Jetlagged for science. Guest post by Madeleine Barrow

22 July 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in guest posts, overseas science

The following is the first ever guest post on Do You Speak Science? It was written by Madeleine Barrow, an undergraduate student of physics at Yale who is originally from Australia. I met Maddy last year while she was a summer student at CERN. We have a lot in common when it comes to traveling, studying and living abroad. She tells us about her adventures, and reflects on the international and multilingual facets of a career in science...

I'm jetlagged. Last Tuesday, after 13 hours' worth of delays and a free stint in a British hotel, I arrived back in the US after a research internship at the University of Munich. I'm now writing this at 2am, as the New Haven humidity lulls the rest of the city to sleep.

I remember flicking through my passport while I standing in line at immigration at Heathrow. On the cover, I saw the Australian emblem shimmer. Through the pages, I saw my US visa, pink stamps from Seoul, and holes in pages from immigration papers of times gone past.

I've been lucky enough to do a lot of traveling recently, and most of the time, it's been for science.

You can get away with anything if you yell the right phrase.

Truth. Credit: SMBC comics

During my final year of high school, I traveled to Asia and Europe for physics competitions. I then applied to degree programmes in the US and obtained a student visa to attend Yale. In my two years of undergraduate studies, I've worked at CERN in Switzerland looking for super symmetric particles, and studied volcanoes in Germany (of all places!)

Even though I'm too young to drink in the States (and almost nowhere else, it seems!), I've already noticed that science is a global community. People in my lab in Germany hailed from all corners of Europe and the lab that I work in at Yale has no American citizens. The international nature of science is not unexpected - different labs in different countries have different pieces of equipment [especially in high-energy physics - AB], and different universities have different panels of professors to mentor students. You can learn a lot about science by traveling the world!

CERN summer students 2012

CERN Summer students 2012. Dozens of countries and languages represented. Can you spot Maddy? Image: CERN

In this global community, English is usually the de facto language... but not always. In Germany, I stayed with a colleague for a week and ran into his housemate in the kitchen. We exchanged very strained words in English before quickly switching to French. Another time, a Chinese colleague and I shared a few sentences in Japanese.

the word "pineapple" in different languages

A poll of summer students 2013 at CERN regarding the word "pineapple".

In the situations I've encountered, English has been the language that has drawn people together - lab meetings and group dinners have always been in English. But sometimes sharing a language is not enough to compensate for culture. In my last week in Munich, I spent a considerable amount of time with a few friends I had met in Heidelberg. All of us were studying physics; two of us were expats from Commonwealth countries studying in the US. Our shared interests and cultures were what brought us together above all else.

Summer students ahead of Higgs announcement

Credit: Madeleine Barrow CERN summer students, including Maddy, ahead of the 4 July 2012 update on the search for the Higgs.

On my last day in Munich, I had to say goodbye to these friends. However, there was a sense that it was barely goodbye - we would somehow end up in the same country some other time. When I did a short course at the University of Munich, graduate students from all over Europe greeted each other and discussed mutual friends. They would meet again, either on field trips, other short courses, conferences or postings to do research.

So perhaps I'll see the people I met in Germany again. I've already met up with friends from CERN in New Haven. And who knows where I'll end up next?

Thanks Maddy! I particularly like the way this post portrays the little details one notices (eg on the passport) when killing time in transit between planes, trains etc. They can be highly evocative of all sorts of memories and feelings. You can read more of Maddy's posts about being an ex-pat science student on the blog of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutsche Akademische Austausch Dienst or DAAD):

*I especially recommend these two

You can also read more about the experiences of another of last year's summer students, Andy Ramnath, in her own guest post on my other blog (to the tune of My Favourite Things from the Sound of Music, no less!)

Over to you:

  • Can you relate to Maddy's experience?
  • Is English the lingua franca in your lab?
  • Do you travel for your science?
  • Would you like to write a guest post about your experience of languages, travel and science for Do You Speak Science? Get in touch through the comment section below or find me on Twitter.

2 Responses to “Jetlagged for science. Guest post by Madeleine Barrow”

  1. Andrecia Ramnath Reply | Permalink

    I loved this! So well written and full of things I can relate to. Exposure to the international community is one of the many things I love about being in science. My Facebook newsfeed is full of status updates in languages I don't speak! Somehow, this makes me very happy.

  2. elkement Reply | Permalink

    Great, motivating post - contagious... now I have to search for a conference in Australia and book a flight immediately, haha! I am from Austria (Maddy's antipode) and we are Austrians are infamous for our lack of geographical mobility.

    I can relate a lot to the post as I enjoyed travelling for science as a graduate student. However, I admit that I started dreading travelling for business later though on principle the experience was similar: I was part of an international community of experts, using bad English as their lingua franca etc.

    I think it depends on how you consider your options. If travelling is a choice and non-mandatory this is fine. If you feel you have to travel as this seems to be the only option to work in the type of job you aspire it's getting dreadful. I left academia (among other reasons) because I did not want to feel forced to move every few years as a nomadic post-doc.

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