Summer Research at BrainLinks-BrainTools (Freiburg, Germany)

Larissa Ho

With a large suitcase sitting in the trunk, a backpack full of snacks and entertainment for a 10-hour flight, and a van full of my loved ones, I headed toward the airport to embark on a 10 week exchange program, supported by a partnership between the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) and BrainLinks-BrainTools in Freiburg, Germany. The opportunity to gain research experience while also experiencing everything Europe had to offer was the perfect combination. To say the least, I couldn’t have asked for a better summer or a first trip to Europe.

My research took place in the Autonomous Intelligent Systems Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Wolfram Burgard at the University of Freiburg. Although I did not have much exposure to the area of robotics, the opportunity to jump right into this field was challenging and rewarding. In Freiburg, I worked with a PhD student to train a neural network for text recognition that could later be adapted by a robot.

The research environment in Freiburg was very community oriented. It was rare to find someone eating by themselves at their desk because people went out for lunch together every day. It definitely was something that I enjoyed because I was able to learn more about the members of the lab beyond their work projects and this made me feel part of their community.

Being completely submerged in the German culture was truly a memorable experience, and I have my lab and the people at BrainLinks-BrainTools to thank for helping me adapt so quickly. From my co-workers teaching me the German language to eating every meal with a fork and knife (including a burger and fries!), I felt like a local within a matter of weeks. The smell of family-owned bakeries on every corner, the daily farmers market around the cathedral, and the sound of multiple conversations over coffee filling the air, shows the strength of the Freiburg community. It was easy to call this place home for the summer.

Through the ten weeks abroad I was able to grow in ways that I never thought possible. There is just something about traveling, especially to a new culture, that broadens your perspectives. The exchange program with BrainLinks-BrainTools not only allowed me to grow academically through the research but personally with the experience of being in a foreign country. Being able to interact and learn from a diverse group of PhD students with their own unique expertise expanded my knowledge of robotics and the area of research. Traveling around Europe on weekend trips to places like Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom challenged me to step out of my comfort zone on multiple occasions.

I am currently starting my sophomore year at the University of Washington and am excited to see how my new perspective and mindset will influence me moving forward. Without any doubt, I strongly encourage other students to participate in this exchange program and cannot thank the CSNE and BrainLinks-BrainTools enough for this amazing opportunity.

For more information about the CSNE's student exchange program with our international partner, BrainLinks-BrainTools, contact CSNE Executive and Education Director, Dr. Eric Chudler.