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The Berlin-Melbourne Connection

The joint PhD programme of the Berlin University Alliance unites principal investigators and young scientists in Berlin and Melbourne in a research tandem. The teams research global health challenges such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pregnancy-related illnesses or less harmful use of smartphones. This is a great opportunity for the doctoral students. Three examples.

In the first cohort, the Joint PhD Program links young researchers from the University of Melbourne with doctoral students from HU, Charité, MDC and FU (pictured here)

In the first cohort, the Joint PhD Program links young researchers from the University of Melbourne with doctoral students from HU, Charité, MDC and FU (pictured here)
Image Credit: Stefan Müller-Naumann

Every few months, the molecular biologist Mario Delgadillo fills out a large stack of paper for the customs authorities and sends a very small container in well-secured packaging. Destination: the Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Content: bacterial strains into which the doctoral student has integrated so-called reporter proteins. These are valuable tools in molecular biological research: they are mostly used for the visualisation and tracing of spatial and temporal gene or protein expression patterns.

Delgadillo works at the Department of Biology of Humboldt-Universität on the research project “Visualising the dynamics of horizontal gene transfer during bacterial conjugation”. The aim is to crack the mechanism with which a resistant bacterial cell passes on genetic information to another bacterial cell.

This would be enormous progress for drug development, as around one million people die every year worldwide from infections because the bacteria that cause them are resistant to antibiotics.

The project is a collaborative one, funded by BUA – one of up to six such collaborations in the joint PhD programme of the BUA universities with the university in Melbourne (UoM). Two doctoral positions are financially supported by BUA per collaboration. There has already been a strategic partnership in research since 2018 with the UoM.

The programme addresses the excellent young scientists and aims to promote international networking in global health research: two principal investigators (PI) and two doctoral students in both Berlin and Melbourne work jointly as a tandem on a scientific question. All the projects focus on global health problems and are funded as part of the Grand Challenge Initiative on Global Health.

Delgadillo describes what is special about the joint PhD programme: “In the research project, we have a clear division of tasks. I produce the Salmonella strains with the reporter proteins. My partner, Shubha Udupa, conducts the experiments in Melbourne using these. We therefore depend on each other in our work. And it is great to see how well it works despite the great distance between our laboratories.”

Exchange within the team is no problem, thanks to meeting apps. Once a month, both the doctoral students meet with their academic supervisors, Prof. Marc Erhardt (HU) and Debnath Ghosal, PhD (University of Melbourne) in a video chat. Usually at about 9 am Berlin time – then it is 6 pm in Melbourne. Additionally, Delgadillo and his tandem partner see each other at shorter intervals to discuss new results in the experimental laboratory.

For the BUA doctoral students, the stay in Melbourne is the highlight of their doctorate

For the BUA doctoral students, the stay in Melbourne is the highlight of their doctorate
Image Credit: Weyne Yew/Unsplash

A highlight of the programme for all the doctoral students involved is the research year at the other university. Lina Christin Brockmeier, health psychologist at Freie Universität, also very much appreciates this opportunity as a young researcher.

In the project “TEMPHEALTH”, Brockmeier is researching digital technologies for monitoring and promoting sustainable health-related behaviour. Together with the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology of the University of Melbourne, she is pursuing the question of how (technical) interventions can be developed for healthier forms of smartphone use. “So far, there has been only little and not very conclusive research on this topic”, Brockmeier says.

Studies in 29 countries show that problematic forms of smartphone use adversely affect the well-being of the users concerned. Scrolling through Instagram, although one actually wanted to study, and should do so, is one of the classic situations.

For her doctoral thesis, Lina Brockmeier is investigating the extent to which planned interruptions of smartphone use, and thereby a reduction in the period of use, can increase well-being. “In addition, I would like to investigate how one can improve one’s own smartphone use by app.”

For her, the joint project and the stay in Melbourne are “an excellent opportunity to expand my network as a researcher, for example in the field of work of Computer Science and Engineering”.

For all the doctoral students in the Berlin-Melbourne projects, the experiences also open doors for their next professional steps in science.

The South African biochemist Stefan Botha, doctoral student in Melbourne and soon a guest for a year at the Max-Delbrück-Centrum in Berlin, also sees the international cooperation in his joint PhD project “A global approach to advancing prediction and understanding of preeclampsia pathogenesis” as a great opportunity. Botha completed his academic education to date exclusively in South Africa. His doctoral thesis is now taking him abroad for the first time – to Melbourne first, as the base for his doctoral period, then to Germany.

Preeclampsia is a condition that can occur in pregnancy or in the postpartum period and can become dangerous for the mother and child. It is also known by the name “Preeclampsia toxaemia”. In severe cases, preeclampsia can lead to death, usually as a result of a cerebral haemorrhage, renal failure or a ruptured liver of the mother. The condition is particularly feared as it can occur suddenly and is often very severe. Signs of preeclampsia are high blood pressure in the mother and increased protein excretion in the urine. If recognised in time, the condition can be treated, but in countries with medium and low income and poor access to good medical care, mothers and children still die from it.

“The exact causes of preeclampsia are still unclear,” Botha says. “There are considerable challenges globally in the effective treatment of pregnancy-related complications, not only from preeclampsia, but also, for example, from intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR).”

The aim of the project is to find new biomarkers and therapeutic options for pregnancy-related disorders. “We hope that our research on prevention of preeclampsia contributes to reducing such serious risks for the mother and child during pregnancy,” Botha says. 

Further Information

The three projects

BUA is financing two doctoral positions for three years each.

“Visualising the dynamics of horizontal gene transfer during bacterial conjugation”, Department of Biology, Humboldt-Universität and Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology of the University of Melbourne; PI: Prof. Dr. Marc Erhardt and Debnath Ghosal, PhD

“TEMPHEALTH – Digital Technologies to Monitor and Promote Sustainable Health Behaviours”, School of Computing and Information Systems, University of Melbourne and Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin; PI: Prof. Dr. Tilman Dingler and Dr. Jan Keller

“A global approach to advancing prediction and understanding of preeclampsia pathogenesis”, Obstetrics and Gynaecology – Royal Women’s Hospital, University of Melbourne and Max-Delbrück-Centrum/Charité; PI: Prof. Tu'uhevahaKaitu'u-Lino and Prof. Dr. Ralf Dechend

A further three joint PhD projects are being funded:

“Targeting calcitonin receptor to treat glioblastoma with glycan-based site-specific coupling of toxins to nanobodies Phage”, Institute of Laboratory Medicine, Clinical Chemistry and Pathobiochemistry, Charité, Department of Medicine – Austin Health, University of Melbourne; PI: Prof. Dr. Hendrik Fuchs and Dr. Peter Wookey

“Phage-Steering Strategy to Fight Antibiotic Resistance”, Centre for Musculoskeletal Surgery, Charité, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Melbourne; PI: Prof. Dr. Andrej Trampuz and Prof. Ben Howden

“Tackling a Global Health problem, control of ticks and tick-borne pathogens using anti-tick microbial vaccines”, Institute of Parasitology and Tropical Veterinary Medicine, Freie Universität Berlin, Department of Veterinary Biosciences, University of Melbourne; PI: Prof. Dr. ArdNijhof and Prof. Abul Jabbar