This is a comment on the article titled "A Tunnel to Atlanta", written by Beryl Lieff Benderly (4 May 2007). The author talks about the importance of networking within ones own ethnic group and how that can help people in their scientific careers. While this may be true to an extent, it also leads to some very avoidable situations in scientific environments. The biggest potential problem posed by excessive intra-ethnic networking is the formation of closed groups (popularly referred to as 'mafias') of foreigners in the work environment, often leading to a chasm between the members of this group and everyone else. In many situations, such groups result in its members lacking confidence or developing a sense suspicion when it comes to interacting with other nationalities or cultures: ghetto-isation in other words. This negates any advantage an international experience can have and can only be bad for science for two reasons. The first is that Science is and should be an international activity involving active interaction between different ethnic and cultural groups. Most high profile laboratories, irrespective of the field, are highly international in composition. Secondly, being scientists, we must endeavour to be above the boundaries of culture, language, religion and ethnicity, at least in the workplace.
I can give myself as an example of a person who had an excellent start to my scientific career without having another person from my country or culture anywhere near me. I left my native India to do my PhD in a Macromolecular Crystallography lab in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I was the only person from my country in the whole building but never experienced any homesickness during the six and a half years of my stay there. My colleagues in the lab and my boss were fantastic and very supportive, so much that I did not feel the need for any support from people of my own cultural background. This has had an effect of making me immune to the effects cultural differences usually have on people, and I can now feel comfortable anywhere. I like to believe this is a good thing.
To sum up, I believe that active interaction with other cultures makes one a better person and a better scientist. Culture shock is a great thing to be experiencing all by oneself.
Dr Ganesh Natrajan
Macromolecular Crystallography group.
European Synchrotron Radiation Facility