By Roaa Alalwany, University of Nottingham
In the new internet age of social media and open source intelligence, our world is becoming much smaller. The scientific community is no exception. In the same way that businesses have thrived with international ventures, scientific research has achieved bigger and better things with our ever-growing global connections and collaborations. Long gone is the time when you could pick out the ‘goofy geek with the glasses’ out of a high-school line up predicting they would end up in a lab coat. Then again, maybe that time didn’t ever exist outside the treasured cartoons of our childhood. In reality, this monolithic narrative of ‘the life of a scientist’ simply doesn’t exist.
Rather, our research communities (like many others) are an assorted bag of cultures, backgrounds and stories, all grouped together with the same objective: to do good science. I consider myself to be very lucky working in such a place and I decided I would like to share the diverse career experiences of my colleagues in the Tumour and Vascular Biology Laboratories at the University of Nottingham with a wider audience.
Dr Tshepiso Makhafola, a research manager in the University of South Africa, was one of my interviewees. Having travelled to many European countries for his postgraduate studies and research career (including Italy, Brussels and Croatia) he is currently in an exchange programme with our university and the University of Louisiana in the USA to investigate the use of plant-based compounds for the prevention of microtoxin-induced carcinogenesis.
When talking about his priorities for choosing his working environment, Tshepiso explained:
“I always stay with postgraduates because that’s a learning environment and I can learn something each and every day. Each student will be an expert in one or two areas and living with them means I share that… sitting behind a desk, reading emails, really isn’t for me. I’d rather be with the postgraduates because that’s where the knowledge is. And that’s what I believe in.”
He went on to say “there is something special about this place; I love the working culture here. People work as a unit, which is the most fantastic thing. The students here are taught so well to treat their research as business. I’ve found in some labs, people are there to just pass time until something better comes along, they’re not necessarily invested in the work that they do. But here, people love their work. If I had it my way, I would come and do a second PhD in a place like this. Because of the working culture, you would never feel isolated. And that’s the most important thing during a PhD. You never want to feel alone.”
Since he was so well-travelled, we also discussed moving abroad for scientific research, and Tshepiso advised “to anyone starting a career in research, even before doing their PhD, I would recommend working for 6 months in any European or American lab. It opens your eyes to new possibilities. The frame of thinking, the way people do things… if you can assimilate that early in your career, you know you’ll be okay going forward. You don’t want to learn how to be a hard worker later in your career, you want to learn that in the beginning and carry it through.”
Fatima Almahasneh, final year PhD student from Jordan exploring the role of VEGF in the treatment of osteoarthritic pain, had the same advice; she told me that she would tell her younger self to be more prepared for the intensity of her PhD, but also “would highly recommend anyone to study or just travel abroad, to see other countries and people, because that’s really important for personal development. When you’re abroad you see different methods for doing things, different ways of thinking, which you may realise are better than what you used to do… so why not learn? Why not start doing things better too? It makes you more open-minded.”
In fact, everyone I interviewed had a similar perspective. Dr James Daubney, local to the City of Nottingham, also described diversity to have great merits. Having completed his PhD in Nottingham Trent University, he came here as a research scientist for the small biotech company Exonate to research novel SRPK1 inhibitors as therapeutics for wet age-related macular degeneration. In the interview, he explained that international collaborations had played a huge role in both his student and working life:
“You get lots of people from all around the world come in for academia, which is cool. I like that a lot. You would never get that experience normally… maybe in business but you’d have to be a lot higher up to build international relations. I like meeting people with loads of different experiences. But it’s interesting to know that this isn’t really how the world is. You wouldn’t normally have such a diverse group of people. It’s kind of a fake environment, but a good one… not everyone has the opportunity to meet all these people and have all these experiences so you have to appreciate how that’s changed your mindset. Because I think it definitely does, it changes the way you think. I have grown a lot, both personally as a scientist, by working in this environment.”
Many examples of personal growth were shared amidst my interviews. For Marlene Da Vitoria Lobo, a Research Technician investigating the CNS neurovascular unit in diabetic neuropathy, leaving India for the UK meant a change in career. After completing her degree in Dentistry, she was first accepted for a Masters in Stem Cell Technology and stayed in the University of Nottingham to work in our lab. Reflecting on her choice to move abroad, she said:
“It was difficult because the education system here is really different compared to India, but after my Masters year I had learnt so much, and this year has really developed my technical skills, so it was a good change… Moving abroad makes you more independent. I was a very shy, frightened girl, but after 3 years I am now more confident. I think it’s a step everyone should take in their early 20s.” Marlene said that she still admired Dentistry as a profession but wanted to work in research to “impact a wider community”.
James shared the social perks of having international colleagues, saying “it was good fun, and they became some of my best friends, and I could go visit them in weird and wonderful places. For example, one of my best friends was from Izmir and we went on a holiday to Istanbul for sightseeing, which I would have never been able to do ordinarily. I think it’s cool like that.”
For Fatima, travelling abroad was her way of starting something new; she is a qualified Clinical Pharmacist and had worked in her field for 5 years, but chose to come here and “try a new experience”.
As with anything, this new experience had come with unexpected obstacles. Fatima explains: “It was difficult, even though I was lucky because I had my husband and my son, it’s a difficult thing to do. You are leaving behind your society, your country, your habits. It was a bit of a shock. For example, I had some problems with the language… People, they talk too fast! I actually like to talk a lot but sometimes I would feel alienated by the conversation, especially when people aren’t talking to you directly.”
She went on to say that her journey was still better than expected: “Everyone was really friendly to me. I didn’t expect that because there are ‘stereotypes’ about British people, some would say that people here aren’t very friendly, or that they’re a little racist maybe? That people here aren’t open to forming strong relationships with others. In my country, people are more social together, but when I came here I was thinking people might be cold or look down at me because look different, because of my hijab. I didn’t find that to be true”. Ironically, after this conversation we moved on to talk about the weather, which is perhaps the most British stereotype ever.
When I first came up with the idea for this blog post, I anticipated interesting stories. I didn’t, however, know that I would end up with hours of recordings and learn so much more about my co-workers, people who I already see on a daily basis. It is amazing what you can uncover simply by starting conversations with others. Perhaps most surprising was how it turned out to be a great exercise of compassion. In a time of political uncertainty, our divorce from Europe and poor-quality discourse on immigration policy, I would highly recommend you do the same in your workplace.
I’m a first year PhD student working in the Tumour and Vascular Biology Laboratories, University of Nottingham. My research focus is the differential splicing of Vascular Endothelial Growth Factors and their neuroprotective role in neurodegenerative disease. You can find me on Twitter @Roaa_Finch.