Foreign Study: Germany Exchange is Wunderbar
By Kathryn LoConte Lapierre
With more than 60 percent of undergraduates studying overseas, Dartmouth is well known for its foreign study programs. And since 2000, Thayer School Professor Horst Richter has been encouraging advanced undergraduates and graduate students to participate in the Germany Exchange Program he and German colleague Heinrich Kreye established between Thayer School and the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg. So far, 13 Dartmouth students, 33 Helmut Schmidt students, and another six from Munich have done the exchange, which includes opportunities for internships.
Christabell Makokha ’11, one of the most recent participants, completed an internship at a materials science lab in Hamburg, where she worked with students from Japan and Brazil, as well as Germany. “The lab was so international, and because of that, I learned there was no one way of doing something. Just because I do it one way in the United States doesn’t mean they do it that way in Japan,” she says.
Focusing on biomedical engineering, Makokha worked on cold-spray technology for using titanium dioxide powder to kill bacteria. “If you spray it onto a surface at the right temperature, the surface will also have bactericidal activity,” she explains. “The problem is that once you spray the powder on a surface, it’s gray and dull. You don’t want that if you’re going to be using it in a hospital, for example. Most people associate being gray and dull with being dirty, and it’s just depressing, too. My task was to figure out a way to smooth the surfaces and make them shiny and incorporate color into the powders but still maintain bactericidal activity. We developed our own protocol, and they basically told us, ‘Okay, go and work miracles.’ ”
Doing so in Germany added to the challenge. “You have to navigate life in a completely different culture,” says Makokha. “The first few weeks it was scary, thinking I was going to mess everything up. But it challenged me a lot because I was with the Ph.D. students and graduate students who know so much, and because of that I was more motivated. It fortified my desire to become a biomedical engineer.”
That’s just the kind of insight Richter hoped students would gain from the program. Students need the opportunity to practice their field of engineering to discover if it is a good fit, he says. “Many years back,” he recalls, “I had a student who wanted to become a chemical engineer. So we got her an internship at one of the big chemical engineering companies, and after that summer she came back and said that she would do anything, but not chemical engineering. And so I always encourage our students to get a little bit of industrial experience. They need to really find out just what is in a company or how you work intensely with other engineers inside a research lab.”
German student Christian Busch, a master’s student at Helmut Schmidt University, knows exactly what he wants: to combine automotive engineering with materials science. Most of his work during his exchange experience at Thayer School has been with Professor Douglas Van Citters ’99 Th’03 ’06 and with the Dartmouth Formula Racing (DFR) team. “We have a Formula student team in Germany, but the focus is different from the project I do with the Formula Hybrid racing team here,” says Busch.
His thesis is about the development, testing, and simulation of lightweight carbon fiber parts for the racecar. “At the moment, a lot of parts of the chassis and frame are made out of heavy steel. And the main point is to improve the weight and the performance ratio of the car,” he says.
Busch’s work with the DFR team appears to be mutually beneficial. He gained experience in a new area of automotive engineering, and he hopes it will give Dartmouth’s racecar an edge at the Formula Hybrid International Competition May 1–4. “The Dartmouth team does not have a lot of experience with these kinds of adhesive connections,” he says. “The Formula Hybrid guys invited me to the competition, which I’m pretty proud of, and I’m excited to see how the part I designed performs.”
Busch found this kind of project work instructive. “In Germany it’s pretty theoretical,” he says. “There are lab classes but no projects until the fifth term. When you’re only working from a theoretical aspect, it’s pretty hard to imagine how something is going on, how something fits. Here, though, you have to think like an engineer to solve a problem from the beginning. With a project, everything is connected, and you know how to design it, how to calculate all the processes, and how to manufacture it. It’s pretty important for engineers to see the result at the end, to have it in their hands.”
Busch would like to see more Germans study overseas. “A lot of people don’t see the point of going to other colleges if you can work on the same project in Germany. But it’s not only to work on a project. It’s to see the country, to meet new friends, to improve your language or learn new languages. You get in contact with other cultures,” he says. “So I want to promote this exchange program, and not only with Dartmouth, but in general.”
— Kathryn LoConte Lapierre is the assistant editor of Dartmouth Engineer.
For more photos from this issue, visit our Winter 2011 set of images on Flickr.