The Integration of German Language, Culture, and Brain Tumor Biology in My Quest to Become a Physician Scientist

The purpose of this journal is to serialize my summer experience in Germany, connecting the two seemingly disparate fields of language and culture studies with STEM. In doing so, I hope to inspire other students to look beyond traditional STEM-related internship, work and study opportunities. I also want to provide a firsthand recollection of what it is like to work and live in a different culture.

Hallo Leute! Or for native English speakers, hello everyone!

My name is Nicholas Zacharewski and I’m a rising junior at Trinity College pursuing a double major in neuroscience and German. I was born in Michigan but attended Shattuck St. Mary’s Prepatory School in Minnesota to play hockey. Realizing that wasn’t far enough away from home, I then decided to go east and attend Trinity College, in Hartford Connecticut. All jokes aside, coming to Trinity truly was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The support of the faculty, staff, students, and community is unmatched. Their encouragement and global education philosophy facilitated my current stay in Heidelberg, Germany.

A bit more of the back story behind how it all happened: My career goal and dream is to become a neurosurgeon conducting research in tumor metabolism (hence the neuroscience background). I first got involved in research in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at Michigan State University during my junior and senior summers of high school. As a freshman, my seminar mentor, Dr. Alison Draper, placed me in a research position at Hartford Hospital in the Neurology Department. But in the spring of 2020, everything came to a grinding halt due to the COVID pandemic, and college students were sent home for the rest of the spring semester. However, I had already committed to an emergency medical technician (EMT) course at Hartford HealthCare’s Center for Education, Simulation and Innovation (CESI) and decided to return for the summer. Hospitals were on lockdown at the time, but med students were still in training. With the permission of the Neurology Department, a neurology resident served as my research and clinical mentor. I spent most days working at the hospital, and eventually, was introduced to the Chief of Neurosurgery, who allowed me to shadow and participate in research studies within the department. I observed many neurosurgeries, but tumor resections really captured my interest. The procedures themselves, but also the patients, their stories and strengths really inspired me. I also co-authored a few case reports for unique tumor presentations which further fueled my fascination with tumor biology.

In the winter of 2020, several of my German professors encouraged me to consider studying abroad, and the Office of Study Away at Trinity College suggested the University of Freiburg, the University of Tübingen and University of Heidelberg. However, studying abroad in the spring of my junior ar was a near impossible fit with my academic schedule. Nevertheless, I was urged to “look and see what you can do this summer”, which led me to search for research possibilities. Reviewing the University of Heidelberg website, I came across the lab of Dr. Christiane Opitz at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutches Krebsforschungszentrum or DKFZ for short), which is associated with University of Heidelberg. Dr. Opitz’s research leveraged my previous research experience while satisfying my interest in brain tumors. The fit seemed perfect! I crafted an email (with appropriate German salutations), attached my curriculum vitae, and sent it out on New Year’s Eve (great timing Nic). I honestly thought she wasn’t going to reply. Three days later, she wrote back saying “Dear Nic Zacharewski, Thank you for your application. For how long do you want to stay in my lab?” Just like that, I had a glimmer of hope of combining a STEM degree with my interest in German. Not long after that, I shared the news about my possible summer plans with Dr. Julia Assaiante, my German course instructor. She was also exploring ideas to bridge languages with STEM to offer unique opportunities at Trinity. Over the next few months, we developed a plan that would have me blog about my summer experiences to encourage other language-STEM students to consider pursuing international opportunities.

With that being said, I hope you choose to follow along with my summer adventures and inherent misadventures at the DKFZ/Heidelberg University. As my mom always tells me, it doesn’t matter if you have an experience that goes according to plan or completely goes wrong because in the end, you will have a story to tell. So, here you have them: exactly how they happen, my Heidelberg stories.