How to break down cultural and
language barriers in the lab
Celebrating cultural traditions together can
be one way to bridge the divide
By Chemjobber for C&EN
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.
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
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