TUM.Africa Talent Program: Doctoral candidates investigate jet lag syndrome
From Ghana to Munich
"I'd be glad to work with this guy right away," was the reaction of Emmanuel Owiredu Odame from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), on meeting Franz Aschl via ZOOM. The digital meeting had been arranged by their dissertation supervisors. Odames's second thought was: "Taking part in the TUM.Africa Talent Program is a great chance to expand my horizons and to learn how science works somewhere else." A couple of months later he was aboard a plane to Munich, where he met his "Buddy" Franz Aschl in person.
Since then the two of them have shared an office at the TUM Garching campus in the Professorship for Applied Mathematics in Ecology and Medicine. Here the two are investigating the jet lag syndrome, a topic which Franz Aschl has been working on for quite some time already. "In my Master's thesis I wanted to find the connection between the severity of the jet lag and the time difference on the one hand and the traveler's sleep rhythm on the other," says Franz Aschl.
At the time he had been working with an existing mathematical model that took into account how the traveler's internal clock was impacted by the time difference. The model was developed in the 1990's by bioinformatics researchers and is based on experimental data from sleep laboratories. "The we applied the model to jet lag syndrome," says Aschl. To do so, he compared the data from the model with symptoms reported by the test subjects. A correlation soon emerged. "Then I 'fed' the model with data on jet lag, which worked very well. And at that point the statistical analysis of the result became interesting," Aschl recalls. "Since I don't have a particularly strong background in statistics, that was a real challenge," he adds.
Then the TUM.Africa Talent Program entered the equation with exactly the right timing, he says. The two doctoral thesis advisors – Prof. Atinuke Adebanji of KNUST and Prof. Johannes Müller of TUM – had already been in contact and now had the idea of bringing the two candidates together.
The work we do together helps me find the examples I can apply my tools to.
PhD student, Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Ghana
Statistician Emmanuel Owiredu Odame is also benefitting from the collaboration: "Franz' work has very much to do with my PhD project," he says. "I'm researching ways to improve the methods of what is called multiblock data analysis. And the data set Franz is working with fits that very well. The work we do together helps me find the examples I can apply my tools to, which is very important."
There are various factors which cause people to suffer from jet lag after traveling by plane. "Travelers have different experiences before the flight which play a role in the severity of the jet lag," says Odame. "If I really have to catch up on my sleep after one certain trip, it doesn't necessarily mean that will be the case after every trip." In addition, the two doctoral candidates take further characteristics into account, such as age, gender, lifestyle and chronotype, "that is, whether you're a night owl or an early bird." Then Odame and Aschl inspect the data to see which symptoms occur frequently with which data blocks.
The two young scientists are able to work together so successfully thanks to extensive support from the TUM.Africa Talent Program of the TUM Graduate School, including a framework program with Welcome Days, workshops, an opportunity to pitch their projects, seminars, joint excursions to places of interest – and, especially important in Munich, accommodations for the visiting African scholars are arranged in in advance.
"I thought it was great that we had workshops on the cultural differences which could have an influence on our collaboration," says Aschl. "And it's certainly useful for someone from Africa to know that colleagues in Germany don't necessarily discuss personal topics in the office. For example, it's important that people don't think it has to do with them when nothing private is shared in the office." In spite of cultural differences, Aschl and Odame got along immediately. "The picture I had of Germany at home was different from what Franz said on ZOOM, when I was still in Kumasi.
And what I experienced here on location was then again something entirely different from that," says Odame, adding that their relationship is no different from one which he could have with someone from an African culture. "We can talk about everything. Whenever I have a question, I can always go to Franz – and I can count on him helping me."
In addition to joint research on jet lag, the events organized by the TUM.Africa Talent Program, like the excursion together with the other program participants to Herrenchiemsee palace, have made good friends out of the two "Buddies". The bond is strong enough that the two scientists have also gone on trips together outside the program in their free time, for example to the salt mine in Berchtesgaden. Odame finds it important to get out of the city occasionally to rejuvenate, what with the intensive research work the two of them do. "I like green vegetation," he says. "I very much enjoy taking walks in the English Garden. I feel like I'm in the forest and I can really relax. KNUST doesn't have such a large park, I always have to go far out into the countryside to see such parks."
And Franz Aschl is also very eager to find out what research and teaching is like at the partner university KNUST. He plans to later take advantage of the opportunity offered by the TUM.Africa Talent Program and travel to Kumasi to meet Emmanuel Owiredu Odame. However, he also adds, "Before we can start making concrete plans to do that, we first want to make the most of Emmanuel's valuable time here in Munich and make progress in our project."
Together with partner university Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana, TUM launched the TUM.Africa Talent program with the objective of improving collaboration with researchers from sub-Saharan Africa. The program gives doctoral candidates from sub-Saharan Africa the opportunity to work at TUM together with doctoral candidates from the hosting professorships and research groups. Another objective is the formation of a long-term personal network. For this purpose the TUM Graduate School, in collaboration with the TUM Global & Alumni Office, offers a supporting framework program with transferable skills workshops, networking events and discussions with experts on the program focus topic "Sustainable Global Leadership". Participating TUM doctoral candidates can also receive mobility funding for a research stay at a partner university in sub-Saharan Africa. Annual Calls for Nominations are to follow.