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Three scientists tell Adam Levy how they handled moving to a new lab in a different country.

In the third episode of this six-part Working Scientist podcast series about moving labs, three researchers who moved abroad for work describe how they handled the challenges it brought, including language barriers, cultural differences and experiences of racism.
Sara Suliman, an immunology researcher and assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, shares her experiences of labs in South Africa, Canada and the United States as a scientist from the African diaspora. She was born in Sudan.
Ali Bermani, a PhD student who moved from Iran in 2019 to study electrical engineering at the University of Gävle in Sweden, talks about how he learnt to decipher feedback from Swedish colleagues, and about their calm approach to work compared to previous work experiences.
And Keshun Zhang, a psychologist at Qingdao University in China, explains why he returned to that country after completing his PhD at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and why he now urges his students and colleagues to work and study abroad.
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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01887-6
Adam Levy: 00:09
Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. In today’s episode, moving labs abroad.
In this series we are answering the question of how to move labs. We’ve already looked into how to choose the lab, as well as the questions around moving when you’re not just considering yourself, but your relationship too.
And coming up later in this six-part series we’re looking at the challenges of moving labs with a disability, dealing with switching disciplines, and moving around while in the midst of a pandemic.
In today’s episode, though, we’re taking a look at a giant leap that can be equal parts overwhelming and rewarding.
Moving to a lab abroad, what opportunities can changing country open up? And what challenges does it present?
I spoke with three researchers about their experiences, positive and negative, to give you a sense of the impact these changes can bring, on you as a scientist as well as on research as a whole.
One easy stumbling block is language, not necessarily vocabulary and grammar, but those much-harder-to-define cultural norms that go into our communication.
Missing these cues is something that Ali Bemani has occasionally struggled with. You see, Ali grew up and initially worked in Iran. But he’s now a PhD student in electrical engineering at the University of Gävle in Sweden, where he works on digital twins and distributed systems.
He moved to Sweden with his wife, an urban planner, who is retraining so that she can apply these skills in the Swedish context.
I caught up with Ali and asked how the two of them ended up in Northern Europe.
Ali Bemani: 02:13
Then I have graduated at the Master level, I joined the industry in Iran. And I had, I think, more than seven years of experience of working in the industry in Iran. But after that all of these seven years, I like to enroll to the PhD and continue my education. And after that I found some university in Sweden.
Adam Levy: 02:36
Were you at all nervous about the possibility of moving from Iran to Sweden?
Ali Bemani: 02:41
At least in the academic level. We have some differences between them. But one thing which I realized was that mostly the Swedish people that are working in the academy, they are shy people, and they are very polite, because they never say that “this work is very bad.”
They never say these things. I think then my supervisor said that, “Okay, this work is good.” And then some good words, and then finally say, “but we need to do something.”
And then I realized that “Oh, my God, this work is not good.” Because then you say then the Swedish people say “but” at the end of the sentences.
But I realized it after one year, and then I found that “Okay, I need to work with this kind of the culture with them.”
Adam Levy: 03:34
So how would, how would it be in Iran, then? How would someone give you negative feedback in Iran?
Ali Bemani: 03:40
No, in Iran, most of the people that are very straight. And then when they want to say “No, this is not good” directly say to you “this is not good at all.”
And then they asked Mark, for example, my supervisor at the Masters level, he asked me to re- implement one simulation more than ten times.
Adam Levy: 04:03
Were there some things that you found, I suppose more positive and more interesting about the differences between Iran and Sweden?
Ali Bemani: 04:11
In Sweden, I think most of the people, they work individually. They’re very calm. And at the end, you can get a good result better than Iran, because I think it’s happening in Sweden, for my PhD studies, because I remember that I have kind of the challenging for implementing a kind of the indoor positioning system with wireless nodes.
But I had to implement these things over kind of the hardware. But the hardware I couldn’t get a good result.
But every week I came back to my supervisor and said, “Yeah, I have these difficulties, and I couldn’t solve it,” and he said, “Be calm. Finally you can solve it.”
And I continued. And I continued until I think it takes one year. But finally I could get a good result over that one. But I think in Iran, we get full of stress to do something in the industry because we’re responsible, to answer to the project manager and so on.
Adam Levy: 05:22
Do you feel like the Swedish people that are around you, in your society, have been welcoming and accepting? Or have you faced any issues at all, as someone arriving in Sweden from Iran?
Ali Bemani: 05:35
I think so. They are very welcome. And the Swedish people, their attitude regarding to the Iranian people, it’s positive. I think so.
Because right now we have two ministers in the government that they are Iranian people that moved so many years ago in Sweden. And they have this attitude even on the Iranian people, and they’re very helping us to growing up in the new countries.
Adam Levy: 06:04
Can you imagine staying in Sweden, and Sweden being your new, I suppose, permanent home? Or do you see your future research going back to Iran?
Ali Bemani: 06:16
This is the most important question that so many times I’m thinking about it.
We have some kind of opportunities to apply for, to go to the other countries, not even in the European countries, in the United States, and also in the Canada and Australia.
But I think Sweden is one of the best countries for doing the research, and also one of the best countries for living, and get the advantages for the whole life.
So me and my wife, we decided to stay here in Sweden for the rest of our life.
But for part of the time, maybe we are going to do a research in other countries. But we want to come back here.
Adam Levy: 06:59
That was Ali Bemani. So it’s clear that Ali sees his move abroad as permanent. And of course, many other researchers are in the same position.
But for others, changing countries when changing labs can feel more complicated. Sara Suliman is now an assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco, where she’s researching immunology of infectious diseases, specifically tuberculosis.
Sara has written about her experiences for Scientific African magazine, in a piece titled, On Science and Homecoming: A diaspora African’s view. She explained to me that her path to California from Saudi Arabia, where she grew up, had many stops along the way.
Sara Suliman: 07:45
All right, let’s do this. So I was born in Sudan. And then when I was two years old my family decided to move to Saudi Arabia.
So I grew up there. So that’s two. And then moved to Canada for my undergrad and grad school because I already had family members there. So that’s three.
And then I moved to South Africa, that’s four. And then to the States. But even within the states, I lived in two different places.
Adam Levy: 08:11
And have you found, in your academic experience, that labs in different countries have, I suppose, different cultures around them?
Sara Suliman: 08:18
Oh, absolutely. 1000%. Even two different labs in the same institute would have completely different culture.
Adam Levy: 08:25
And have have any of these cultural differences, I suppose, taken you by surprise, or take an effort to get used to?
Sara Suliman: 08:32
Yes, but for different reasons, I would say. My transition from Toronto to Cape Town was going from a basic research lab where, like, every person for themselves, into very a collaborative research model where we did, you know, these large clinical human cohort studies, which required a lot of collaboration, a lot of communication.
And then moving back to Boston, it kind of seemed a little bit similar to the experience in Toronto, but even more siloed, I would, I would say. You really have to prove yourself by yourself.
And then, like, coming to California, actually, it feels more like Cape Town, in the sense that I feel like a lot of people want to work together in teams. And I would say genuinely more open to helping new people integrate. But I feel more supported here.
Adam Levy: 09:23
Do you feel like these differences in levels of collaboration versus competition and things like this? Are they kind of decided by the country or more just the individual labs, that one ends up in?
Sara Suliman: 09:30
There’s like different levels to it.
So there’s the society that you live in, I think. You know, the stereotype that west coasters are more relaxed. There’s truth to that. Also, there’s different levels to where that culture comes from.
So my division chief here created the culture very deliberately to be more collegial and collaborative. The competition doesn’t really gel well, with my, with my personality.
It just doesn’t feel like it serves me or the science to be honest. I think that’s probably why I felt a little bit out of place in Boston.
Adam Levy: 10:12
Now there’s a lot of discussion about the significance of African researchers moving overseas to carry out their research, and also African researchers returning to the continent. How have you thought about this tension in your own career?
Sara Suliman: 10:26
Yeah, so this is something I obviously thought about a lot. So I am an African researcher that was born in Sudan. I still carry a Sudanese passport. But Sudan has not been my lived experience. I haven’t lived there myself.
So it’s a little bit of a confusing place to say I’m going back, you know, to serve my country, or to serve my continent, when I haven’t actually lived there, even though I’m from there.
So it was, it was an interesting, I would say, dialectic, when I was in Cape Town. Because on the one hand, it was very important for me as an African researcher, to be represented, to be seen, and to be a role model.
But at the same time, I was not from there. Here in this weird place where you’re like, “Well, I’m here because I want to serve this cause of moving African research forward.”
But I also don’t want to perpetuate a colonial global health mentality of coming in with a chip on my shoulder and my, you know, two Canadian degrees on my back and saying, you know, “I’m doing something here to help the cause.”
It’s very easy to fall into that ego trap. And I noticed that when I was there. And there are different ways where I can serve the science without having to, quote unquote, be a saviour.
I don’t think I have fully resolved the issue, I still feel at my heart and my core, I want to serve African science. I want to see more people who look like me represented in STEM spaces. And I want to do what I need to do, you know, to create, to facilitate that.
So like, you know, even if my lab was based in the US, I’m still studying diseases that largely affect the African population. I’m still interested in having trainees come through the lab. But I want to be conscious that I’m still not having that shared lived experience of being there. But ultimately, I have to recognize that I have some privilege being here.
Adam Levy: 12:23
And what privileges does being in the United States actually afford you as a researcher?
Sara Suliman: 12:29
Oh, a lot. I think, like, the grants that usually come in to African institutes may, I don’t want to call them contracts, but you know, every penny is accounted for, you know. You don’t have a lot of leverage to, you know, just take risks and follow your intuition about crazy ideas to pursue.
And here the culture is quite the opposite. It’s like, well, “What are the ideas that you want to pursue?” And you’re not necessarily guided by these, like, top down decisions of driving the agenda, and so there’s a lot more freedom and a lot, and it’s more the attitude towards the science than the science itself. It’s slowly changing, but the agenda is still largely driven by the West.
Adam Levy: 13:13
Now, on the flip side, have you, have you faced any disadvantages, being a member of the African diaspora in North America, in the United States and Canada?
Sara Suliman: 13:23
Oh, absolutely. You know, like, all the way from immigration issues to visa problems, and, you know, micro and macro aggressions, racism.
You know, I think people tend to undermine what, what I can bring to the table. Or still at this stage, like sometimes treat me like, you know, the young scholar, the junior researcher, the early career person, like “Let us mentor you.”
I think it puts you on the defensive a little bit and sort of, like, perpetuates even stereotypes that where, you know, the aggressive Black woman and all of that, when, in reality, it’s a reaction to constant microaggressions that we feel that we face actually, in the workplace.
I think there’s a lot more discussion, there’s a lot more conversation about these things. And when I call them out now, it’s not as left field as it used to be. And there’s more conversation around them, but there’s still a lot of burden, you know, being one of very few people that look like me in this position.
Adam Levy: 14:22
How do you think we can begin to overcome some of the biggest obstacles that are stopping researchers staying in or stopping researchers returning to the African continent?
Sara Suliman: 14:32
Well, we have to discuss if that’s the goal in the first place. And I think that’s what I’m, you know, always contemplating. Is my presence there even an advantage? I don’t think everybody’s goal should be “Let’s go back.”
It happens right now that I think I am in probably the best place to be my best self as a scientist. But you know, there could easily be other factors that make me, make it easier for me to thrive.
I have, you know, for example, I’m far away from my family. That’s a big factor in my life, you know. And, you know, although I can cross borders now and get to see them, I’ve actually gone through years without having access to my family, and that, that definitely had a huge impact on my mental health and on my productivity as a scientist.
And I think the decision to move back has to be backed up by, you know, multiple levels of support. Are you individually supported in your personal life? Are you supported at that institutional level? Are you going into a department that’s going to create space for you, help you hire people that serve your mission, allow you to pursue your ideas?
Because not every institute actually supports that. You know, sometimes, you know, department heads have specific agendas, and they’re hiring investigators to support specific research missions.
And also, are you in a country where you feel comfortable, you know? Can I walk around the streets and feel safe?
You know, right now my home country is pretty much a conflict zone. We haven’t had a functioning government since October, since we had a military coup.
That’s not conducive to doing good research, period. So there’s a lot of factors that go into that decision. And it makes a lot more sense to make those big leaps when, when you actually have real social capital in your career.
And when you’re in an advanced stage where you can go back and actually affect change, you know. The reality right now is that there is no place that is home, actually. And home is a feeling that you create wherever you go.
Adam Levy: 16:36
You mentioned in your piece in Scientific African magazine, the role that mentors can play in encouraging young scientists in the African continent.
How do we begin to build a better mentorship network, then?
Sara Suliman: 16:52
Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think there’s, I talked about this recently, the idea that mentors need to look like you is false.
And the reality is there’s, there’s not a lot of senior African researchers. And let me say this very explicitly, senior Black African researchers that we can all look up to and seek support from at this point.
So I’ve had phenomenal mentors that supported me when I was in South Africa that did not look anything like me.
They were actually white men, you know, and they’ve opened so many doors. My career, like I said, I feel like it actually started when I was in Cape Town.
So mentorship is huge. Now, what we need is a network of mentors that are both, you know, Black and non-Black. And, you know, we need allies that don’t necessarily look like us, but actually have resources to share.
And they can be the people who suggest, you know, that we speak in different conferences, put our name forward for different grant opportunities, reviewing, or asking us to be a part of the research programs, collaborating.
But what’s important in those networks is realizing that there is a disadvantage that is specific to people who have come from historically marginalized groups. And not coming in with the position of charity or being a saviour or anything like that.
But actually acknowledging that that of course needs to be corrected. There needs to be some sort of reparations, if I can use that word. Because a lot of the global health infrastructure started as a colonial project, actually.
And we need to be very vocal in acknowledging that so that the real opportunities are given to people who don’t have the same historical support.
Adam Levy: 18:47
To what extent do you think that the experiences that you’ve shared would translate to others who are maybe in a similar position?
Sara Suliman: 18:55
The Black diaspora and experience is not a monolith. Each individual researcher who’s a Black diasporan either because, you know, they’re immigrants, or because, you know, they came, their ancestors were brought in as slaves or, you know, migrated a couple of generations ago, as opposed to you know, migrating now. Like, each individual person will have a completely different set of experiences and we should not talk about these experiences as like one broad umbrella.
Yeah, just being cognizant that it’s, it’s a very diverse experience.
Adam Levy: 19:31
Sara Suliman there. It’s clear already from the two interviews we’ve had that every move abroad is felt differently, both in the day-to-day experience, and in its cultural significance.
But one thing is important for everyone moving to a lab in a new country. Do your research on the team you’ll become a part of. You may remember Joanne Kamens, who I spoke to in the first episode of this series,
Joanne is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant at the Impact Seat, and she says that all the considerations one should make when moving labs are magnified when moving lab abroad.
Joanne Kamens: 20:13
If you are about to choose a training or postdoc lab and and especially for postdocs your visa is dependent on your PI, it boggles my mind how much people don’t realize how important it is that you choose an ethical and supportive PI.
The stories of, particularly women, but not just women, being, you know, abused, bullied, harassed, taken advantage of by principal investigators who have visa control over people in their lab, are horrible.
And I would love to see the funding organizations crack down on this type of behaviour as far as overwork, unreasonable requests, you know, bad treatment.
But if your visa is dependent on this job, it is very, very hard to make a switch. So it’s extremely important for people to carefully choose a lab when they’re going to another culture.
Adam Levy: 21:07
So far today, we’ve explored what it means to set down academic roots in a country far from where you grew up, in terms of both geography and in terms of culture.
But for some scientists, a move abroad is more of a temporary step. Psychologist Keshun Zhang is based at Qingdao University in China, the country he grew up in and started his studies.
But he got his PhD and worked on his first postdoc in Germany. I spoke to him about what motivated his move, as well as his eventual move back.
Keshun Zhang 21:43
I go to Germany in 2011. And I started as a PhD candidate in the University of Konstanz. And I come back in 2018.
Adam Levy: 21:57
Why did you decide to move to the University of Konstanz in the first place? What was your motivation?
Keshun Zhang 22:03
Because when I was a Masters student I had a research collaboration with my supervisor in University of Konstanz and I do cross cultural studies in China for one year with the lab based on this. So I saw that it would be great idea to do a PhD in Germany.
Adam Levy: 22:26
Were you at all nervous about the idea of moving to Germany?
Keshun Zhang 22:28
No, I’m not that nervous because I think in that I already already know a little bit at least, but actually is it might be naive, because so I just as a young guy, that okay, go abroad.
But when I started the PhD over there really a bit nervous because the experience over there I saw that I needed too much knowldge to start my PhD.
Adam Levy: 22:53
What kind of knowledge?
Keshun Zhang 22:54
Not only language, but also the knowledge for psychology, as well as more independent life skills, as well as the critical thinking ideas.
Adam Levy: 23:07
What kind of aspects of the lifestyle did you find particularly different to what you were used to?
Keshun Zhang 23:13
For example, in China, the majority of the students at PhD still can live in the university. And the university can take care of the room. You don’t need cooking, you don’t need funding apartments or these type of things.
But when I go to Germany, everything you need to take care by yourself independently. I think that will be a little bit shock between China and Germany.
Adam Levy: 23:41
But were there also shocks or differences within the lab in terms of how you would interact with your colleagues or with your supervisor?
Keshun Zhang 23:51
Definitely. In the first year, I really had big problems with my lab mates as well as my supervisors because the different culture, communication method.
For example, in China, it is easier for you to directly connect with your supervisor, use your smartphone or send a message.
In Germany it always need to write an email first, fix the time slot for your meeting. And there are huge separation between business and daily life.
And the collaboration in Germany from my perspective, at first, it is very independent with each other. That means you definitely you need to take care of your own research project independently.
Adam Levy: 24:42
Were there differences that you also found, I suppose, refreshing or enjoyable about your time in Germany?
Keshun Zhang 24:50
In the first year, I would say it is a tough start. Because I need to get to used what to say how to organize these things in in In the lab. And how to communicate with the, with the colleagues as well as the supervisors.
But after one year and you are getting used to the method. It is really a very enjoyable experience over there.
Because you can take care of your own business as well as you have your own time and own spaces to think freshly, critically, by yourself.
Adam Levy: 25:26
How did you find, I suppose, the German society in general?
Keshun Zhang 25:31
I study in the University of Konstanz. I have lived in Konstanz for around eight years. So generally the citizens and especially the colleagues in the university are really polite and nice to foreign students.
Adam Levy: 25:49
You’ve since returned to China, though. What actually made you decide you wanted to go back?
Keshun Zhang 25:55
At that time already I have done a two year postdoc research for two years. So I think that is now time to start a new lab. Looking for a job in China, I think, not let it code for me to find a position and I also already living in Germany for around eight years. I missed my family and also my country.
Adam Levy: 26:20
Were there, I suppose, lessons or things that you experienced in Germany that you wanted to bring into your lab that you are starting in China?
Keshun Zhang 26:30
The first lesson is doing independent research. Because a great experience in Germany for me is that all right, thinking independently for the research area, and to find your own research interesting.
Adam Levy: 26:47
Do you have any advice for researchers who are thinking about going to study abroad for the first time?
Keshun Zhang 26:53
Yeah, I always encourage a lot of my students as well as my colleagues to go abroad.
Because my main idea is that you definitely need to know the society outside.
For students, for masters students or PhD students, you need to prepare. , You have enough language skills, as well as enough openness to accept different cultures.
That is my tips always for them. The students going abroad, when they come back, they always have a very good connection between China and the society out of China.
And I think they are really very good experience for the whole society.
Adam Levy: 27:40
That was Keshun Zhang. As these three interviews have illustrated, moving labs and moving to a new country at the same time can throw up a host of issues and provide a wide range of opportunities.
But changing country isn’t the only potential complicating factor when moving labs.
What happens when you swap labs and transition to a whole different discipline? Well, we’ll be discussing exactly that in the next episode. I’ll catch you then.
This has been Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.
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How to move labs
‘Is the PI a jerk?’ Key questions to ask when you’re moving lab
‘Trailing spouses’ and ‘two body’ problems: how to move labs as a scientist couple
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