Sziastok! from Budapest - Philosophizing about alternative careers and the meaningfulness of stays abroad - by ESR8 Nina-Louisa Efrém
Saturday, 6 am. Berlin’s central station is deserted (apart from a few Oktoberfest aficionados on their way to Munich) when I board the train that would take me to Budapest. One year into my PhD, time has come to depart for my first secondment. After having moved to Berlin, struggled to find an apartment and settled in a new lab, the script repeats itself. Luckily, one gets more and more used to relocations over time. Packing and saying farewells become a routine and – let’s be honest – the 2.5 months that I will spend in Budapest are a foreseeable period of time. Based on my first impressions, Budapest is a bustling city, enchanting with its mixture of crumbling Art Nouveau buildings, modern skyscrapers and panel buildings (Panelház) that reflect its moved history. It seems to be a wonderful place to live, and probably most important for me right now, to do science! I was provided a very warm welcome by my host lab, the Medicinal Chemistry Research Group at the Research Center for Natural Sciences and am now looking forward to getting my chemistry running here.
When I was younger, I assumed that one would need to become a world-renowned music star or at least a diplomate to travel the world for work and live in different countries. Since I cannot sing and my French is rudimentary, I ruled out these career options early on. The thought that a career in science would get me there had never occurred to me. University studies, conferences, secondments – the list of occasions for travel and stays abroad as a scientist (as a chemist in my case) is long. The basic principles of chemistry and physics apply across borders; the stereoselectivity of an SN2 reaction is the same in Canada and Cameroon, and dichloromethane will form the lower layer in a liquid-liquid extraction with water anywhere around the globe. The language of chemical formulas and mathematical expressions is beautifully universal. Consequently, work in science is predestined for international exchange. I like to think of science as a connective link between people and cultures but of course, it is a valid question why this cross-country mobility is important and how society in general benefits from it.
Taking a broader view on the meaningfulness of cross-border scientific exchange, I am convinced that it does not only accelerate scientific progress but likewise enhances multilateral collaboration to tackle the most pressing challenges of our time. It makes us aware that people anywhere around the globe are asking the same scientific questions and work hard to answer them. Collaboration in science can open hearts and doors to initiate partnerships in entirely different fields. The experience abroad gives us the possibility and at the same time responsibility to advocate for intercultural communication and tolerance towards different viewpoints, promoting diversity in our communities.
On a personal level, I realize that each stay abroad confronts me with different opinions and ways of living, making me more approachable and understanding. I have become more resilient and self-confident by overcoming unanticipated challenges. Over time, I have learned most problems can actually be solved, often with the help of others. Moving to different countries has sensitized me for things that are not going well in places where I have lived before and, on the other hand, made me appreciate even more those things that were working out smoothly. Of course, personal development is one thing, but I am also convinced that each stay abroad makes me improve on a scientific level. During the current secondment in Budapest, for instance, I am re-learning lab-techniques that I am rarely using in Berlin (simply because I was not aware of their applicability to certain problems) but that might save me a lot of time during my daily work. I am also learning how to perform experiments, types of chemical reactions and work procedures that are entirely new to me but standard in my Hungarian host lab. Taking this knowledge back to Berlin and sharing it with my colleagues there, will benefit all of us. Finally, working and discussing with my new colleagues, who have different backgrounds and experiences, makes me see certain things, e.g. steps of a procedure, from a different perspective. This deepens my understanding of the respective processes and makes me question routine operations. Of course, I am very much hoping that this process of knowledge sharing is not one-way but mutual to make this experience most rewarding for everyone involved.