by Helena Reichlova
“Do you like to travel?” I have not met many young people who would answer “no” to that question. A much more interesting question is, “Why do you travel?” Although responses may vary, I might predict that they commonly contain words like “new” and “different.” I imagine that’s because we like to interact with unfamiliar places, cultures, food, and people… simply because those interactions can be very refreshing and inspiring.
Conversely – when we travel – what is not different? Almost anywhere in the world, with the exception of just two countries, you can buy a well known sweet drink called Coca-Cola. But there much more common – often fancily called “global challenges.” Although the interpretation of some of the global challenges depends upon your location on the planet, other interpretations are common for everybody. Science, particularly physics, is for sure a universal source of such challenges.
But that is also one of the really cool things about physics. In physics we have the freedom to travel everywhere and the problems that we are trying to solve at home remain the same. In other words, the laws of physics don’t vary by location. The only thing that might change (and most likely will) is how scientists approach the problems. As a physicist who has experienced different cultures, I would like to share with you my experiences from several different countries and show that international collaborations of scientists can, and do, achieve the best results.
My first experience with math and physics was in the Czech Republic, which is where I am from and where I did my bachelor’s degree in Physics. The classes that I took at Charles University were difficult, covering a lot of math formalism, and early on I felt like I knew more math than my colleagues from “real” math. Some professors simply threw us into the middle of recent scientific problems; as a result we either sank (= approximately one third of the students did not finish their degree) or swam (=hours of studying at home were required to understand what he spoke about in class).
To add some variety to my education, I decided to go to Strasbourg, France, to study for my master’s degree. It was there that I experienced for the first time a different approach to physics. Compared to my fellow French students, I probably knew (or had at least heard of 🙂 ) more equations. But in Prague we were not taught to work in teams, or, more importantly, how to present our results. In Strasbourg, however, one entire class was dedicated to working in small teams to understand and present a recently published scientific paper that our professor had selected for us. Working in the lab, I also saw a new approach to physics. The official policy did not allow students to work past 7 pm, after which the building was locked and an alarm system was activated. If you combine this policy with generously long lunch times (in the best dining halls that I have ever seen), nice sunny afternoons on the cafeteria terrace, and at least five weeks of holidays, one would guess that the stereotypical “French laziness” was exactly correct. But I don’t think that’s true, and the experts would agree 🙂 ; instead they are just more efficient. They organize their time wisely and are taught to be independent, having productive discussions with colleagues during long lunches or coffee breaks. And they are not exhausted from long nights spent working in the lab.
After one year in France, I went back to the Czech Republic and continued to work on another project toward my master’s degree. One way that I would describe experimental work in a Czech lab is that it’s like a hobby. I mean that I have the feeling that people working in science there usually love their work. It’s for sure not the best paid job, nor the most prestigious one (as being viewed as a ‘nerd’ by others doesn’t make people proud), but people work very hard and I am sure that they would oppose any policy that forced them to go home at 7 pm. The word hobby also reflects a homey atmosphere. Our “research center” looks more like someone’s house than an academic building and it is not long before you get a sense that everyone there knows everyone else.
It follows naturally that my PhD work is an international collaboration as well – my advisors are Czech, Catalan (Spanish), and American. This variety brings positive differences. My Czech supervisor has taught me a kind of flexibility and has also showed me that being modest can work in science. On the other hand, I have learnt from my Catalan advisor that science does not need to be formal at all. As he says, science is just like an expensive version of Facebook – having a lot of friends (collaborations) who eventually like (cite) your status updates (scientific publications). A fellowship called the Fulbright has brought me to Ohio. In Ohio I have seen that people work really hard and the environment of a big university made me feel science is here very serious (compared to the hobby-like atmosphere that I described in Prague). I took only one class at Ohio State and I liked that the professor was open and encouraged discussions instead of using the equations to say everything. What I really like here is that good presentation skills are equally as important as good results. And I am really impressed by the frequency of scientific meetings and talks here (compared to rare scheduled meetings in Prague). Apart from the science, I hope that this helps me learn to communicate my work often and to keep track of what others are doing as well.
I have tried to describe the differences in cultures, habits, and styles that I have seen in my scientific career. I believe that physics is one of the fields that can really profit from this variety. Let me mention at least one example from a project that I was involved with last year. German colleagues prepared and characterized a specific sample. The precision that they achieved is unmatched, but to put their work in a broader context it was necessary to confirm their results by another method. Here the flexibility and speed of Prague scientists would be beneficial to the project, but first someone needs to make the connection between the two groups and create the story – the perfect job for my communicative Catalan advisor. One physics experiment approached from different perspectives. And I think the final product is perfect!
In sum, I hope that I have convinced you that different styles of work can bring together the best results. So, if you decide to study physics one day, don’t forget to travel!
About Helena Reichlova
I was born in the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at the time) and completed my undergraduate studies in physics at Charles University in Prague, the capital. I completed my MS degree in quantum optics and optoelectronics (in both the Czech Republic and in Strasbourg, France) and now I am working toward my PhD in the field of spintronics (which involves improving the present state of the art of electronics by including electron spin effects). Thanks to a Fulbright Fellowship, I have spent one year at OSU as a visiting researcher. As a good experimentalist I really like exploring new things, including nonscientific activities like painting, snowboarding, and traveling to different places around the world.