May 2011

International biochemistry and molecular biology

One of the best parts of my job is the opportunity to visit scientists in other countries and share our recent research findings with them. Last year I visited Sapporo, Japan; Prague, Czech Republic; and Hamburg, Germany. This year I get to visit Potrero de los Funes, Argentina; Geneva, Switzerland and Heidelberg, Germany. Unlike conferences in the U.S., meetings in other countries are much more likely to include wonderful cultural side trips: I will never forget a chamber music concert I enjoyed with colleagues at a conservatory in the south of France or a demonstration of traditional dance with colleagues in Tokushima, Japan. The world of science is small, and it becomes much smaller all the time as we are all brought closer together by the internet and access to free (or low-cost) internet telephone calls.

Lucky for me, at least, is the fact that a great deal of science is communicated in my native language. But there also is a great deal of science that is transacted in other languages. My knowledge of conversational German made it possible for me to participate in a student workshop on women’s issues at an otherwise English-language conference two years ago in Konstanz. But in Argentina, I have been warned that many talks will be in Spanish; hopefully, gels, graphs, protein structures and microscopic images represent a universal language that all biochemists and molecular biologists (me included) can understand.

Even though students now learn excellent English in school, many are shy to use it, even if they speak quite well. Encouraging student participation at international meetings and speaking English with students when traveling abroad can do much to add confidence to young scientists in training. These types of exchanges can be transformational for a young scientist’s career and will continue to be supported by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In addition to sponsoring student travel awards, ASBMB is supporting exchange programs and joint meetings in cooperation with the Pan American Association for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Chilean Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. We also are running a special symposium on recent advances in pathogenic human viruses July 24 – 26, 2011, in Guangzhou, China.

Students who have the opportunity to study abroad not only learn additional languages, they also learn about cultural distinctions that influence the practice of science in a particular country. Xiaodong Wang, who just returned to Beijing after many years in the U.S., tells me that one of the biggest challenges Chinese science faces is in fact cultural: Confucianism involves interpretation of knowledge rather than the idea of seeking truth through new discoveries. In addition, he pointed out that the long history of Chinese medicine thrives on secrecy among traditional healers rather than dissemination of helpful cures. As director of the National Institute of Biological Sciences, Wang is working to bring the highest standards of excellence to Chinese science and to spread the important message that the product of scientific activity should be new and widely shared discoveries rather than just long lists of publications.

Cultural differences also are reflected in government priorities for science funding. Over the past ten years, science in China, India, Korea and Taiwan has exploded, and this advance has been accompanied by major investments from their respective governments. In the United Kingdom, scientists stood together to resist major funding cuts last winter at a time when the rest of the budget was not spared. Here in the U.S., President Obama values the importance of science funding, but Congress is under enormous pressure to reduce deficits without raising taxes. As I have written previously, we need to help Congress understand that science funding creates jobs and has much broader positive impacts throughout the economy. Please continue to let your congressional representatives hear just how much science benefits us all.

Lifestyles of biochemists around the world vary tremendously. One of my former postdocs returned to a biotech job in Hyderabad, India, where she and her husband have at their service a daily housekeeper and cook in addition to full-time child care for their two children located in a building immediately adjacent to her lab. If only all of us could have it so good! Labs also are funded in different ways in different countries. In Germany, for example, a faculty position comes with a certain number of staff or student positions and grants pay for supplies. In contrast, U.S. universities rarely provide postdoctoral or staff salaries, and thus salaries represent the largest proportion of grant budgets. This makes it tough for investigators when grants don’t get renewed – often, staff must be laid off. In many countries, such as Germany and Japan, young scientists are discouraged by the lack of tenure-track, independent investigator positions that are common in the U.S. Funding mechanisms also vary widely: I have reviewed a few applications from the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust; compared with a typical U.S. National Institutes of Health grant proposal, these were brief and seemed like they practically could have been written in the shower. It was a relief to see a funding agency take into account an investigator’s track record and focus primarily on the importance of the question to be studied.

At the moment, our thoughts are with all of our Japanese colleagues still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. The Japanese people are strong, and the government seems well equipped to oversee reconstruction and redevelopment of a large swath of northeastern Honshu Island. Let us hope that the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Facility soon will stabilize with minimal adverse health consequences.

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