Posted by Jamie Stavert
About a month ago I escaped the dreary New Zealand winter and travelled to Auckland’s antipodes – Sevilla, Spain. The forecast for New Zealand that week was cold, windy and rainy. In Sevilla it was sunny, hot and sunny.
On arrival, my first task was to visit the local Catholic Church (there are several dozen). This was because, somewhere over the Indian Ocean, I realized that I hadn’t had the pounamu (greenstone pendant) – a gift for my Spanish supervisor, blessed. Although somewhat bizarre, visiting the church was my only option, and seemed a peculiar but fitting way to bridge the two cultures. The catholic priest was a 4ft tall, uncanny Drew Carey lookalike. Upon dipping the necklace in the holy water he looked at me, concerned, and insisted that I come to mass on Sunday. His reasoning was that my parents were prisoners of a British colony, and therefore I was a savage, needing salvation. I tried to explain, to no avail, that I wasn’t Australian.
That’s Sevilla in a nutshell – hot, friendly and vibrant, with many quirky characters.
I could probably end the blog here – do you need any more convincing to get an international supervisor? I guess there are a few other reasons to pursue international collaboration during your PhD.
The world is becoming smaller
At a recent conference in Portugal, thinking I was the only non-Iberian delegate, I was astonished to meet another PhD student from New Zealand. Moreover, not only was she a New Zealander, but I had actually met her parents. The meeting with her parents was to request planting an experimental plot on their farm for my study – data from which I had presented the day before at the conference! They ended up declining my offer and I planted the plot on the farm next-door instead. I made it clear that it was her parents’ fault for the outlier in my study.
This exemplifies two things: 1) there are two degrees of separation in NZ and 2) the world is becoming increasingly interconnected. Enhanced international connectedness is allowing many research fields to progress faster than ever before. Multinational collaboration is vital to tackling global challenges such as climate change, food security and the loss of ecosystem services. If we want to be part of the solution to these global problems, we must first become part of the global scientific network.
We are stuck on a tiny island at the bottom of the world
The highlight of my stay in Sevilla was seeing Prof. David Tilman talk. Tilman’s talk was absolutely fascinating and has stimulated a lot of new thinking around my own experimental work. Lab visits and talks from leading international researchers are frequent in Europe and North America – unlike New Zealand where our geographical isolation makes such interactions challenging.
New Zealand is a wonderful place to study. The lab environment is friendly and intellectually stimulating and we produce world-class research. But we are very isolated. Accordingly, multinational collaboration, at least for a PhD student, may seem somewhat intangible. But geographical isolation shouldn’t be seen as a barrier, but instead incentive to actively pursue long distance collaborations.
We learn more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing
It seems inevitable that as we progress through the PhD, we will unknowingly slink down the rat hole. It is the nature of a PhD –
we start with big, grandiose questions but become progressively constrained in our thinking as we search for the answer. The collaborative experience can foster creativity and encourage a novel approach to addressing research questions. This is partly because different cultures approach problems from different perspectives. Collaboration can help us get around “scientists’ writers block” and eventually join the dots.
My visit to Sevilla has exposed me to a novel environment and interactions with scientists that think different ways. This has fostered creativity and has coerced me into tackling old problems with renewed enthusiasm. It has allowed me to see new strengths and novelties in my work as well as weaknesses that otherwise wouldn’t have been evident.
With increasing competition for post docs, jobs and pressure to publish, establishing international networks during the PhD is essential. An international collaboration gives access to complementary knowledge and resources. Ultimately this will enhance the quality of your work. But aside from the career planning hoo-ha, working in an overseas lab can be a rich and memorable experience. It will push you outside of your comfort zone, challenge your preconceived ideas and opinions and force you into approaching problems from novel perspectives. And there will be plenty of adventure along the way.
Jamie Stavert is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is investigating the role of functional traits in driving biodiversity-ecosystem function relationships in pollination systems. He is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Anne Gaskett, David Pattemore and Nacho Bartomeus.