The fun challenges of international collaboration

Collaborating is not always easy–people have different styles, habits, and preferences for just about every stage of a project, from brainstorming ideas to writing up the results in a paper. Add on a layer of cultural and linguistic differences, and you could easily have the opportunity for some major problems!

Luckily, I have not run into any problems with my collaborators here in Sweden (so far), although there are some small challenges that I’ve gotten to face. First, although everyone I’m working with speaks excellent English, some words are not commonly used in either language so we spend quite a bit of time describing an object or idea because we can’t even remember the word in our own language! For example, I couldn’t remember the English word for this little object:

(it's a nut)

(it’s a nut)

…so I went around calling it by its Swedish word, mutter, for days! We use nuts (mutter) to weigh down the fake plants in our fishtanks, in case you were wondering:

one of our fish tanks with fake grass made of green ribbons tied to a nut

one of our fish tanks with fake grass made of green ribbons tied to a nut

There are also some other interesting language challenges, such as the fact that what the Swedes call “high school” (högskolan) is more equivalent to “college”, and what we Americans refer to as “high school” is called gymnasium. This can make describing my educational background a tad confusing!

There are also some cultural differences that take adjusting to. One that I quite enjoy, and would like to start up in the US, is a mid-morning and/or  mid-afternoon coffee/tea and cookie break, called fika. It is quite a wonderful tradition! However wonderful it is, though, it is a bit at odds with my workaholic tendencies–I have to stop my work to sit down and have coffee?!

I’ve also faced several logistical issues, including ordering and shipping of ‘hazardous’ laboratory materials, the fact that checks are almost never used in Europe anymore, and that credit cards should have chips and PIN codes in addition to magnetic strips and signatures. These issues are relatively easy to resolve and not major, but I am lucky that I haven’t encountered anything more problematic.

I think I am probably less thrown off by some of these minor, but pervasive, differences because I am a third culture kid. I can imagine that for other researchers, especially those who work across a broader cultural gap than the American-Swedish one I’m describing here, the challenges may be daunting. However, the scientific problems facing our world are global, working with people from different perspectives helps us ask better questions and shows us new perspectives, and there are funding incentives to work with international collaborators. I’ve really enjoyed my time working with the people here in Sweden, and I know that I am building a global network of scientists while collecting some cool data. I highly recommend international collaborations, despite the (minor, in my case) challenges.



One month in Sweden

colder weather led to fog at our field site

After one month in Sweden I’m nearly finished with my study monitoring the population of broad-nosed pipefish. The goal of that study is to understand which males got pregnant first, and whether larger males have the opportunity to get pregnant first. We’ve been marking the fish so that we know if we’ve already measured them. So far out of over 1000 fish tagged, we’ve only recaptured 10 fish, which isn’t too many. However, it’s better than some other mark-recapture studies that have been attempted on other species and populations with large population sizes like we have here. And we have recaptured males that have mated since the first time we caught them, which is pretty exciting!

One thing that’s been really interesting to see first-hand is how abiotic factors like wind patterns and temperature can really affect field biology. Our goal for the population was to get to the point where 80% or more of the males were pregnant. We got to 70% and then a cold front rolled through, along with shifting winds. The water temperature dropped several degrees, and all of a sudden the population was back to just over 50% of the males being pregnant! I don’t know where the pregnant males we’d already caught went, or even where most of the population goes. That’s a question that we pipefish biologists ask ourselves season after season. These sorts of setbacks and unknowns are familiar to field biologists. And I think it’s important as biologists for us to encounter these types of challenges–they remind us that there are more things that we do not know than we do know.

These abiotic factors are important to keep in mind when you wonder why some projects might get federal funding–if I wasn’t conducting this project, which is basic research with absolutely no direct benefit to humans, then these observations of how weather seems to affect the distribution and mating patterns of a species might never be observed. Climate change has many effects, and some of them are subtle. But if things like daily wind patterns, the movement of low and high pressure systems, and water temperature can affect the  mating behavior of one rather species, it’s hard to imagine the many varied effects changes in these factors may have on other species.

But the water is warming up, and soon we’ll reach our goal and finish up this project. Next week I should be starting some cool behavior experiments in the lab, which will present their own challenges.