How to break down cultural and language barriers in the lab | May 9, 2017 Issue - Vol. 95 Issue 20 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 95 Issue 20 | p. 30
Issue Date: May 15, 2017 | Web Date: May 9, 2017

How to break down cultural and language barriers in the lab

Celebrating cultural traditions together can be one way to bridge the divide
By Chemjobber
Department: Career & Employment
Keywords: employment, chemjobber
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
An illustration with six panels, each with a different-colored background, showing male and female chemists saying “Chemistry” in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French, and Farsi.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

When I was growing up, my father would tell me stories from when he was in graduate school. He’d recall his late nights in the engineering lab, the difficult course work, and the tough boss who didn’t have much sympathy for him.

He never spoke much about his fellow graduate students, however. Perhaps that’s because of the era he grew up in and the difficulties of keeping in touch, but I wonder if the primary reason he wasn’t closer to his classmates had to do with cultural and language barriers. When my father arrived in the U.S. for graduate school, his English was limited, and he was one of few foreign scientists in his research group.

Although research groups today are more diverse, this kind of cultural separation persists. I’ve noticed that in laboratories and departments, students tend to separate themselves by language, with native English-speaking students preferring the company of other native English speakers and the international students seeking out those who speak their native language. Once these groups form, both language and culture impede attempts to break out of them.

The best science happens when all hypotheses are considered and all voices are heard. Not only that: If important safety information isn’t communicated among all lab members, someone could get hurt.

How can we promote laboratories that bridge languages and cultures? Professors can lead by example, taking time to teach the basics of communication and collaboration as a group. They can work to ensure that project teams are not only doing excellent science but also integrating international students.

What else can we do to foster communication and friendship? Being kind and helpful is a great start. You can volunteer to help each other study and sharpen each other’s papers and presentations. The help of my group mates made my oral presentations immensely better; they helped spot errors on slides, asked good questions, and spotted holes in scientific logic.

Inviting everyone in the laboratory to short coffee breaks or ice cream outings is a great way to get people away from their lab benches and into a more social environment. Along with the typical, “How are your experiments going?,” group members can learn more about each other’s culture and language. Although politics can be stimulating, it’s probably wiser to start with simpler, more important topics such as families and hometowns. Exploring your colleagues’ origin stories is essential to truly understanding where people are coming from.

Cultural celebratory traditions are always a wonderful way for group members to get to know one another. I think many students are familiar with group holiday parties or the occasional trip to the baseball park. But there is equal value in participating in cultural traditions of international students, whether it be something as small as inviting fellow group members to make a traditional craft or a large celebration such as the Lunar New Year, complete with food and the exchange of gifts. Graduate school is not just about learning to be an excellent scientist; it also teaches students to collaborate with researchers from different backgrounds.

I sometimes wonder if people such as me, who have lived their entire lives in the U.S., can begin to comprehend the complete disorientation experienced by students who have started their graduate studies in another country with another language, similar to what my father must have experienced.

A friend in graduate school once said, “Everything here reminds me that I’m no longer in France; even the yogurt containers remind me that I’m not in France.” Another friend told me that returning home wasn’t quite the same either. “An eternal stranger” is how she described the feeling.

All graduate students can relate to the sense of being fundamentally changed by graduate school, and perhaps that’s a starting point for conversations that can unite us.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at


Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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Hap (May 10, 2017 1:03 PM)
I am from the US and yet don't really feel at home either where I grew up or went to grad school and undergrad anymore - I've lived so long where I am now that that is home, if there is any. The idea of being placeless after coming to the US from a different culture (or even from moving from one part of the US to another, though not as much) thus doesn't seem all that surprising to me. (Allen Say's Grandfather's Journey also comes to similar points).
Paulette (May 10, 2017 5:52 PM)
Thanks for writing about a really important topic that is often unmentioned due to the awkwardness of trying to reach out to different cultures!
tlp (May 12, 2017 2:43 AM)
Hell yeah, I think HRs also need to figure out a way not to overwhelm foreign newcomers with orientations. That health insurance presentation on my first working day in the US was insane! As if I had not enough of a culture shock :)
I've never felt isolation from the native speakers though, it was mostly grad-students vs postdocs clustering
Th' Gaussling (May 15, 2017 10:09 AM)
It sounds like you are recommending the practice of conviviality, which I wholeheartedly agree with. In my grad school and post doc years I noticed that those folks who leaned into a more wholesome social experience seemed to fare better than those who, like myself, preferred solitude. I was fortunate to work with grad students and post docs from many countries. I have to say that this broadened my understanding of the world greatly. In the early 1990's I sat and watched on CNN the collapse of the eastern block countries with colleagues who arrived as Soviets and left as Russians. This left a lasting positive impression and not a little compassion for many places in the world.

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