CPLC students participate in Junior Nanotech Network student exchange program


On September 10-24, 2017, students in the Center for the Physics of Living Cells (CPLC) at the University of Illinois (UIUC) took part in an international exchange program organized by CeNS, the Center for NanoScience based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich. UIUC student participation in this program was sponsored by the NSF Physics of Living Systems Student Research Network (PoLS-SRN), of which CPLC-UIUC is one node. In the first week, four graduate students from CPLC labs Lauren Quednau (Aksimentiev lab), David Bianchi (Luthey-Schulten lab), Jia Gloria Lee (Kuhlman lab), and Alice Troitskaia (Chemla lab) took lab classes offered by seven CeNS graduate student hosts in Munich. The following week, the exchange program participants traveled with a large group of researchers from Munich to Venice, to attend the CeNS workshop 2017, “Design and Control of Nanosystems”.

This exchange program is part of CeNS' Junior Nanotech Network (JNN), which aims to “exchange knowledge of world class nanoscience and nanobioscience between graduate students from different institutions worldwide”. In the past, JNN exchanges have been held with McGill University; CPLC, UIUC;  California NanoSystems Institute, Santa Barbara; Tel Aviv University Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology; and University of California, Santa Barbara. As part of the exchange, students come to Munich for two weeks, followed by the host students from Munich coming to the partner institution for a reciprocal visit. The CPLC will be hosting the Munich students in Urbana-Champaign in the summer of 2018.

During the first week of the program, the UIUC students experienced a range of hands-on experimental lab classes, taught by the host students – mostly at LMU, but also at Augsburg University and the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. Out of the seven modules available, the UIUC students each chose several to attend. From Linh Nguyen in the lab of Tim Liedl, they learned the art of making DNA origami and using it to arrange gold nanoparticles – complete with imaging the results with TEM. Stefanie Leiner from Prof. Dieter Braun's lab initiated the Illini into origin of life reaction experiments, specifically non-enzymatic DNA ligation in a convection chamber. Kristof Grohe from the Rasmus Linser group taught protein NMR and the theory and signal assignment of multi-dimensional NMR. With Daniela Azucena Garcia Soriano from the Petra Schwille group at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, UIUC students worked on construction of a bottom-up minimal cell from oil droplets using microfluidics to study FtsZ protein expression. With Andrej Kamenac from the Christoph Westerhausen group at Augsburg University, students worked on the manufacture of PDMS microfluidics chambers and cell culturing, with the aim of modulating membrane permeability of living cells in microfluidic channels. Ricarda Berger from the Joachim Rädler group taught UIUC students about using DNA origami as a platform to study targeting of nanoagents to living cells.

JNN students hosted the CPLC participants in their apartments during their time in Munich, showed them the city, and generally gave a wonderful immersion into local academic and cultural life. The day-to-day scientific culture of another country is something that most students would likely be unable to experience at a conference, yet can have a considerable impact on their view of the academic world and on their interactions with other researchers. And going to the opening day of Oktoberfest was an experience all its own.

The second half of a program began with a journey by train to Venice, to the CeNS workshop 2017, 'Design and Control of Nanosystems', on the small island of San Servolo. The workshop, intended to bring together researchers from different disciplines dealing with nanotechnology, had a remarkable variety of talks. Topics ranged from single-molecule studies within living bacteria to topological physics. CPLC was represented by Professors Nigel Goldenfeld and Aleksei Aksimentiev, who gave invited talks, with Gloria, Lauren, and Alice giving poster presentations. The various talks, as an ensemble, illuminated not only the complexity and depth of each topic individually, but also the incredible diversity of the field, and the importance of communication across the different areas.

From working with and becoming friends with Munich student hosts, from attending the first day of Oktoberfest to getting lost in Venice, from learning to synthesize DNA origami to listening to talks on microbial fluids and quantum nanophotonics, JNN has been a remarkable experience for the CPLC students.