Becoming a Scientist Abroad: Seven Strategies for Going Global

By Carolina Reyes, PhD

When I was a master’s student in the final year of my thesis project, I found myself at a crossroads. My advisor suggested I take a break from my thesis project and consider applying for the Agouron International Geobiology summer course, hosted by the University of Southern California and Wrigley Institute. The geobiology summer course brought together geologists and biologists from all over the world to understand how microbiology has played a role in shaping Earth’s history and how geochemical/geophysical processes have shaped the evolution of life on our planet.

My advisor thought the course might show me the different types of opportunities I could have, in terms of research topics, if I decided to continue in academia and pursue a PhD. I was, and still am, grateful to my advisor for encouraging me to apply, because it was one of the best experiences of my life and has shaped who I am today.

Learning to Think Globally

Being a part of the international geobiology summer course empowered me with knowledge about international research opportunities, a topic I knew very little about before then, and helped to shape my next career steps. Meeting so many international students who are expected to travel outside their home countries to broaden their research experience, sometimes even at the bachelor’s level, made me realize I had been limiting my potential as a scientist and as a person by not thinking globally. Some of the top international research positions are acquired by students and postdoctoral researchers through the contacts they make while studying abroad, participating in international courses and conferences, and working on collaborative research projects.

Realizing Research Aspirations

The topics covered in this course helped steer my future research aspirations and made me realize I wanted to continue with an academic career. Hearing about the places professors and students traveled to while carrying out their studies and research projects, the languages they learned while there, and their cultural experiences and exchanges, sounded like the type of lifestyle that I could see myself having someday. In particular, learning about the world-renowned institutions in Bremen, Germany, really made an impression on me.

Dr. Carolina Reyes

Flash forward years later and I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bremen. Having conducted research in Germany these past two years has allowed me to work with scientists on projects that would not be possible if I were in the States. I am currently investigating what types of microorganisms are linked to iron geochemistry in marine sediments. Through my collaboration here, I have access to study sites that would otherwise be unavailable. I’ve also had the opportunity to discuss my ideas and forge friendships with leading scientists and artists from around the world.

Tips for Planning and Preparation

Getting here took many years of preparation and planning. I have written this article so that others may consider international research and the steps it takes to get there. Furthermore, to gain perspective, both geographical and multidisciplinary, I have interviewed other SACNISTAs with experience in international research.

#1: Develop Original Research

Applying to international programs meant coming up with an original research idea at least a year ahead of time, and then finding a sponsor that was interested in my idea and willing to host me. Luckily I was prepared for this process, thanks to the mock proposal exam my graduate department (Department of Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology at University of California, Santa Cruz — UCSC METX) had as part of their curriculum. Being able to pitch a research idea to a room full of experts and then defend those ideas gave me the self-confidence to know I was capable of putting together a research project.

Additionally, our department offered a grant-writing course that was pivotal in honing my grant-writing skills. When it finally came time to write my first major grant proposal for a postdoctoral position, I felt prepared enough to tackle the challenge. Thinking about the gaps that still existed in my research project, I started to think about how I potentially could build my future research project based off my master’s and PhD work.

#2: Find a Sponsor

Once I had taken the time to develop my idea and to draft a proposal, my next step was to find a sponsor. The role of a research sponsor goes beyond that of an advisor in that the sponsor will not only mentor a scientist, but also agrees to provide them with the facilities, working environment, and resources to ensure the success of the project. In my case, my sponsor ensured that I had a laboratory space prepared with the instruments and research material I needed to start working right away.

Taking advantage of networking at international conferences, I managed to get in contact with faculty in Bremen that could potentially be interested in my project ideas. I was able to email and set up phone interviews with a few professors. It was through these initial contacts that I eventually got in touch with my current advisor at the University of Bremen. After hearing my proposal, he was really interested in the idea, and agreed to sponsor me and help with the application procedure.

#3: Plan Ahead

The next six months were spent preparing the proposal in many forms to apply to various programs with different deadlines for funding. Researching the various funding sources and planning took an additional three months to finally get the proposal ready to submit. In the end, I applied to the Marie Curie Program, Fulbright, National Science Foundation, Hanse-Wissenschaftkolleg and Alexander von Humboldt programs. Some programs responded within three months, but others took up to six months to reply, and not all programs accepted my proposal idea. In the end, out of five granting agencies that I applied to, three accepted my proposal idea. Luckily, I was able to negotiate a way to accept all three fellowships for my stay in Bremen, Germany. However, this may not always be possible. Deciding which fellowship to accept and where to go will depend on which fellowship can provide the best funding and resources, and on the duration of the fellowship. In June 2011, I packed my bags, shipped my belongings to Germany, and embarked on what was to become my first postdoctoral position abroad.

#4: Master a Foreign Language

During my graduate work at UCSC, I began auditing German classes and eventually enrolled in German language courses. Now that I am in Germany, my greatest challenge still remains feeling comfortable enough to speak German and getting past being embarrassed about making mistakes along the way. However, my desire to socially interact with native speakers has kept me motivated. Being fluent in other languages is a great advantage in any career. Science is communicated in English at conferences, in certain graduate level university courses, and in most scientific writing here in Germany. However, bachelor level courses at the university, public lectures, and being able to communicate with native speakers require a good knowledge of German. Being a native Spanish speaker has allowed me to make connections with students from Spain, Latin America, and Mexico who are living and working in Bremen. My experience here in Germany has taught me that scientists with multiple language skills have the advantage of being able to form international collaborations much faster and to communicate their ideas to a wider audience.

#5: Embrace a New Culture

Dr. Abèl A. Chávez

As scientists, there is the danger of becoming too focused on our research and forgetting to inhabit our world as people. Taking the chance to go to another country to work and do research can be a great opportunity for social and cultural exchange. While in Germany, I’ve come to appreciate the way order and structure are ingrained in the way of life. I’ve come to value their close bonds of friendship. “Once a friend always a friend” is the motto for most Germans, and friendships can take years to develop into much more than just acquaintance. I’ve also come admire the Germans’ hard-working nature and honesty.

However, despite cultural differences, Dr. Abèl A. Chávez has come to learn that no matter which society he’s been a part of, people’s basic motivations are very similar, though cultural expressions of similar values may vary. A researcher in urban sustainability at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Potsdam, Germany, he says, “We all strive to provide a nice quality of life for our families and we seek to achieve this through whatever means we have around us.” He continues,

“As a person, I value and appreciate these differences and I always find myself reflecting on our not-so-distinct motivations, yet quite distinct circumstances for achieving our respective goals.”

Chávez, who holds a PhD in Sustainable Urban Infrastructures and an MBA, has traveled extensively throughout his career, including India and Mexico to work on projects that address sustainability issues such as reducing plant emissions and waste. “As a scientist working in urban sustainability, having this understanding may be used as an asset to structure dialogues for achieving sustainability in cities with differing profiles,” says Chávez.

#6: Find Your Motivation

Dr. Andrew Medina-Marino

The motivation to work abroad can come in many shapes and forms. For me, it was the desire to know what it’s like to be a scientist working abroad. For Dr. Andrew Medina-Marino, it was his motivation to integrate his rigorous scientific training and his passion for social justice. Medina-Marino currently works as an epidemiologist for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in South Africa called The Foundation for Professional Development, where he works on disease surveillance and laboratory systems, and is the faculty advisor for the Global Health for Social Change Program.

After graduating with a PhD in molecular neuroscience, Medina-Marino became an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer (EIS) at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he gained experience in conducting domestic and international outbreak investigations, Influenza Surveillance in Nigeria, and was part of an international team investigating lead poisoning in children in northern Nigeria.

Now living in South Africa, he says, “The urban areas in South Africa have fantastic infrastructure. While driving through a town like Johannesburg, one might think that they were in the Hollywood Hills in California. The rural areas, on the other hand, which could be two miles away, have very little or no infrastructure.”

A majority of his time is currently spent managing relations with the South African government. One the biggest difficulties he has encountered in trying to advocate public health issues has been political barriers.

“The South African government is apprehensive of outsiders coming in to tell them how to do their job. Because I am not South African, I need to be extra careful and diplomatic on how I communicate my thoughts and advise on approaches to better public health programming.”

At the same time, the recent transition from Apartheid in South African has left many challenges and gaps for the current government to fix, one being the growing shortage of public health specialists in many areas of South Africa.

Language is not so much of a barrier for Andrew because most people he interacts with on a daily basis are fluent in English. However, if he has to travel to more rural areas there might be people that don’t speak English. In this case, someone that can help translate will accompany him. When asked if he could advise current SACNAS members about possibilities of getting involved in global public health, he mentioned there are great opportunities right now for these types of experiences in South Africa. At the moment he has many projects and internships where undergraduates and graduates could get involved in promoting public health and welcomes anyone that would like to contact him.

#7: Utilize Your Network

Dr. Aaron Velasco

Having ties to people who come from other countries or who have worked in other countries can also be an opportunity to form collaborations abroad. For me, knowing scientists who worked at the Max Planck Marine Microbiology Institute in Bremen, Germany, led to an introduction to scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research in Rostock, Germany. That brief introduction led to future discussions and has turned into a long-lasting collaboration.

Dr. Aaron Velasco is a geological science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), working to build a sustainable energy source for the people of Kenya. Through his collaboration with the Geothermal Development Co. (GDC) in Kenya and other UTEP alumni, he is helping to tap into geothermal resources by monitoring seismic activity with sensors. Professor Velasco got involved in international collaborations mostly through his former and current students. “A Kenyan graduate student in our program got me interested in working with [GDC], and now he is over there working for the GDC,” says Velasco.

His international collaborations include projects to deploy seismic sensors to monitor earthquakes in El Salvador, Bhutan, and Chile.

“Every place has its own culture, and if you are not sensitive to it, you could threaten not only the project, but your safety,” says Velasco.

A major challenge faced by students, professors, and those involved in collaborative projects is obtaining funding for their ideas. For Velasco, making the project a reality took years of planning. “We started planning this over four years ago, and the experiment has been ongoing for about two years,” says Velasco about the project in Kenya. As for how to foster a long-standing relationship with collaborators, Velasco had these words of advice, “I think it is critical that you build a relationship that is mutually beneficial, including sharing all data and results with collaborators.”

Lessons Learned

A key lesson I learned from my international research experience is not to be discouraged if your idea is turned down, and don’t be afraid to ask the same people that turned you down to recommend colleagues who might find your project interesting. I’ve also come to realize that to succeed in the field of science in general, I have to continue to keep my career options global and not limit myself to one particular place or to one particular research topic.

Another lesson I learned is not to get discouraged if faced with a difficult situation. My first opportunity to go out to sea and help with sample collection was a complete failure. During the cruise, I got seasick and was not able to help the other student process his samples. On top of that, the sampling equipment failed to deploy and we had to make do with less samples than initially planned. I felt incredibly incompetent at the time, and the whole situation made me question what I was doing there in the first place. However, after talking to my colleagues, I was reminded of the reasons I got hooked on science in the first place — because it’s fun to learn new processes and techniques and then try to apply them. So although the cruise itself may have failed, I had fun planning it with my colleagues, discussing the pros and cons of the experience afterward, and laughing over the whole situation in the end and moving forward.

Having the support of my friends and colleagues has helped me to remain positive and to be able to roll with the punches when they come.

About the Author: Dr. Carolina Reyes

Dr. Carolina Reyes is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in the department of Microbial Ecophysiology at the University of Bremen, Germany. She enjoys writing, reading crime and mystery novels and dancing salsa during her free time.

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