What I’ve learned about my academic culture (and a bit of others) through my life in the lab

I was born and raised in Colombia, where I did my bachelor studies in Biology. All of my colleagues were Colombians, albeit from different regions. When the time came to start thinking about grad school, I applied and was accepted at a Canadian institute, where I did my Masters and where I am currently doing my PhD.

The institute is actually in Montreal, and so about 75% of my day goes by in French, 20% in English and a tiny 5% in Spanish, thanks to friends and family. But besides the language differences, what still strikes me often is how cultures are evident in the way we all work. So here is what I have learned about my and other people’s culture in my 6 years here. Please keep in mind all this is based on my personal experience.

· As Colombian women, we have a problem saying no, even if it means spending the whole weekend in the lab. I’ve seen this not just in myself, but also in my best friend and even in a PI here, both of them Colombian. If an authority figure asks us for extra work, we respond with a “sure, no problem” and what’s more, we are actually grateful to have the extra work…until we leave the room and realize what we just did. How many times I’ve come out of my PIs office thinking, why on earth did I accept doing this experiment? I can barely sleep already. And yet, it happens every single time.

· However, as Colombians, we will get you that result. We are tenacious and resourceful. Because research in Colombia is not a priority, laboratories learn to work with the bare minimum and still get results. And that shows when we get out there. We will find a homemade protocol if necessary, we will MacGyver our way into fixing that vacuum pump rather than buying a new one (Duct tape and Parafilm? Same thing, people). And on that note:

· We are thrifty as hell. We will find the way to save this lab money, even if we need to harass the sales rep; this also applies to people from other Latin American countries by the way.

· Because of all of this, we have a tendency to overdo controls. Good research can happen in any country, but a lot of Latin American countries groups get stricter reviews, questioning the results considering that they might not be using the preferred kit of the moment. Because of that, you will see a control of the control, even on a “standard” procedure.

· We are also very sensitive to waste. Again, this goes for almost every Latin American researcher I’ve met, and again, comes from the fact that you have to make your money go a looooooooooooong way in these countries. Waste of plastics, gloves, antibodies!! That’s hard on us. I’ve seen that most of north American students tend to be more comfortable with what I see as waste, seeing it as: we will just order more.

· Familiar speech doesn’t come easily. Talking to people in English is so much easier because “You” is not necessarily familiar or formal, it can be both. In Spanish and French, you have “vous” (formal) and “tu” (familiar). I cannot speak for other countries, but at least here in Quebec, I still see students using “tu” while addressing their PI and I just can’t. I was told to always use the formal form when addressing superiors, and to this date I still call my PI “sir”. Some teachers have asked me to use the “tu” with them…but it is as if my brain can’t accept it.

· We can be fairly emotional, or loud, or expressive, whatever you might want to call it. Yeah…you can easily tell when an experiment is not going well, or if we got rejected again. It’s like we fume. I’ve worked with a couple of Iranians and for the most part, they are always calm. You can tell if they are tired, but even in the harshest moments, they are still affable and more than willing to help. When I’m struggling, it is better to let me alone.

· We come from our undergrad with more experience that you might think. Our undergrad program is about 4 to 5 years easily, with a lot of emphasis in the practical side. This means that we enter grad school with more bench experience (and resourcefulness) than even some Master programs (I am looking at you France!). This can be positive, but can also translate in an inflated ego. Which one will you get in your lab is anybody’s guess.

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