International Science

Hello-21-languagesHutch United is hosting a Spring Workshop on Mentoring International Trainees on May 28th, 2015. In anticipation, here I share some reflections on the international nature of science and a preview of what Andrea, Erin, Terry and the rest of the team are preparing for discussion at the workshop.

One of the most rewarding and unique experiences of working as a scientist is the opportunity to work with others who hail from all corners of the world. It’s not uncommon to have more than four or five different countries represented within a single lab. A huge plus of having international colleagues is the opportunity to be exposed to so many different rich cultures, foods and languages. In my current lab at its peak, we had Japan, France, Spain, China, Philippines and India represented. In fact, for a while, we had even maintained a ‘language board,’ a whiteboard where we would translate a phrase in English into at least 8 different languages.  Even passers by would stop by and add translations in languages that were missing from the board. Ironically, the language differences between us brought us together by creating a community around the board. Another plus for a linguiphile like me is having ample opportunity to practice my high school French and Spanish on (usually) willing colleagues! In return, all we had to do was to teach the internationals American slang. All in all, it’s a win-win situation.

On the other hand, the international lab environment can also result in potential cultural clashes that can pose significant challenges. These challenges can be both from the perspective of the international scientist and their American colleagues. Some may result simply from communications lost in translation between different languages or cultural differences in handling conflict. We can and should help our international friends navigate through some of the difficulties they may encounter.

We may not always know what those challenges are though. For instance, the amount of change a new immigrant can feel can be very overwhelming and isolating. On top of adjusting to a new environment, in a language they may not be completely comfortable in, our international colleagues need to navigate the professional landscape. How do they manage expectations with their supervisor? How do they handle the unavoidable visa issues? How do they get funding when most sources of postdoc and graduate student funding in the US require at least Permanent Residence or US Citizenship? How do they negotiate the potentially longer vacations so they can see their loved ones oversees at least once a year?  How do . . . ???

We can begin to understand some of these challenges by starting a dialog. We may not find all the solutions to the questions or challenges but we can begin the discussion and develop a better understanding  of each other. Do you have thoughts about issues you feel are important for a discussion on the needs of the international scientist? Leave you thoughts in the comments below and we’ll do our best to incorporate them into the Workshop discussion.

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