IRES Fellows in Singapore and Germany Find Common Ground with Lab Mates and Local Musicians

When you do spend a summer doing research in another country, you expect to build your research skills and learn about the culture of that culture. But sometimes even more enduring is the bonds you make and the new perspectives you learn from the people you meet and do research with.

Two students in the ACS International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) program spent their summer doing research in Germany and Singapore. Here’s what they had to say about their unique experiences in and outside the lab.

Good news: Everything you expected was wrong!


 Grace DeCostanza

 Projected graduation date:

 May 2025

 Home institution:

 Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania

 Host institution:

 Philipps-Universität Marburg in Marburg, Germany

 Research focus:

 Synthesis and characterization of metal(II) selenocyanates

woman standing in front of fume hood in PPE
Grace DeCostanza in front of a fume hood in the Tambornino Lab at Philipps-Universität Marburg

It seems as though all of the expectations I had going into the IRES program were entirely wrong in the best way possible. When I first learned that I had been accepted into the program, I went to tell my PI at my home institution, bouncing into her office with excitement. After taking a moment to come to terms with the scandalizing news that I would be working in an inorganic synthesis lab instead of an organic one, she told me: “It’s going to change your life. You'll come back a different person." No, I thought, it couldn't possibly! Yet, as I sit here now, I realize that she was entirely correct.

I went to Germany expecting an icy lab environment, daily reminders of being an outsider, and a constant, aggressive workload. However, the fantastical chemistry purgatory that I had concocted could not have been farther from reality. From the first day the lab group welcomed me with open arms into a world that wasn’t just science; it was also friendship and fun. Over the course of the summer, I learned invaluable chemistry knowledge of inorganic synthesis and characterization, attended conferences, and gained insight into full-time research. During this time, though, I also met people who would become some of my closest friends, picked up new hobbies, and learned to navigate Deutsche Bahn (the German railways system) on my own.

This past summer I fell in love with chemistry all over again and relearned the beauty of not only molecules, but also of collaboration. The foundation of science is meant to be collaboration. All too often that is easy to forget. The Tambornino Lab Group, where I interned, helped me to understand that chemistry doesn’t have to be competitive and frightening; sometimes, it can be discussing reactions over a cup of tea or laughing about 19th century chemistry with colleagues who are really your friends.

My time as an intern in the Tambornino Lab Group taught me to not only become a better chemist, but also a better person. I may be left with more questions than answers about my future path, but what I know for certain now is that I have the strength to move forward into the future and I want that future to include both synthetic chemistry and Germany.   


Bonding through music


 EJ Brannan

 Projected graduation date:

 June 2024

 Home institution:

 University of Washington, Seattle

 Host institution:

 National University of Singapore

 Research focus:

 Synthesis of atomically thin 2D covalent organic frameworks with structurally integrated macrocycles

2 men and 1 woman posing for photograph
EJ Brannan (right) with two other students in Singapore

My research at the National University of Singapore was tremendously rewarding and interesting, but working internationally was mentally challenging in ways I never would have expected. For the first time in my life, I was completely displaced from my family, friends, and culture. Music was the one thing I knew I could lean on for support. 

As I packed my suitcase, the first item on my list was my bag of drumsticks. Although I’m studying chemistry in university, music has always been a cornerstone of my identity. I’ve been a jazz drummer since I was 8 years old, and I knew that I wanted to take this opportunity to explore the music scene in Singapore with every moment I had outside of the lab. 

I had never gone to a jam session alone before — much less in a foreign country — but I found a single jazz club in the country  that hosted open jam sessions just a 40-minute bus ride away. On my first Sunday in Singapore, I walked into the room that would become my second home across the world. From the moment I sat behind the drums at the session, I was welcomed with open arms by the musicians in Singapore. After that session, I was invited to join the host band at dinner, launching some of the foundational friendships that would shape the rest of my experience abroad.

people playing instruments at bar
Blu Jazz Café on a Sunday night, the bar where EJ played every week

During my stay in Singapore, I played at dozens of jam sessions and was even invited as a guest artist to perform at 2 shows! Additionally, I had the incredible opportunity to collaborate with musicians in Malaysia and Thailand through weekend trips to those countries. Although I’m back in the United States now, the relationships that I built through music in Singapore have remained strong, and I still check in regularly with the friends I made. 

I’ll never forget the late nights at the jazz clubs, the basement jam sessions at friends’ houses, and the memories that I made on stage in Singapore. My advice to anyone travelling abroad for work: don’t forget to keep doing what you love!

Look for the IRES fellows when they present their research at the Undergraduate Research Poster Session, March 18, at ACS Spring 2024.