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Dangerous Experiments

Dangerous Experiments is the LabSpaces spot for guest bloggers. The purpose of the blog is to give new and old bloggers a space to experiment with blogging. If you'd like to contribute to this experiment, send us an e-mail or contact us on twitter at either @LSBlogs or @LabSpaces.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

For those of you unfamiliar with me, here is a little bit of my background. I recently graduated in December 2010 with my B.S. in Chemistry. I did undergrad research and worked at an environmental lab after college. After about 5 months, I ended up in academia as an organic geochemistry technician at a very large prominent college in Oklahoma.

In the beginning, I was ecstatic and flattered that all my hard work landed me such an awesome position. As the weeks went on, I struggled trying to find my niche in this odd dynamic of a team.  Firstly, I am the only American girl in the lab. I did bond with the other male technician and my lab manager but getting to know the postdocs was a whole other ordeal.

See, we get visiting postdocs every 3 weeks. Right now there are 6 here for their 1 year postdoctoralship. This is unfamiliar territory for me because I’ve never heard of that many in one department. They are all foreign as well. However, this is not a problem. I lived in Italy for 6 months and am very respectful and enamored by other cultures.  Slowly but surely I won the hearts of the Brazilian, the Pollack and Frenchie. I want to share with you some things I learned regarding foreign colleagues and how my work environment is so much better now.

10. DON’T start off your relationship with any foreign person in regards to their country’s politics or yours. That just isn’t a proper introduction and builds a relationship on differences.

9. Always speak English slowly and DO NOT use a lot of slang. America is known for our endless adjectives and it’s hard for some of them to know that “dent, ding and bang” mean the same thing. Usually when I describe something, I add about 3 more adjectives to make sure they understand.

8. DO know your facial expressions. When someone doesn’t completely understand you, they can pick up on what your face is saying to get the gist. My first real foreign language was Italian so I speak with my hands a lot. These two things allow for better communication and many laughs for sure.

7. In all languages we use different tones. This gets tricky. The Pollack says “Okay” like “Ooooooookay” and I had to explain to her that it sounds sarcastic when used that way. This goes for the way we speak as well. DON’T assume just because you said something nice- that it was taken that way. There are many days I have to translate our PI’s emails or my Lab Manager’s instructions because they were considered rude. It seems as if males give off this vibe more than females.

6. DO know where you are needed. Since I’m the big English expert to my colleagues, I spend most of my day explaining things. Not only English but cultural tasks. You’d be surprised how people from the DMV or the car body shop treat foreigners. I would never want them to get screwed over so I offer my assistance when needed. I’m not afraid of any mechanic or snotty-ass window girl. I’ve learned that our “trashy American attitude” is straight rude to foreigners because they have no defense. I have the upper hand here and I use it when people treat my friends wrong.

5. DO share. Not only daily tasks are important but cultural traditions are a must-share. Every Friday, I try to have a drink with the post-docs. Each time I take them some place different. Being in Oklahoma, our cultural traditions center around country music. Now I am NO fan of country music at all. I’m a metal girl, however I sucked it up one night and two-stepped with this stranger just to show them what it was. I even made those girls home-made ranch dressing because they LOVED it. I didn’t mind. I felt appreciated and enjoyed showing them these things. I cannot wait until football season.

4. Ever had to search for literature in a different language? If there is a visiting postdoc native in that language, DO ask for help. They will be one of your best resources.

3. DO learn their languages as well. I’m not very good at it and somewhat embarrassed sometimes, but they respect me for trying. Start small. It’s so much easier to start with the dirty words first. The highlight to that is if you can cuss in 4 languages and your boss can’t speak them- then work gets a little easier and entertaining. Practice a lot. Most of these people are here for a year. It’s a wonderful learning experience.

2. Once you get a stronghold on a language- make sure you DO travel! You can travel to that country and have some language already under your belt AND a contact. What else do you need? Badda bing badda boom baby. It never hurt us to get out of our lab and see the world.

1. DO ask for a referral letter before they leave. This will launch your career opportunities past the coast-lines and make you more valuable anywhere you go.

Some may think that as a technician I am going above and beyond my job description, but I think that following these ten guidelines help to build bonds that will strengthen my work ethic and my career. However, sometimes it is hard to tell if I’m just "that awesome tech" or if they actually consider me a real friend.  Only time will tell I suppose. It never hurts to be nice though!


Brandi VanAlphen is a professional Head-Tweaker, Heavy Metal-Rocker Chick and Extreme Environ. Chemist.  You can find more science from her over on her twitter feed.

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Dub C Med School
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#3 & 2 are definite must.

I find that after a while, even short travels/visits coupled with some exposure to other languages, people learn to adopt much more neutral stances. Especially with, even passing, familiarity of other cultures.

I'm always horrified by #6 when "home." And downright disgusted when I see the way some Americans act abroad. Screaming at the waiter in Istanbul for not speaking great English in a non-touristy area just gives the people there a very bad impression of other Americans. Thanks, guys.

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Oh Jay, we're Americans! Denizens of the greatest country in the world.  We can do no wrong, right?

Dr. Girlfriend
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I always had a hard time with the Indian head-nodding gesture used to indicate they are in agreement because to me it seems like the Western head-shake of disagreement! I find smiling helps to sooth over any unintended rudeness or misunderstanding. Good on you for doing the language thing -I totally failed to pick up more than a few words of Chinese, despite it being the predominant language for three years of my lab life.

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