Why Chemistry Students Need Passports

Scientists say their discipline has changed in ways that require a more international approach to graduate education.
August 29, 2005

At scientific meetings lately, there is much talk of the crisis in international exchange -- with the emphasis on declines in foreign enrollments at American institutions and the difficulty that prospective students have getting visas.

At the American Chemical Society's annual meeting Sunday, a different type of crisis was the focus: the lack of international expertise by graduate students in chemistry at a time when their profession increasingly requires a perspective that extends beyond the United States. Professors, government officials and graduate students discussed the need for more science students to learn about the rest of the world -- and ways that universities could help them do so.

While it once would have been standard for a Ph.D. student to be proficient in German or to have spent extensive time abroad, the speakers here said that the situation was so bad that any foreign language instruction at all would be valuable and that exchange programs that are as short as a week would add to students' knowledge.

The sense of crisis comes from the view that American dominance of chemistry is at serious risk of ending. Tamara J. Nameroff, director of international activities for the American Chemical Society, said that by 2008, China will displace the United States as the top producer of articles in chemistry journals. "Borders are less and less relevant to the conduct of science," she said, but the "persistent insularity" of Americans is holding the discipline back.

While mastery of chemistry is obviously the top goal of a graduate program in the field, she said, knowledge of foreign cultures and languages needs to be considered part of the curriculum.

Alvin L. Kwiram, a professor of chemistry at the University of Washington, that the United States is also losing its dominance of the chemical industry, so the two-thirds of chemistry Ph.D.'s who get jobs outside of academe need to be prepared to work for foreign or multinational companies, and few of them are.

Officials from the National Science Foundation noted that there are numerous programs to support graduate students who want to do research abroad. And due to the pressure many science doctoral students face to be in their home labs, many of these programs are relatively short term. The East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students, for example, are only about eight weeks.

But the NSF officials and Kwiram said that many of these programs get relatively few applicants and could support more students.

Kwiram said that part of the problem is that the U.S. government "is schizophrenic" about international exchange, sponsoring great programs like the NSF efforts but also clamping down on foreign students through new Defense Department proposals that he said would be "a disaster" for American science. Graduate students, he said, need a consistent message that international exchange is valuable.

One way to do that, he said, was through university involvement in programs to promote exchange. The University of Washington is one of five American members in the Worldwide Universities Network, a group of 16 institutions that encourages exchanges and joint research work among graduate students. Kwiram also said that professors need to start encouraging their graduate students to consider studying foreign languages (not worrying over which one they study or how fluent they get), looking for summer internships or postdoctoral fellowships abroad, and encouraging more breadth in their educations generally.

Catherine E. Costello, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Boston University, said that part of the problem is with professors and their expectations. Many professors have "so regulated what courses you take when" that it is very hard for a graduate student to take a semester abroad for study or research.

Costello said that professors in the humanities -- where graduate study abroad is fairly common -- are more flexible, and that science professors need to show that they are willing to follow that model. "Once you start thinking that [foreign exchanges] are possible and desirable, there's lots of room," she said.

Even short exchanges can make a big difference in outlook, said several participants at Sunday's discussion. For example, the Northeastern Section of the chemistry society sponsors one week trips to Germany in which graduate students visit German universities and businesses and also travel. (The section acts as host for similar trips to Boston organized by a German chemistry group.)

William L. Neely, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that participating in a trip to Germany this year showed him the possibilities of working in that country. He said that the quality of laboratories was high, and he also came to understand the different work styles that are common in Germany. "Benchwork is more solitary there," with researchers working in their own offices -- and then coming together to talk -- in contrast with the large, open spaces common for researchers at American universities.

Before he went to Germany, he said, he had no regular contacts with any scientist working abroad. Now he has several with people he met. Previously, he could not have envisioned working abroad. Now, he can.


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