How to break down cultural and language barriers in the lab

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.


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

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.

Chemical & Engineering News ISSN 0009-2347 Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

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