Science is collaborative by nature and necessity. The ideas, expertise, infrastructure, and application of science are broadly distributed and demand the collective efforts of many. Increasingly, science’s collaborative needs stretch across national boundaries requiring multi-national cooperation. This is apparent in projects ranging from the International Space Station (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html) to the recently completed global Census of Marine Life (http://www.coml.org). The Census was an ambitious attempt at cataloging Earth’s marine ecosystems in their current condition, chronicling what is known about them historically, and exploring what they may look like in the future. Seeking answers to such ambitious questions is both international and collaborative by definition.
I had the opportunity to contribute to CoML endeavors while attending graduate school in New Zealand. My research focused on highly migratory fish species like marlin, tuna, and sharks which call entire ocean basins (Pacific, Atlantic Oceans, etc.) ‘home,’ enabling me to work with colleagues from USA, New Zealand, Australia, and Tonga to name a few. With fish being the #1 source of protein in the world, fisheries scientists develop frameworks to manage these critical resources, and highly mobile and popular fish like tuna require multi-national management strategies. A tuna that is found in the waters of the USA today might be found in the waters of Japan next month. Indeed, I am gathered with colleagues from the USA, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea to consider population management strategies of a Pacific tuna species this week. The goal is to ensure fish are sufficiently abundant to replenish those harvested through time.
Goodwill and trust are key to making international collaborations work, and both are best formulated through face-to-face interactions, reinforced by transparent two-sided relationships. The face-to-face part is quite important, as it is difficult to bridge language and cultural barriers via electronic communication (ie. email) alone. Nothing beats sharing ideas and concerns sitting across the table from one another (even better with a beverage in hand).
Opportunities to establish international scientific relationships occur through conferences/meetings, fellowships/internships, and graduate research projects. Conferences are a good chance to meet people who are working on questions related to your focal area and see how they are approaching things. Internships are a chance to spend a relatively brief amount of time in the same environment with people working on these issues, and graduate research projects are probably the best situations for spending time immersed in the same intellectual environment learning from people you share interests with.
I can unequivocally recommend the first and second situations to anyone. It is almost essential to attend scientific meetings, and international meetings are just as important and valuable as domestic meetings. Relatively brief international internships or fellowships (ranging from 2 weeks to perhaps 2 years) are excellent opportunities to solidify long-term ties to new colleagues and meet more new people. Time spent immersed in foreign labs demonstrates to these colleagues willingness to go the extra mile, so to speak, to work with them.
Attending graduate school overseas is a more substantial commitment than the prior options and will probably require a minimum 2 year time investment. This is perhaps the biggest opportunity to establish international ties for the long-term. However, there are some important factors to consider. Importantly, one should understand upfront the compatibility of credentials you would be working towards in your home country (assuming you would intend to return home with them eventually). Would the foreign masters or PhD you would obtain be recognized by academic, government and private employers at home? My credentials from New Zealand are transferable to the USA, but when applying for jobs, etc. I sometimes have to provide evidence of equivalency, an extra burden in the employment process.
Another important consideration is your ability to communicate in the language of foreign institutions. If you don’t speak French, is it realistic to pursue a graduate degree that must be written in an unfamiliar language? Aside from minor adjustments to my native English style (spelling color as ‘colour’ in NZ), language was not a barrier for me. There are other important considerations, like cost of attending school overseas, distance from family and friends, visas, etc. However, with all of these additional considerations, my experience was unequivocally positive and unforgettable.
A valuable insight I gained from nearly a decade overseas was how fisheries are managed and regulated elsewhere. As mentioned before, my specialty is management of migratory fish stocks which commonly move between multi-national boundaries. Each nation has its own approach to management and regulation, and track record of how effective their approaches are. Seeing first hand how New Zealand approaches management gives me valuable perspective on US approaches, and increasingly the methods of other countries too. The opportunity to step outside of one’s own perspective and see things differently can be very valuable.