Cross-cultural experiences are the key to academic success: Q&A with PhD prizewinners

Researchers from Tokyo and the United States explain why and how international collaboration is so valuable for students and academics.
March 25 2016

Working with people from different countries and cultures can benefit students and researchers personally and professionally, by cultivating new perspectives and ideas.

Chemists and collaborators Dr David Michaelis, of Brigham Young University in the United States, and Dr Hiroyuki Miyamura, of the University of Tokyo in Japan, forged a fruitful partnership after meeting in 2010 through the Reaxys Prize Club: a select group of chemistry PhD students nominated for a prestigious prize.

In this interview with Times Higher Education, they explain why and how international collaboration is so valuable for students and researchers.

Why did you seek new perspectives from someone with a different cultural experience or academic background?

David Michaelis: Scientific research is moving more and more towards interdisciplinary studies because many of the interesting or challenging questions to be answered require combined skills, expertise and approaches from different fields. This makes it necessary to reach out to researchers who are experts in the interfacial field or to learn those skills yourself. Often, the most successful efforts in interdisciplinary research, in my experience, require both kinds of outreach from both sides. 

Hiroyuki Miyamura: I think that the smallest items or phenomena can be seen and understood in different ways by different people. This isn’t just a question of crossing borders: those from the same country, culture or even the same research group can offer a different perspective that might give a new insight. However, I believe that someone with a different cultural and academic background could show me a completely different way of thinking, which in turn can lead to new leaps in understanding. Such experiences could be very helpful for my research and educational career in the future, meaning I’ve always been keen to seek them out.

What have you learned from one another?

DM: When I first met Dr Miyamura in 2010, and heard him present his Reaxys PhD prizewinning research into polymer-supported nanoparticle catalysts, I made specific connections between the research I wanted to pursue and the work he was accomplishing in his group. After accepting a faculty position in 2012, the Reaxys PhD programme offered a travel award for club members to get together for a research exchange. Thus, I got in touch with Dr Miyamura and his mentor, Dr Shu Kobayashi, and we arranged for a visit where I would travel to Tokyo and learn specific techniques about the synthesis and characterisation of both the nanoparticle catalysts and the polymers used in their synthesis.

Through this experience, I was able to get hands-on experience of tasks I’d never done before, such as making new polymers – experience that I couldn’t have learned by simply staying in Salt Lake City. I also made excellent friends and solidified contacts and collaborators that will continue to benefit my research for years to come. The trip also gave me a valuable insight into Japanese education and culture, and I got to see the similarities and differences in the way that research groups are run in the United States and Japan. These experiences have influenced the way that I run my research group today.

HM: As well as working with us on our research in Tokyo, Dr Michaelis was able to give me insights from his own studies. For example, I found his research into using oxidants in synthetic chemistry fascinating. More generally, the ability to swap experience and knowledge with a peer is always something to jump at. As David has shown, something you learned several years ago can provide a vital insight in the present day. It’s also the case that, by explaining your work, or even your city, to a newcomer, you can help yourself understand it better. 

How did the partnership benefit the outcomes of your work?

DM: I have been able to meet other scientists and attend conferences that I would otherwise never have been able to, as well as gaining exposure to and knowledge of branches of chemistry outside my own field of expertise. As a result, I have been able to develop a much more rounded view of the chemistry and research industries, which in turn helps me to develop a greater understanding of my own work.

HM: The real benefit of working with David came not from the work we were doing during his stay, but in what we have learned from him since he returned to the US. He was so motivated by what he experienced in our laboratory, and brought back a significant amount of research that he has since expanded on; and that has subsequently shown us how to start to tackle completely new research and development. For instance, he recently published a very interesting paper based in part on his work that began with us, which has in turn helped inform our own research and given us new ideas to explore. This was so great.

Have there been any difficulties working with a partner overseas?

DM: The greatest difficulty was setting up the original meeting and being able to afford to meet one another in person. I can’t say enough about the benefits of being able to have this kind of in-person contact when working with someone – not only from a research perspective, but also the opportunities it provides to socialise and to learn something of the people and places you’re working with.

HM: So far I haven’t felt any difficulties in working with a research partner from overseas. Instead, I think it has been a chance to encounter new knowledge and cultures, and to develop new things that I could not accomplish by myself.

How important is it to forge such connections at early stages of your education or research career?

DM: Forging strong connections with established researchers both inside your own field and with those outside your area can be essential for establishing a successful research programme that seeks to do interdisciplinary research. These connections not only provide advice about how to do experiments and what experiments are valuable, they can also provide critical feedback about early publications, or the design of early experiments. New research groups also have limited resources and personnel, and collaborators can provide support and resources (instruments, analysis and so on) that are not otherwise available.

HM: I think making these connections as early as possible is crucial. Generally, the ability to travel, meet others, network and greatly expand your knowledge in this way is something that happens later in a research career. By doing it while we were still PhD students, we could get a huge advantage not only in terms of social contacts, but in being exposed to potential new fields of research and making valuable connections. The ability to make such connections is something that students should always aim to take advantage of, no matter their discipline, as otherwise they might not have another chance for several years.

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