music produced by translating the sequence of amino acids present in specific plants (such as the leaf of a nettle!) into a musical sequence, using the physical properties of the molecules to determine the sounds produced. It is impossible not to marvel at the infinite ways science advancement furthers not only STEM subjects but can enhance society’s creative artistic and musical pursuits. It was also refreshing to see the enthusiasm and fun surrounding the exhibits, as well as the welcoming attitude to take part and discuss anything, no matter how complex it first seemed. This method of displaying science can only help to encourage others to contribute to STEM.

Niamh in an optical perception illusion.jpg Niamh Using Virtual Reality to model anatomical images.jpg Niamh examining DNA in a lab.jpg
Niamh in an optical perception illusion Niamh Using Virtual Reality to model anatomical images Niamh examining DNA in a lab

Our final day arrived before we knew it, reluctant for the trip to finish but looking forward to our last day we set off to walk the length of the east side gallery. However, the lure of renting scooters and blending into the Berlin way of life was too much for us and we utilised these fun methods of transport to travel around the city and optimise all the sightseeing we could fit in. Our final event in the city was the Berlin Underworld tour, an exploration of one of the few remaining WWIl bunkers still standing after the war. Although intrinsically linked to warfare, the sheer engineering was breath-taking and hard not to appreciate the scale of planning and architectural skill involved. The passion of our tour guide Eliot was infectious. His vast knowledge of this era and gregarious character all contributed to a very enjoyable and educational visit. As we left the bunkers, we knew it was also time to leave this incredible city and fly home. Yet even as we watched the city of Berlin disappear beneath the clouds, we knew we could never forget this trip.

To any likeminded students reading this who are considering competing in SciFest in the coming years, we urge you to submit an application. In the words of Richard Feynman “study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” You never know where it could lead you.

On a personal note, we would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to SciFest and especially Sheila and George Porter for giving us this incredible opportunity. The Berlin Long Night of Science Award allowed us to experience a culturally diverse and exciting city as well as pursue our passion for science. A special thanks is due to the Irish Embassy for organising an amazing itinerary and welcoming us so warmly to their beautiful city. in particular, we were so lucky to have Illias Ben Mna as our guide. Ilias was a gracious host who could not do enough for us. We also want to thank our physics and chemistry teacher, Anthony Carolan and Louise MacSharry for accompanying us on this trip and helping us with our various projects throughout the years. We were so lucky to have such kind and enthusiastic people supporting us.

After this trip, we know a future in science is not only inevitable for both of us but also filled with infinite possibility.

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