Citizens of the world…pipette!

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Moving is part of a modern scientific career. Nor is it uncommon to have a partner of a different nationality, to live and work abroad for years at a time, and to use a second language (often English) as a working language.

The individuals doing this are generally not alone in their journeys. Although some locations remain relatively monocultural, science hotspots are often melting pots where it’s not unusual to hear conversations going on in three different languages between the lab and the canteen, and where cultural differences are celebrated in social gatherings.

This exposure to other races, cultures, traditions and nationalities will not leave people unchanged. Like soldiers or sailors who acquire a few habits from being stationed abroad, or who may even spend their latter years yearning for the adventures of their youth, scientists are unlikely to experience such an environment and leave it without bearing its mark.

Just as city-dwellers across the globe are more alike than each is to rural inhabitants of their own country, scientists may find themselves with more in common with their international peers than their national compatriots.

It’s worth remembering that this is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in terms of its scale. There are more scientists than ever before, and more movement than ever before, so internationals constitute a growing global community. Scientist parents, who themselves may have highly dissimilar backgrounds, end up raising children who are cultural hybrids.

And while on a trivial level one of the fun aspects with living abroad is the way you notice all the little things that inhabitants may regard as inconsequential (eating a boiled egg with a spoon, or dipping toast “soldiers” into it, for instance), there are bigger and more profound outcomes. The distance, both geographical and temporal, eventually lets you see your own country with an outsider’s eyes; you gain a perspective on the unique aspects of your own culture, even as you drift apart from it.

In mythology, the Hero’s Journey involves personal change, and scientists who spend significant time abroad will undoubtedly become changed. In the UK, the way to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was paved by several generations of cultural, economic, scientific, horticultural, and social exchange between the British and Dutch nations. That blending of knowledge, outlook, and experience is likewise an unavoidable consequence of the international environment in which contemporary science operates, and it’s tantalising to wonder where it will lead.

Besides his science, Einstein is remembered as being one of the early champions of a cosmopolitan, internationalist outlook within the scientific community, and his outlook is arguably more relevant than ever. Scientists, all, are citizens of the world. Ones who pipette.

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