🕒 20 min
Today, let us welcome another S3 alumnus to the Presenting Alumni stage – Felix Lahr, now a new biochemistry student at the University of Heidelberg. Despite having just finished high school, Felix is already shaping up to be an incredibly accomplished and inspired scientist. Join us for an overview of his endeavors so far and his experience as a participant at S3 2019.
We usually start these interviews with a quick introduction. I know this is always hard, but if you had a short time to accurately introduce yourself to someone new, what would you say?
Yes, this is indeed a very difficult question, but I’d probably do it very simply: I’m Felix, I’m a previous high school student soon to turn university student, from Germany. I have a strong passion for science – especially the biological sciences – for scientific thinking, the scientific method, everything scientific. Something I am equally passionate about is sharing this love for science with others. Social engagement, whether it be scientific or non-scientific, is very important to me. One of the things I especially enjoy doing is working with teens and adolescents who feel strongly about a particular subject, again both in science, like by tutoring, or – when it comes to something non-scientific – teaching children how to swim or debate. The social element is what I like to tell people the most about when they are meeting me for the first time. And, to be perfectly honest, an introduction would be incomplete if I didn’t mention one or two of my quirks. One of the most important things one should know about me is that I’m usually a very slow listener in the sense that I might have to interject somebody, not because they’re being unclear, but because I simply did not have the time to catch up with what they said.
What an excellent introduction! Everything about you reads that you are a very scientific person. You mentioned tutoring too, and not just scientific subjects. How did you start swimming, or debate?
I’ve been involved in all sorts of swimming activities since I was seven. Once I reached a certain level, where I was allowed to consider myself a lifeguard in a sense, I realized I wanted to make use of that qualification, and pass it on to other people. I’ve been especially interested in teaching quite young children between the ages of seven and twelve. It’s about teaching them fine motor skills and coordination, but swimming is also a particularly great sport for scientists. It’s important to explain fluidity, why one moves more slowly through viscous fluids, what buoyancy means or how to minimize the chance of a belly flop by optimizing one’s surface area and angle of attack, even to young children. Even though the theory behind these things might seem difficult, I think swimming is a wonderful way to teach children some basic physical intuition.
Debate is actually a program inspired by the United Nations’ debates, called Model United Nations (MUN). It’s offered in many schools around the world, bringing high school students together. They get assigned a topic, a country and a certain committee and debate on the future of world politics, essentially. And of course, it wouldn’t be a complete account of events if there weren’t some scientific connection to this kind of thing. In this case, my first contact with debate was during the glyphosate debate. That was when I decided to join my school’s debate club and, as time progressed, I was interested in organizing workshops, as I didn’t want to just lead but also learn from others.
You seem to have a very holistic idea of science in your life, which naturally brings me to ask whether you have always been interested in science. When did that interest first show and how did it develop over time?
I think my first interest in science grew out of your standard DIY home experiments. One of my first was constructing one of those volcanoes using sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid. As soon as my parents realized that these “scientific wonders” interested me, they got me one of my first big Christmas presents – an electric circuit toolbox of sorts, obviously aimed at younger children. No soldering or any advanced techniques, just sticking together capacitors and resistors and seeing when the light would spark up. I think especially when you’re that young, what might really drive your passion for science are these incredible demonstrations of simple phenomena with quite elaborate groundwork hiding beneath. For example, going back to the volcano, the underlying phenomenon is acid-base neutralization. For the physics toolbox, it is moving electrons. Asking the question of what stood behind these reactions drove my interest in these topics later during my education.
Now that you mentioned education, let me ask: was there anything specific about your high school? Does the choice of high school matter in Germany, or is it mostly based on where you live?
In Germany, high schools can roughly be divided into several broad groups. There are the gymnasiums, which are your general, academically oriented high schools, quite science and math-focused. That is the only type of high school I am somewhat confident talking about because I haven’t been to any of the other two, the Realschule and the Hauptschule.
The advantage of my particular gymnasium, and the reason I chose it, is that it was part of an international school. That especially interested my family and me, and I don’t think that statement needs too much extra justification – cultural exchange is always wonderful, it was even one of the main drivers of my choice to attend S3.
- Elementary school: 2009 – 2011, Grundschule Gensingen, Gensingen, Germany
- Elementary school: 2011 – 2012, HSV International School, The Hague, Netherlands
- Middle and high school: 2012 – 2021, Berlin International School, Berlin, Germany
- BSc: 2021 – present, Universität Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany
In what way was your high school an international school? Was it an IB program?
Yes, though the IB aspect came more as a result of us wanting to find an international school. The program I followed throughout my high school education was the one laid out by IB. MUN was also part of that experience, for example. I might add that one of the reasons we chose IB in particular was that their scientific programs are quite excellent. One of its components is an experiment, which you devise and perform yourself – everything from the research question over the method, to analyzing the data. This is actually one of the exams you need to pass the course, which I quite liked.
Can you tell me what experiment you chose?
I did two experiments, one in biology and one in chemistry. I’ll start with the chemistry one, which went much more smoothly than the one in biology, but we’ll get to that. It was about determining the caffeine content of different widely available drinks, such as energy drinks, coffee or cocoa, using various methods of extraction and distillation. The great thing was that my school had their own lab and was able to provide their own gear and all the solvents I needed. So, I was able to carry out everything at school, within two days of experimentation, I believe.
I could actually say I did three experiments, of which two were in biology, but I had to completely scrap one of those because it simply didn’t work. It was the very first scientific experiment I did as part of IB and I just completely miscalculated most of the steps I did. It was about the respiration of brewer’s yeast – and all the measurements came out as an impressive 0 cm3 of gas per the measured time period, even though I adjusted the concentration of the reagent the yeast was supposed to respond to. Due to time pressure and difficulty accessing the lab because of COVID restrictions, I had to settle for something a bit more dry, a meta-analysis. But at least I was free to pick my own topic, and I chose to research the effectiveness of different strategies that can be used to remediate the effects of global warming on coral reefs. It was a lot less exciting than performing the experiment with live cells, but I suppose it had a greater impact on me.
Sadly, as many of us were still underage while doing this, as we were in our final two years of high school, we couldn’t publish our work.
This all sounds very interesting. Besides this work, were there any subjects or other projects you took particular interest in during high school? Or any teachers that really left a mark?
At this point I would have to give a shoutout to my biology teacher. She was the person who advertised several scientific events to us, even before I came to S3 in 2019. In the same year, I took part in the German Neuroscience Olympiad, for example. During biology class, while we were talking about neurology, she offered us this additional opportunity to further our knowledge in the field. And even though I cannot say I found the competition enjoyable to the extent that I enjoyed the S3 camp experience, I definitely found out more about the topic. As someone with an interest in the sciences, it was a formative experience, I just didn’t enjoy the “pressure” environment, being asked to recall different facts about the brain and its function on the spot. My teacher therefore allowed me to elucidate what sort of format would stick with me.
Did you participate in any other competitions?
Earlier this year I took part in another competition, but for two very specific reasons: one, because the pandemic was still very rampant and I was looking for things to do, and two, because it was a team effort. You could only sign up in teams, with a minimum of five people, I believe. You had to solve problems together, which made me reconsider my previous stance on science competitions and so I gave it a shot again. Within this context, things went a lot more smoothly. It was a competition called SCINNOVA, organized by a Pakistani college. That also meant that all the competitions took place in the very early morning for us European participants. We were often online at 5 am, pretty much every single one of the three days. What I especially enjoyed about the whole event was that it wasn’t just focused on one single branch of science. There was a biology section, for example, where we had to write a thesis of sorts on a certain topic, in this case the gut microbiome. The challenge was that we had to complete it within 24 hours. There were other sections, in chemistry, cryptography, psychology and so on. This general approach really made the whole event that much more worth it to me.
You brought up another interesting point, which is that you had to deal with COVID during your final two years of high school. Did you find any other ways to cope with the lack of scientific events and opportunities?
Yes, luckily. Together with a classmate, I started watching lectures on a scientific topic that was of interest to us. We found MIT OpenCourseWare, which is a frankly awesome resource, being this liberal about sharing quality information. The friend and I made it an event of sorts, where we went on video call together and listened to a qualified person explaining a topic. Because we weren’t confined by a syllabus, we wanted to follow something crazy, like solid-state chemistry, for example. That pops up in neither of our preferred directions of study, but that is exactly why we went with it.
And finally, now that you have completed high school and are entering university, another question naturally follows: how did you decide on which university to attend? Did you immediately have to choose a particular direction to take your studies in?
I chose the University of Heidelberg for many reasons, one simply being the principle of exclusion. Before COVID and Brexit, I was considering moving to the UK for my studies, and I ended up getting an offer from a university in London. In the end, however, the tuition fees were just too high to be justified, at least at the undergraduate level. Germany ended up being one of my cheaper options and, I dare say, still quite renowned. I figured that if I get into a program that offers the courses I like, by a faculty who have a lot of experience with what they are doing, how wrong can a university be, even if it’s not in the world’s top 10? I also like the internship opportunities Heidelberg could offer me in the future because it is so well connected with other European universities.
Your second question is actually very interesting, given that the course I chose is biochemistry. It is a very new course, especially by Germany’s standards, where changes to university curriculums tend to be quite slow. I sadly cannot pinpoint exactly when it was introduced, but it’s not much older than 20 or 30 years, which is cutting edge for university courses. At most German universities, biochemistry is often no more than an appendage to the existing chemistry curriculum. We were warned that taking biochemistry would really mean doing chemistry 90% of the time. By choosing biochemistry, I may say that I have indirectly become a chemistry student.
Considering you already have a fair bit of experience for your age, do you have a particular area of interest within biochemistry already?
I think I have a direction I want to go in, which is endocrinology. I am especially intrigued by the importance of endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that, as the name suggests, disrupt or alter the functioning of the endocrine system. It stood out to me in particular because it has such far-reaching consequences. I remember reading a newsletter article on how these chemicals may affect IQ development in children. There are many examples showing the severity of this issue, which is what makes me seriously consider it because, if a solution is found to the problems caused by it, the benefits would be immense. I think the social responsibility of science in these cases is just as great.
Summer School of Science
Finally, let’s move on from your (albeit, very interesting) academic story so far and talk S3. Can you describe what the process of deciding whether or not to attend was like for you?
One of the biggest factors for me while reaching my decision was that Croatia was quite far away, at least for me, as a German. I had to decide if it was worth it to invest so much time and effort into organizing my way there and if I was comfortable being so far from home, which was a fairly novel experience for me at the time. My other consideration was whether I could sustain my interest in a niche subject for nearly two weeks. The duration of the camp was also something that really caught my attention because similar summer camps in Germany are usually up to a week long. I was on the fence because I didn’t know if I was “mature” enough. One of the strong points, of course, was that S3 was a very international camp, which was also its main selling point for me. Seeing that it was held in English and had participants and project leaders from such varied backgrounds made me think a lot more seriously about it.
Can you briefly describe your project for our readers?
Yes, the name of the project was “Do We Really Need Animal Testing to Keep Us Safe?” and it was about assessing the efficacy of animal testing methods during the approval of chemicals in the industrial and cosmetics sectors. We looked at the different methods that currently exist to assess chemical safety – epidemiological studies, in vitro experiments, animal testing – and tried to see some of the future perspectives of this field. In particular, we wanted to test how computational methods can be used to analyze the behavior of different compounds within the body. We focused on chemicals used in the cosmetics sector because there had been a fairly recent change, where the EU passed a new bill banning the use of animal testing in cosmetics. We sought to find the best alternative.
That sounds fairly in line with your interests. How much of an impact did S3 have on your studies?
In the short term, it definitely had the impact of informing my choice for the IB science project. Thinking about certain groups of chemicals being used in cosmetics prompted me to ask in which other areas of life there may be substances which might be harmful to some or many of us. I wanted to explore caffeine dosage because I realized that I myself also wasn’t sure what the proper dose was or how much of it was where, even though I don’t drink many caffeinated drinks. There was another project I did as part of my IB program that I didn’t mention before, but it was a direct consequence of my S3 experience. It was focused on the aldehyde content of cosmetics because that class of chemicals can cause skin irritation but do not have to be indicated on packaging. I wanted to see how harmful they can be and, again, just how much can be found in cosmetic products. Of course, I also learned a lot about animal testing itself.
I know you appreciated the international nature of S3, but can you point out something else that really stood out to you as good about it? Or something not so good?
Something that really stood out to me was that we were working under the wings of project leaders who were experts in their respective fields, who had already been conducting research for several years in most cases. I know that I was looking at other science camps alongside S3 and was surprised to see that most of the projects offered there were quite broad, almost generic, even – commensurate with what we might do during our regular high school studies. S3 really had a very specialist view on projects and that drew me to it. For example, prior to that I had never considered what it meant for a chemical to be tested or to what extent animals were used in industry. This exposure to something new was an integral part of the S3 experience.
Wonderful answer – I can agree. Did you stay in touch with your project leader, then?
Yes, I’ve been staying in touch with my S3 team. I should remark that this was based on the initiative of the project leader, who really wanted to keep us bonded together. At the beginning of this year we got together and she told us about many upcoming science events aimed at younger people, mainly surrounding her field. So yes, we have been staying in touch, but – and this might sound pretentious, but I think it’s accurate – more so as a group of scientists than friends.
And is there a memory that you would particularly like to share, project-related or not?
One of the most distinct memories I have from S3 was actually not related to the work at all, but was rather one of the leisure activities we did. It was the treasure hunt we did across the high school. One of my most vivid experiences was solving cryptographic puzzles and answering science trivia to get to the prize. There was one other thing, which may be a bit cliché, but it was the international evening, where people were presenting different foods from their countries of origin. The funny thing was that we forgot to plan out how to pass around the different foods, so we somehow had dessert before the main course.
Has talking to someone at S3 or reading one of the alumni interviews informed your academic or professional life?
I’ve read through some of the other interviews and one stuck out to me in particular. Interestingly, it wasn’t one by a project leader but one of the former participants. I was impressed by her decision to write a book about the importance of reading popular science literature. What stuck out to me was that, at his young of an age – basically in my age group – there exists this willingness to engage a broader audience in the field of science. I found that truly commendable and frankly inspiring.
Finally, I’ve noticed that you very much appreciate communicating science. Have you ever thought about doing science popularization yourself? Would you maybe like to come back to S3 in a different role at some point?
Yes, once the world gets to a better place regarding travel safety and once I am more established in my field, I would love to come back one day as a project leader. I’m honestly looking forward to that. So much so that I’ve looked into other similar opportunities – for example, the aforementioned Neuroscience Olympiad. They are looking for students who can help organize the event. Even though I didn’t get the same enjoyment out of that experience that I did out of S3, I still believe it is an important cause.
Let’s close off this interview. One thing I like to ask after all this academic talk is whether there are any other interests you have that are important to you but you have not shared yet. Would you like to share some?
Science is truly my biggest passion, but I would like to add one thing – that I love hiking. I know it might sound banal, but for me, movement and getting around is one of the most important ways of sorting myself out. Spending time in the Brandenburg plains, which is the part of Germany where I live, helps me keep calm and collected.
You are quite young and just starting university, so you may often have to think about the future and what to plan. Are you the kind of person who likes to plan ahead?
I would definitely say that I am more of a planner. I mean, the subject of biochemistry really makes it quite “obvious” what I should do to pursue an academic career, which is getting a PhD, to put it bluntly. I might not know where exactly I’m going to continue my studies and in what subjects in particular, but I always want to roughly know where I’m headed. Even though I like to plan, I’m not very much set on figuring out all the details right away.
One last question. Even though you’re young, is there any personal wisdom that you would like to share? Anything that you believe profoundly impacts the way you think about life or that you want to share with others.
I would like to share the fact that – regardless of whether you decide to pursue science or any other craft, if you will – the most important thing to me is to have ways to share that passion with other people, both those with more experience than you and those with less. You can gain a lot from people who have already ascended the ladder further than you, but it is equally, if not more important to share that interest with the up-and-coming generation. Most scientific knowledge is at its most effective when it is as understandable and useful to as wide an audience as possible.
A big thank-you to Felix for allowing us a look into what will surely become an even more interesting life story in the coming years.
Have any questions for Felix? Feel free to ask in the comments and start a conversation.