Stranger in a strange land

January 21, 2018

Last issue of Genome Biology, they continued their Q&A series. In this particular article, Dr. Sophien Kamoun, Dr. Rosa Lozano-Durán and Dr. Luay Nakhleh shared their experiences on conducting their own research in different countries. This is particularly interesting because mobility is indeed a very important aspect of modern research. They prepared a set of questions and answered them with regard to each one's experience on conducting research in a different country. Although ethnic diversity is pretty much the "rule" nowadays in most labs, their set of questions is particularly interesting. Also, although they are "ahead" of me (being group leaders), in this post I will replicate their questions and give my own answers. I am originally from Brazil and performed research in Brazil, Germany and the U.S.A.


Question 1: What influenced your choice to move to your current country?


I did both my B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Brazil. In the start, I was not really thinking on moving to another country as I was really producing well in my "comfort zone". However, my M.Sc. advisor, Prof. Costa, told me that he was going to move back to Germany (RWTH Aachen University) and re-establish his lab there. Then, he kindly invited me to do a Ph.D. in his new group. Coincidently, I have German ancestry (even though, by that time, my grandmother failed in all her attempts to teach me the German language). I decided to go for two reasons: (1) as a challenge to myself, being outside my "comfort zone" and (2) me and Prof. Costa were developing a really interesting research project and I wanted to continue in this line of research.


Differently from some cases, I did not have any difficult in adapting myself. The culture was very different from that of Brazil. But for some reason, it fitted much more my personality. Therefore, I have only good things to talk about research in Germany and Germany itself. In the end, I develop some kind of "bond" with Germany. 


After my Ph.D. I was invited for a postdoctoral position at Dr. Liu's lab in the U.S.A. Again, the cultural difference was not an issue at all. In fact, what I observed is that the U.S.A's culture is very similar to Brazil's. Unfortunately, due to family health issues, I could not continue my postdoctoral position there and due to "visa" issues, I would not be able to go back to the U.S.A. for some time. Therefore, I decided to go back to the country where I really feel at home: Germany. I was kindly accepted in Dr. Papantonis' lab, whose research focus aligns perfectly with my project ideas, and I am very excited to start this new position there.


Question 2: Can you comment on any barriers or unconscious biases you have experienced as an immigrant scientist that perhaps your colleagues have not experienced?


Since most research labs are intrinsically multi-ethnic, in the work place there was absolutely no barrier. However, learning a new language (German) was unfortunately very hard given that your research duties already take much of your time. So, in a certain way, you feel a little bit "lost in translation" in the daily life. But besides the language barrier, there is really no other barrier I can recall. With time, you start learning the culture and the language and everything gets easy.


Of course, when you move to a different country with a different culture you inevitably carry an "insidious baggage" of pre-conceptions. And, in general, they are absolutely wrong. As a matter of fact, I was a little bit scared of being treated as an "outsider" in the daily life. But I can not recall any moment where this happened. On the contrary. The German people was so gentle and kind that everything I had to solve "outside the lab" was solved smoothly. In the end, even with the language barrier, I was able to make very good friends. Not only inside the lab, but also outside the lab.


Question 3: What have been your biggest challenges and greatest opportunities in your career?


The biggest (and only) challenge I faced in Germany is the language. However, as mentioned previously, that did not posed exactly as a challenge. Since I am an "early-career" postdoc, maybe I do not have yet the authority to talk about challenges. The greatest opportunities were inside and outside the lab. Inside the lab, I was able to work with a multi-cultural team which only increased my skills and productivity. Outside the lab, I learned that, despite all cultural differences, we are really the same. This may sound like a cliche. But when you regard yourself not as a "foreigner", but as just another person doing his/her work with a great society impact, you feel at home.


Question 4: What more can be done to encourage and support researchers living overseas?


- Information and assistance: I was absolutely lucky that both my universities provided many sources of information and assistance. From language courses to cultural interchange groups. From seminars on "how to..." to free psychological assistance when necessary (in my case, it was easy to move; but there are cases in which the culture is too different, and some people really might need such assistance).


- Funding bodies: To be honest, I never heard of any type of bias related to funding bodies (the ones open to foreign researchers). But, for instance, in the U.S.A. multiple sources of fund are only available to citizens. Unfortunately this talks more about the culture of the country than the funding bodies themselves. However, I really believe that in the future, funding bodies will give the advantage to really important issues, such as gender inequality, etc.


- Country entrance rules (aka. visa): This is some sort of issue I did not want to talk about (especially given today's increasing delusional nationalism movements). But honestly: Why so many rules when you have a highly qualified individual who is going to work for the ameliorate society? I do not understand (actually I do, but that is up to when I open a political blog). Some countries like Canada, France, Germany, etc. understand that and are every time more open. These countries will benefit a lot from this and let's just hope that others learn from this.


1. Kamoun S. et al. (2017) Genome Biology, 18:232.

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© 2017 by Eduardo Gade Gusmao