Three sciences at once

Doctoral candidate Sonja Kirsch was involved in a research project even whilst working on her Bachelor’s thesis. (Image: FAU/Luisa Macharowsky)
Doctoral candidate Sonja Kirsch was involved in a research project even whilst working on her Bachelor’s thesis. (Image: FAU/Luisa Macharowsky)

Three subjects all rolled into one? There’s no such thing? Yes, there is! Integrated Life Sciences. FAU is the only institution in Germany to offer this unique subject.

‘Biology in the 21st century deals with communication between cells, creating customised cells or diagnosing cancer by analysing the mechanical properties of cells. For this, it is crucial to have an in-depth knowledge of mathematics and physics, as well as biology and molecular biology,’ explains one of the degree programme coordinators for Integrated Life Sciences (ILS), Prof. Dr. Rainer Böckmann.

FAU has offered the interdisciplinary degree programme in ILS for nine years now. It consists of a Bachelor’s degree programme taught in German followed by a Master’s degree programme taught in English. Students learn to apply methods from the fields of mathematics and physics within the context of current research projects in life sciences. They explore, for example, how to collect large quantities of data and use mathematical models to describe their findings. One unique feature of the Bachelor’s degree programme in ILS is that courses are taught by lecturers from various disciplines: a biologist and a physicist may give a joint explanation of how microscopes can be used to examine plant or animal cells at the same time as describing how modern cameras or microscopes are built and used,’ explains Böckmann.

Maths, biology and physics

Sonja Kirsch is a doctoral candidate and has always been interested in the sciences. ‘Even at school, maths and physics were my favourite subjects. During my last two years at school, I started to have more lessons in biology, and I became really keen on it.’ She started to look up about the degree programme in biology on the FAU website and that was when she discovered the degree programme in ILS. ‘It was just exactly what I had been looking for, I didn’t have to look any further. Nowhere else in Germany offers a similar degree programme, I would have had to go to Princeton or Harvard.’

The letter ‘I’ also stands for interdisciplinary

The connection between all three main subjects is crucial to the degree programme. ‘Students who choose to study this degree programme should be aware that it is not enough to only be interested in biology, as maths and physics are just as important. However, the interdisciplinary nature of the course and the teaching units offered from various disciplines mean that it is never boring,’ says Kirsch. Experiments are also an important part of the degree programme. Students simulate molecule movements in order to investigate how proteins work, use microscopy methods, dissolve protein structures or analyse genome sequences with methods from bioinformatics.

Woman in front of a Computer.
Kirsch focussed on computer-assisted biophysics during her Master’s degree programme. She had to analyse large volumes of data. (FAU/Luisa Macharowsky)

Even during the Bachelor’s degree programme, students are able to get involved in mini research projects dealing with topical scientific issues. They can then explore these issues in more detail in their theses. ‘My Bachelor’s thesis dealt with a topic from structural biology. I investigated the proteins responsible for supporting the fusion of membranes during cell fusion. Parts of my thesis were even published,’ explains Kirsch.

Kirsch has stayed loyal to the degree programme, focussing particularly on computer-assisted biophysics. She was accepted into a doctoral degree programme immediately after completing her Bachelor’s degree. According to Kirsch:‘The degree programme was the perfect preparation for starting out on a doctoral degree. I learnt how to deal with large quantities of data, a skill I was able to put to use straight away in my doctoral thesis.’ She plans to submit the thesis at the end of the year.

And after graduating?

‘ILS graduates have a very broad range of expertise: they can communicate on an equal footing with mathematicians, physicists and biologists. They have learnt to programme, statistically evaluate data and apply techniques of cellular and molecular biology. The degree programme prepares students for a future career in research and development,’ explains Böckmann.

The degree programme stands graduates in good stead if they are aiming for a career in research at a university. However, the interdisciplinary nature of their degree programme also gives graduates the flexibility to go into industry – for example at a pharmaceuticals company, clinical facility or test laboratory – to enter the field of medical engineering or to venture into consulting. ‘I don’t really know what I would like to do after completing my doctoral degree,’ Kirsch says. ‘I will either stay in science and start to work towards becoming a professor, or I’ll go into industry. I haven’t decided yet. My priority at the moment is my doctoral thesis.’


FAU alexander magazine

alexander Nr. 109 Titelbild

Image: FAU

This text was first published in our magazine alexander. Further topics in the issue: self-repairing predators’ teeth and cephalopods, a unique degree programme, a robot factory and an alumni reunion in Canada.

Download alexander no. 109 (in German)