Why I love working in labs with international diversity

It makes me a better scientist.

By Elijah Lowenstein.

International diversity made my parents better scientists, and now as I begin my own research career I’m starting to see why. Both my parents are scientists who have travelled the world for work. They grew up in Argentina during the military dictatorship, got their PhD’s, and then moved to the US. Later, their work took them to the UK, where they made stops in Scotland (this is where I joined them), Wales, and England before returning to the US.

Every time we moved, my parent’s new colleagues quickly became friends, and from an early age I had the good fortune of being exposed to many different cultural perspectives - not to mention delicious food at lab potlucks. Due in no small part to my childhood, I was always on the lookout for international opportunities and I’m fortunate to have found a lab in Berlin for my PhD. My lab attracts people from all over the world and getting to work with them not only enriches me personally, it makes me a better scientist.

While there isn’t a lot of data on the extent of international diversity in scientific labs, approximately 35 percent of the labs on ResearchGate are international, meaning that at least one or more lab members comes from a country outside of where the lab is based. The benefits of working in such a diverse environment go far beyond my personal anecdotes. The work produced by international teams receives, on average, more citations and is 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 work more clearly in the end.

The diversity in my lab is not just limited to the different countries we come from, but also includes a wide variety of scientific backgrounds and even fields of research. My lab contains backgrounds in electrophysiology, molecular biology, medicine and psychology who work on various topics within developmental neuroscience or muscle stem cells. Diversity within the lab – our different ethnicities, cultural upbringings, scientific backgrounds and research topics – pushes me outside of my comfort zone.

It's easy for people with the same (research) background to understand where you’re coming from without much explanation. This all changes in a diverse environment and it means I need to prepare more thoughtfully for collaborations. I anticipate disagreement or difficulties in explaining a concept to co-authors or colleagues, and work harder to understand my own project’s rationale to begin with. What’s more, I consider alternatives which makes me more flexible in my research down the line.

Beyond how I prepare my research, my lab’s diversity also influences how I present my research 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 working on 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. From the outset, this forces me to think hard about how I frame my research. If I can’t explain my research using clear and precise language how can I expect them to give me meaningful feedback. This gives me a head-start later when I prepare to share my work more broadly, at symposia at my institution and international conferences.

For me, international diversity is a big part of what made science attractive in the first place, and I know I’m lucky to be able to experience it. The DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Rise program gave me the chance to work in a German lab during my bachelor studies by funding me to do a three-month internship in a neuroimaging lab at the University of Kiel. Other programs like the Erasmus Program or Fulbright Scholar Program offer similar opportunities.

However, you don’t need to travel far if international diversity isn’t available in your lab or workplace. The world wide web was made for scientists to connect, and it offers plenty of ways to connect internationally. Tweet about your research, and share early work to a preprint server like arXiv or bioRxiv with a massive international audience to get feedback. Or connect with me on ResearchGate and join my network of colleagues from around the world.

I’m looking forward to meeting you, where ever you’re from!



This article originally appeared on Scientific American.

Featured image courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur.