Although I have seen a plethora of scientific results in the last few days, I am choosing to write about the less quantitative results of an international experience such as attending this EuCheMS chemistry congress. Steve Meyers gave a great talk today on ACS’s GREET program, in which he mentioned several benefits of international collaboration. In particular, he showed that students who had been a part of an international collaboration developed more confidence in unfamiliar situations, gained a global perspective, and displayed an increased desire for more international collaborations. These were the results of 6-8 week collaborations with lots of face-time with international colleagues. My own observations come from brief visits to other countries, including this 5-day (so far!) visit to Prague.
Being in an unfamiliar situation has a number of advantages. The first and perhaps most obvious is that the traveler is exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking. I experienced this by observing the culture of Prague in general but also by listening to the scientific talks. Many presenters offered opinions on chemistry, the role of a chemist, and the state of the world in addition to their specific results (this was particularly prevalent in the “Ethics in Chemistry” section I attended). The next advantage of unfamiliar situations is a fun one – it brings people together. I am fairly introverted by nature and have a hard time meeting new people, but it did not take long to make friends with the other winners of this ACS travel award to EuCheMS. Not knowing the language or the layout of the city gave us a reason to stick together and made socializing (and exploring) easier.
The biggest ‘unfamiliar situation’ benefit I have found is an enhanced awareness and attentiveness to almost everything I experience. For instance, not knowing the language encourages me to pay close attention to landmarks, pictures, and repeated words and characters, and listening to talks given by presenters with accents requires me to focus while they speak. This language barrier has another interesting effect: it makes me shut up. Instead of talking about what I think or what I want, I listen and I observe. These quiet activities develop humility and help to combat arrogant or judgmental assumptions I might have made previously.
I am fortunate to be able to spend several more days in Prague, and I hope this humility and attentiveness will develop even further. Once I go home, I want to keep this attitude of constant learning. I suspect that my science and my life in general will improve as a result.