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Faculty of Science and Engineering - Spain, Barcelona

Datum:14 juli 2020
Auteur:Matthijs Tadema
Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona, Spain

Since the beginning of my studies, I realized I wanted to combine my interest in molecular biology, and computers and programming. I quickly became drawn to computational protein design: using computer algorithms and simulations to “design” new proteins that perform new functions. Sadly, the University of Groningen does not have a research group that works in this field (yet).
I was very lucky, when my study mentor at the time told me he had some professional contacts in the field of computational protein design, and he could introduce me to them. Within a month or two I was on my way to do a research internship at Zymvol, a startup company in Barcelona, for about 6 months. 
Before I went I had little time to arrange my stay in Spain: I had to book a flight, arrange my mobility with the International Office of the university, and of course I had to find a place to stay for half a year. Finding a room in Barcelona is notoriously hard, and I had my share of rejections while applying for rooms. Of course I also couldn’t simply visit the room beforehand. In the end I was lucky to find a room in a nice part of the city. Though the rent was a lot higher than here in Groningen, thanks to the Groninger University Fund I could afford it.
After a few days on my own in the city I started my internship at Zymvol. It was a very small start-up company at first, consisting mostly of the three founders, one or two employees, and another master student besides myself. The project I was tasked to work on was actually funded by the EU to develop new enzymes for sustainable polymer chemistry. It was quite exciting to work on such a problem with such interesting real-world applications. The methods I was taught to use were different from what I was familiar with at the university as well; For a company, time is money, and so they invest in tools and technology that make their job easier a lot more than a university would. At the end of the project, I managed to design an enzyme to do the required reaction, however my theoretical enzyme has not yet been produced in the lab so whether it actually functions as designed remains to be seen.

Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona, Spain

Besides working on my project, I also enjoyed my time in Barcelona. I went out for drinks regularly with my supervisor and my colleagues, and even baked some dutch pancakes for my landlords. Sometimes I went out for a walk and there would be a market throughout the streets of the neighborhood, or there was suddenly a national holiday that I didn’t know existed until my Spanish colleagues told me. My advice for people who would like to do a semester or an internship abroad would be to invest effort into making new friends early on, so you can enjoy them during your stay and possibly even after that.
Coming back to Groningen was harder than I would have liked with regards to getting back to my regular studies again, and finishing my master. I know now that it is very important to finish your work abroad completely before you leave. If you don’t, it’s very hard to get back into the same groove in a different environment.
Overall, I am glad I took the opportunity, and I am extremely grateful to the Groninger University Fund for supporting me. I learned a ton from my supervisor about computational protein design that I could have never learned at the university, which in the end helped me to land a PhD position back home in Groningen. Most of all I like to think I grew a lot as a person. Through traveling alone to another country, having to arrange everything yourself, I became more independent and resilient than I have ever been before.