Exposure to colleagues from many nations made both my parents better scientists, and now as I begin my own research career, I'm starting to see why. My mother and father traveled the world for their work. They grew up in Argentina during the military dictatorship, got their Ph.D.s, then moved to the U.S. Later, their jobs took them to Scotland, Wales and England before returning to the U.S.
Every time we moved, my parents' new colleagues quickly became friends, and from an early age I was exposed to many different cultural perspectives (not to mention delicious food at potlucks).
Today I am a biologist pursuing my Ph.D. in a laboratory in Berlin. My lab attracts people from all over the world, and getting to interact with them not only enriches me personally, it makes me a better scientist. I am exposed, daily, to challenges from different disciplines and perspectives—challenges that make me better explain the rationale and conclusions of my research. This back-and-forth between challenge and response drives my work forward.
Although there aren't many data on the extent of international diversity in scientific labs, about 35 percent of them on the ResearchGate information-sharing site have one or more members who come from a country outside of where the lab is based. The benefits of such a diverse environment go far beyond my personal anecdotes. The results produced by international teams receive, on average, more citations than those from groups from just one country and are generally published in journals with higher impact factors. I'm not surprised: an international environment forces you to consider different perspectives to begin with and helps you to communicate your ideas more clearly in the end.
The people I collaborate with have backgrounds in electrophysiology, molecular biology, medicine and psychology. Our different scientific backgrounds and research topics and our different ethnicities and cultural upbringings push me outside of my comfort zone. I do not have to explore my basic assumptions when I'm around only people who share my background. But this all changes in a diverse environment. I need to prepare more thoughtfully for collaborations. I need to anticipate disagreement or difficulties in explaining a concept to co-authors or colleagues, and I have to work harder to understand my own project's rationale to begin with. What is more, I consider alternatives, which makes me more flexible in my research down the line.
I also need to change the way that I present my findings to my colleagues. My lab's main language is English, but every day I hear Chinese, German, French and Spanish bouncing around the hallways. Before I begin putting together a presentation, I know that there will be people in the room who are not native English speakers and that I will need to make sure I explain everything clearly. This forces me to think hard about how I frame my research. If I can't explain concepts using clear and precise language, how can I expect colleagues to give me meaningful responses? This approach gives me a head start when I share my work more broadly, at symposia within my institution and at international conferences.
My parents showed me how important global exchanges are, and I was fortunate to be able to build on that experience at the very start of my own research career. During my undergraduate studies, the German Academic Exchange Service RISE program gave me money for a three-month internship in a neuroimaging lab at Kiel University. Other programs, such as the Erasmus Program or Fulbright Scholar Program, offer similar opportunities.
But you don't need to travel if you don't have international colleagues in your workplace. The World Wide Web was originally created to connect scientists, and it offers plenty of ways to link up. Tweet about your research and share early progress to a preprint server such as arXiv or bioRxiv with a massive international audience to get feedback. Or find me on ResearchGate and join my network of people from around the world.
I'm looking forward to meeting you, wherever you're from!