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How international students can share their culture in the lab

Creating more opportunities for dialogue is just the first step

by Jen Heemstra , Misael Romero-Reyes
March 11, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 10

An illustration of an international student explaining what glassware they want to another students.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Build a mutual understanding.

What would you suggest to an international student culturally very different from their lab to help the principal investigator and current members understand their culture? For example, some behaviors can be misinterpreted if people are not familiar with the culture. What is the best way to help people understand without changing who we are?—Anonymous grad student .

Studying in another country can catalyze a rich exchange that benefits you and the students and faculty that you work with. However, blending your cultural traditions with those of your host country can be challenging. To bring insight to this topic, Misael Romero-Reyes, a fourth-year graduate student in my lab who is originally from Mexico, has joined me this month. Misael is a leader at Emory University, where he has been working to advance diversity and inclusion and create opportunities for international students to build support networks and community. I’ll let Misael take it from here.

Thanks, Jen! Moving to a new country to pursue education and research is an exciting but daunting experience. For example, the first time that I went out for coffee, there were so many options to choose from, and I was afraid to ask what they meant. So I just chose one from the list and ended up with a sweet caramel Frappuccino, which is not exactly what I was hoping for first thing in the morning. The language barrier can also extend into the lab. I had many interactions where I needed a specific piece of equipment but wasn’t quite sure of the English translation. Explaining its function to my lab mates would often turn into a guessing game.

While these external challenges are the most visible, the greatest challenge can be internal—navigating how to fit in and assimilate with the new culture without losing your own identity and traditions. One example is the simple act of greeting friends and coworkers. In Latin American countries, it is normal to greet an acquaintance with a kiss on the cheek; that is far less common in the US and can lead to misunderstandings or embarrassing moments as you adapt to the local customs. These differences in culture can pervade almost every aspect of working in a lab—for example, debating scientific principles at a lab meeting, cooking and eating food in shared office spaces, and participating in social activities outside work hours. As you navigate each of these situations, think about which traditions are central to your identity and where you would be willing to change your habits to fit in with the culture of your host country.

The key to navigating these tensions is communication. Consider introducing your colleagues to different aspects of your culture and traditions, either in casual conversations or as a part of your lab meeting presentations. I encourage domestic students to be courageous in asking questions: it shows a willingness to learn and appreciate differences and is a great way to help international students feel valued and included in the lab community. Faculty can further facilitate these exchanges—for example, by inviting everyone in the group to share a few slides about themselves when they present at lab meeting or by organizing social events where everyone has the opportunity to bring a dish or game that is an important part of their cultural tradition.

It is also critical for international students to establish a support system. Building community with other international students can be especially effective, as you are likely to have shared experiences, even if you are not from the same country. Having a good support system can help you integrate into your lab and university, gain access to key information and opportunities, and diminish feelings of homesickness.

While the international student experience has many challenges, they can be overcome through open communication, mutual respect, and practical support systems. We all have something to contribute to this process, and the reward is the opportunity to work and interact with more diverse groups of people and learn about cultures different from our own. Together we can create a transformative educational experience for everyone.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Misael Romero-Reyes is a fourth-year PhD candidate at Emory University.

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



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