8 Oct 2014

Researcher mobility...minus the scooter

Being a scientist can open the door to a whole host of amazing travel opportunities. Jo Fothergill fondly reflects on her time working in Canada, and encourages more researchers to do the same!

I’ve always secretly fancied living abroad. In my mind, the scenario goes like this; the sun is beating down on Parisian walkways (cue music). There I am with oversized sunglasses and handbag confidently striding down the street, completely fluent in another language and at ease on the foreign soil. It’s all very glamorous...and clearly all in my head.

Science can give you amazing opportunities to see the world. Ask anyone senior and they will agree that working abroad can also help to give you a competitive edge. Even the British Council states that mobile researchers that work in different labs tend to be more productive. With that in mind, a few years ago I decided to apply for some funding to work in a lab in Quebec, Canada during my post doc at Liverpool. I was successful and after the initial excitement comes the reality that you have agreed to travel, live and work alone in a different country albeit only for a short while. I remember being apprehensive and nervous but, with a new suitcase in tow, I waved goodbye to my boyfriend (now husband) and jetted off. Three flights later, I arrived in Quebec City in the French speaking part of Canada. At the airport, I was met by a senior post doc from the lab and all apprehension began to disappear. I was made to feel so welcome. They settled me in in my studio accommodation and left me to deal with my jet lag

My first experience of maple syrup in Canada. 
They spread it onto snow and then roll it onto a stick.

In the lab the next day, I began work learning a new cloning method in order to knockout genes from notoriously difficult clinical isolates of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The bacteria can cause a wide range of infections including infections in the lungs, burns and wounds, eyes and urinary tract. I was hosted by Professor Roger Levesque at Université Laval Рrenowned for his work on P. aeruginosa, models of infection and sequencing. At first, everything seems different and yet eventually you realise that most labs work in a very similar way. Although I do now know that DNA in French is ADN.
A very cold morning at Université Laval campus

Before going I was warned by some that in North America I would be worked to the bone – long hours and no holidays. However, I found the hours to be roughly the same with the work largely dictating what is needed (unfortunately bacteria don’t always adhere to 9-5 working hours). At weekends, I was taken sight-seeing and invited for meals.  Quebec City is a beautiful city in Eastern Canada. Situated on the Saint Lawrence river, it has a very European feel. I was there in Autumn-Winter so I got to witness the Canadian maples leaves turn red, drop off and freeze in the time I was there. The experience was amazing and really made me think about how I could try to enhance anyone that visits me in the lab in future.

Irena made me feel so welcome on the trip.

In short, I made some friends for life, strengthened collaborations and learnt a new technique. I can’t really deny that there were times when I felt a bit lonely and really wished that my French was better (with the help of Michael Thomas, one day it will be) but I would recommend the experience to anyone. I had a fabulous time and Quebec City will always hold a special place in my heart. I hope to return someday.

My advice to anyone thinking about doing this is to be proactive and give it a go. Here are some funding streams that might help:

Dr Jo Fothergill is a microbiologist and Tenure-Track Fellow at the Institute of Infection and Global Health.
Follow her @JoJofoth

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