Join MySLAS Social

At Home in the World: Discover the Universal Language of Science

No matter where the borders lie, the scientific method remains the same. When SLAS members discuss working and living in foreign countries, they talk about similarities before differences – the universal language of science – as they share their unique perspectives on working abroad.


"Science is science everywhere. The difference is the cultural view of scientists from one country to another. How does the culture support their researchers?" says Ricardo Macarron, Ph.D., SLAS member, author and associate editor of the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS). A native of Spain, Macarron received a Ph.D. in biochemistry and worked with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Madrid for seven years before accepting a transfer to the company's offices in Pennsylvania 14 years ago. He is currently vice president and global head of sample management technologies for GSK R&D and he resides in Collegeville, PA.

SLAS member and JBS product focus editor Charles P. Hart, Ph.D., describes science as universal. "The practice of biomedical research transcends national and cultural boundaries because of the central tenets of the scientific method and how scientific communication and publishing operate," says Hart, vice president of biology at Threshold Pharmaceuticals in South San Francisco, CA. He completed three years of postdoctoral work at the University of Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France, and has worked with European multinational corporations throughout his career. "There are many other fields and disciplines where working in a foreign country might be more challenging," he observes.

Photo courtesy of Cancer Science Institute of SingaporeU.S. native, SLAS member and 2013 Tony B. Academic Travel Award program recipient Edward Chow, Ph.D., finds many positive research experiences in his current post in Singapore. The SLAS2013 presenter and Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA) author and associate editor/Asia is inspired by the wealth of opportunities available in his position as an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore (NUS). "Because Singapore has invested heavily in the research infrastructure – and this investment has come relatively recently – we actually have access to a lot more current equipment that is not necessarily available at older research facilities in the U.S. For the most part though, research feels the same here as it did in the U.S.," says Chow, adding that NUS has been successful at integrating cloud computing into various aspects of research and administration. This makes interacting with others on various documents more efficient. Chow photo courtesy of Cancer Science Institute of Singapore.

Researchers who have practiced outside their home countries interest SLAS member, conference presenter and former JALA Editorial Board member Sabeth Verpoorte, Ph.D. "It's fascinating to see how people who have grown up in different cultures look at science and how they work," says Verpoorte, head of the Pharmaceutical Analysis Group at the Groningen Research Institute of Pharmacy of the University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands. She is multinational herself. The child of Dutch parents, Verpoorte was born in South Africa, immigrated to Canada when she was two years old, completed her postdoctoral work in Switzerland, and has lived and worked in Switzerland and The Netherlands.

"It's a rootless situation!" Verpoorte continues. "However, in this day and age, it's a positive thing to have come from another place and understand how things work between two countries. It makes you more adaptable. I am also quicker to stand back and try to understand why someone is behaving the way they are and why they are saying things the way that they are. It makes me more tolerant, I think, and it's made me a far stronger person than if I had stayed in a trusted environment my whole life. I have been challenged to deal with new ways of doing things and reestablishing reference points for myself."

Finding a new way to do business is something SLAS member and JALA Editorial Board member Craig Lan, M.B.A., appreciates about his work in China. "Work in China is all about forming relationships to do business. I can recall in my first month there wanting to conduct a very simple transaction – a research company had data that I wanted to purchase," explains Lan, who is manager of market development for Hospira China in Shanghai, China. "Even though I had a contact person's information, as well as a price list, the salesperson never seemed particularly responsive or interested in selling me their product no matter how many times I called or e-mailed! Finally through a local event I ended up meeting this research vendor who was gracious enough to invite me out to lunch. After we shared a meal together and got to know one another, this vendor took care of our request within a day."

Finding Synergy

Hart believes that an international experience – whether it's living and working in a foreign country or working for an international company within your country of origin – is a great way to be exposed to different business practices that are characteristic of other countries. "It allows you as an individual to bring those best-in-class business practices to your own work and company," says Hart, who has spent most of his career in small, U.S.-based biotechnology companies that have frequently partnered with European multinational pharmaceutical companies.

"I spent five years with a biotech company that was owned by U.K.-based, multinational GSK. Currently the drug on which I work is partnered with German-based Merck Serono. This provides me with a close vantage point on how international pharmaceutical companies operate," he says, adding that his postdoctoral work in France gave him an advantage and another frame of reference for understanding European companies.

What Hart particularly appreciates, regardless of a company's nationality or size, is the synergy that forms in scientific research. "In my experience, when you have a partnership between a small, nimble, entrepreneurial biotech company and a large established highly organized pharmaceutical company, the best aspects of both corporate environments come to play on projects. You achieve that balance between risk and reward. It doesn't matter where the companies are located. It's what they can achieve if both parties are willing to learn from one another."

At times learning experiences emerge as employees from different cultures merge within the same multinational institution. Lan finds Chinese health care organizations to be quite different from U.S.-based Hospira's headquarters in China. "Whereas employees in the United States are used to taking on broader responsibilities and tasks than a title would imply, staff in China tend to be very specialized and more about being experts in their role. In this sense the role of managers who can bridge the gap and encourage cross-functional efforts to get larger tasks completed becomes much more critical," explains Lan, who reports that the shortage of such talent is slowly improving. "More and more locals are gaining global experience and attaining graduate-level M.B.A. degrees from top institutions in China or from abroad. Currently, however, there is still quite a gap that is often filled by foreign talent."

Risk and Reward Abroad

Funding, sharing resources, professional mobility and cultural support for science top the list of challenges most described by SLAS members who work abroad.

Verpoorte finds resource sharing in some European countries inhibits research progress. She tells the story of a Scandinavian colleague who made the unusual decision to complete his Ph.D. research at a university in Madrid. "While universities in Spain do train foreign graduate students, these students tend to come from Spanish-speaking countries in South America. Few students come from non-Spanish speaking countries, due in large part to the language barrier. My colleague speaks fluent Spanish as a result of his years in Spain and really enjoyed his time there from a lifestyle point-of-view. However, he decided not to remain there, as he saw how slow and difficult it was to set up research projects in Spain," she continues. "National funding was often not very forthcoming. European funding has become increasingly difficult to get over the years. Researchers often weren't as independent in determining how to spend the resources they obtained, with institutes laying significant claims to the awarded funding. It seems that researchers in northern European countries do have more self-autonomy in this sense, though we may not always recognize this."

Verpoorte describes Dutch researchers as practical. "They understand the importance of working together and sharing facilities. Someone once told me this had to do with the fact that this nation's population has always had to work together to keep out the sea – it's a matter of survival. Dutch scientists have always done very well internationally, particularly in the areas of chemical catalysis, water management and micro- and nanotechnology. Historically, the Dutch have always had to look beyond their borders for business and trade, and it may be for this reason that Dutch scientists are particularly aware of international developments. They don't hesitate to communicate and work together with their colleagues in other countries," she explains. "In Dutch labs it may seem that there are a lot of rules, but there is flexibility. The hierarchy here is less pronounced than it is in other countries. People feel engaged on all levels and have a strong sense of responsibility for their work. If you are working on a particular project, it is easier to arrange with a technician to use his/her equipment and get support than it often is in North American labs, from what I hear from colleagues."

The benefits from working abroad are easy to recognize. So much so that Verpoorte reports that The Netherlands has decided to make the acquisition of cultural experience a requirement within its educational institutions. "If you are a Dutch academic and you want to become a professor here, it is now mandatory that you spend two years in another country. Some of my colleagues have had trouble with this. They don't want to uproot their families. However, there is a general feeling that it is better in the end for the Dutch academic world. It makes it easier to establish collaboration in other countries, which is important these days. Our funding depends on international collaboration."

Government funding is a common issue that drives researchers to relocate. Chow reports that the funding disparity between Singapore and the U.S. was one motivation for his move to Singapore last year. "Singapore continues to invest heavily in research and development, particularly research that is translational," he explains. "This funding situation is difficult in the U.S. right now."

The 2013 budget deal between the U.S. Congress and the White House, known as the sequester, has forced spending cutbacks on government-funded research. A recent CNBC article reports that even before the sequester, winning a U.S. research grant was a challenge. The article states that as the U.S. has been cutting back, China and India increased their scientific research funding by 20 percent a year; Brazil, South Korea and Japan by 10 percent; and Germany by eight percent.

In contrast to this, Macarron finds research funding to be more dynamic in the U.S. than what he observes in Europe. "Funding is slower in Europe, particularly for big initiatives such as the European Lead Factory, as it takes time to go through the process of engaging the heads of science in each country to make decisions," he explains.

In spite of spending cuts, Macarron observes that the culture around science in the U.S. better supports an international community and that there are numerous opportunities to move. "There are more universities, biotech companies and pharmaceutical companies that have research departments," he explains, adding that at the time he left, the market for researchers in Spain was small. "In a restricted market scientists don't have many opportunities and that makes it harder to find your way if you don't like your position," he says, adding that this situation could explain the number of outstanding Spanish scientists working abroad.

"In Spain it was important and sometimes necessary to know someone to get somewhere. I am hesitant to say that because it is changing. After 14 years my hope is that the situation is better," Macarron continues. "At the time I was working in science in Spain, it was quite parochial. There were many Spanish-born, world-class scientists, but there weren't as many foreigners working in the profession there. In the U.S., you find yourself immersed in an international community of scientists."

Sometimes the trials of working abroad arise not within research, but in its end-user population. In China, Lan finds challenges in grasping the cultural differences in the way physicians and patients view medications. "What is considered an older drug that should be replaced by a new and more effective drug in the U.S. may instead be considered tried and true or familiar in China," he explains. "In order to succeed in this environment, one's company must be willing to localize and reinvigorate training programs and support and design clinical trials that continue to advance the use of drugs that remain popular in China but are no longer as popular elsewhere."

Does this "tried and true" perspective on drugs in China change how research for new drugs unfolds? "While some classes of drugs appear to stick around longer than in other parts of the world, there is certainly still innovation within older drug categories," Lan answers. "As China is a market dominated by generic companies, any forms of differentiation in drugs go a long way on the market. In particular, innovative delivery formats that can do things like improve human body tolerance to oncology drugs are very well received."

Words of Advice

While working abroad may enrich a scientist's perspective both personally and professionally, Verpoorte warns that it is important to prepare before moving. "It's good to learn the new language before you go. At least know the survival form so that you don't feel isolated and live on the periphery of the society. It's important to integrate to some degree quickly," she says.

Expanding one's social base while working in a foreign country is important, Verpoorte asserts. She describes not getting beyond the "vacation feeling" during some of her college internships abroad. "Psychologists describe it that way. The first six months after you move to a foreign country, everything is new and exciting. After that point, the first dips come. A lot of foreigners find the good times and the bad times oscillate after the first six months. It takes time to feel comfortable in a place," she shares.

Verpoorte also cautions older professionals to take advantage of financial counseling before the big move. "Learn as much as you can about moving your pension from one country to another and the tax system in other countries. For example, I discovered that I couldn't take the pension I built up in Switzerland to The Netherlands when I moved," she shares. "Find out, too, what you can and can't afford. If you work for a large multinational corporation, many times that advice is just there. People are frequently sent out of country on sabbatical and are paid from the country of origin while they are gone. Moving between countries on your own is more difficult."

Before considering a career move abroad, Lan advises others to consider if they are ready and willing to become immersed in a new country – learn the language, adopt local business practices and make friends with people who may not be as familiar as those back home. "I see many expatriates in China who unfortunately stay in an expat bubble and never really get to have the full experience of being overseas," he explains.

Living and working in China has given Lan an opportunity to connect with Chinese colleagues over meetings, lunches and retreats. "It has been a constant discovery process about food, culture, history and goals in life. It has made me want to continue exploring the world to experience its tremendous diversity," he explains.

Hart agrees. "Living in a foreign country, such as France, where the history literally goes back thousands of years, is rewarding. It was inspirational being exposed to 2,000 years of western civilization that was still represented in different areas of Strasbourg – particularly considering that I come from California where anything older than the 1906 earthquake has a plaque on it!" he says.

For Macarron, living abroad has been a great life experience. For those interested in working abroad, he strongly recommends the book Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, which examines the different dimensions of culture and how cross-cultural business transactions can fail or succeed due to the different frames of reference in every country.

"Anyone who has the opportunity to work abroad should do so," Macarron says. "It's not all perfect, and you have to take it with a positive attitude. You are exposed to a lot coming to a new country. If you are exposed to a challenge, it can be a turning point in your career. Stretching yourself is rewarding."

According to Chow, the most important question to ask when deciding to move abroad is: ‘Where is the best place to do the work that I want to do?' "Don't let the fear of the unknown prevent you from moving. Years from now you will regret the things you didn't do more than the things that you did," he comments.

Chow describes life in Singapore as an adventure. "Every day there are new discoveries coming both in our research as well as in our personal lives," he concludes. "Previously, I had spent my whole life in the U.S., specifically California. Living in Singapore has been an adjustment in a number of ways, but it is a very international city with a large expatriate community. So many of my new friends here are from all over the world, and this has greatly expanded my worldview."

July 15, 2013