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The mentoring messages that can get lost in translation

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Science has become more international in the past few decades. This means that you might encounter a variety of people from different geographical and cultural backgrounds in your lab. So how does this affect your mentoring relationships?

In the second episode of this seven-part Working Scientist podcast series, researchers share some of their cross-cultural mentoring encounters.

These range from Asian attitudes to hierarchies, to a Scandinavian enthusiasm for peer-to-peer mentoring and a very British fixation with mentoring and afternoon tea.



Julie Gould 0:29

Hello, I'm Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. And in this series we're talking all about mentoring.

Science has over the last few decades become more international. People are traveling the world to do their research, although not quite as much this last year-and-a-half as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even so, researchers are continuing to collaborate internationally. And you may end up with a variety of people from different geographical and cultural backgrounds in your working environment.

So how does this affect your mentoring relationships? The scientists I talk to in this particular episode share some of their cross-cultural mentoring encounters. These range from Asian attitudes to hierarchies, a Scandinavian enthusiasm for peer-to-peer mentoring, and a very British fixation with mentoring and afternoon tea.

When you're a researcher, you will find yourself working with many people from many different backgrounds, countries and cultures. For some, this is wonderful. For others it can be difficult, says Nick Roden, an oceanographer who has worked in Australia, America and Norway.

Nick Roden 1.42

Experiencing those cultural differences has been like, perhaps frustrating and challenging. But one of the most rewarding aspects of doing research abroad and doing postdocs in different countries.

Julie Gould 1:53

It also means that there's a high chance you'll have the opportunity to be mentored by someone from a different cultural background. This, as Nick says, is a fantastic opportunity. But there can be some frustrations.

So to avoid some of those frustrations, misunderstandings and miscommunications, having an understanding of the ways in which people communicate across the world can be beneficial.

It can help you build relationships and navigate conversations, says Martin Gargiulo, professor of human resources and organizational development at INSEAD in Singapore.

Martin Gargiulo 2:25

Talking to a Norwegian, or talking to a French, talking to an Italian, or talking to a Finn, British for that matter, it's completely different story. You need to understand, for example, when a British person is sexually telling you something, that he's actually making fun of you. And when an American tells you, “Oh, that's interesting.” Basically it means it’s pretty stupid.

But the biggest differences between Europe and Asia. This is changing fast. But Asia, especially East Asia, I mean, all the countries that are somehow influenced by Confucianism, Chinese culture, directly or indirectly, their societies are very hierarchical, much less so India. It’s hierarchical but not at the same level. They, they the East Asian students will not push back. And and you may get the impression that they agree with you. They don't.

And they won't pay any attention to what you say. But they will tell you, yes. Extreme in the case of Japanese, Korean somewhere, Chinese also.

So you need to learn to talk to them and to provide feedback in a way that you can build that trust that allows them to really tell you what they think.

Julie Gould 3:43

it does take time to build those levels of trust, says Martin, but there is something that is common amongst all cultures that could help you communicate.

Martin Gargiulo: 3:50

Humour can help you to get through messages that can be hard, but at the same time, they don't come as hard.

I mean, I was telling a recent graduate “It was an interesting journey with you and me like you make great progress, and I'm really glad and you know, we have very strong bond.” I say “Sometimes, you know, I had difficulties because you have your own ideas and you don't want to give up on them.”

And she said “You mean I'm stubborn!”

Yes. But you just laugh okay, because you know, we build that relationship that that allows you to have that conversation. But it takes time.

Julie Gould 4:33

Now having that type of conversation can really only come from someone who knows you understand you and ultimately supports you and has your best interests at heart, aka a mentor.

Vidita Viyada, a previous winner of the Nature awards for mentoring in science is a professor of neurobiology at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India.

Her career has spanned the globe, and she has noticed differences in how the laboratories are run, and how the students and researchers are supported.

Vidita Viyada 5:03

You do see the cultural nuances that come in when you know science is done. The questions are central, but the way in which people approach them, the local sort of cultural flavour, the labs and the personalities is definitely different across these places.

Julie Gould 5:16

Vidyta has spent time in India, the US, the UK and Sweden throughout her academic journey. And she shared some of her experiences of the different mentoring styles with me, which I wanted to share with you.

She starts her story in Sweden, where she did a postdoc, and she was pleased to discover the culture of peer mentoring, which at that point in her career was really, really important.

Vidita Viyada: 5:39

I began to see perhaps more of the culture of people mentoring each other, rather than just expecting a more central figure in the laboratory.

By then I was a postdoctoral fellow. And I began to see the value of co-mentoring each other in a sense, right? There's the community of postdoctoral fellows who are in situations of waiting for their job, and you find, actually, people who are at your same stage of career. They end up mentoring you and you end up mentoring them.

And so there was a transition because I was no longer a graduate student. And I was transiting already into that phase where as a postdoctoral fellow I, I found mentorships, and people who were round about the same stage of career,

Julie Gould 6:21

One of the typically British cultures that Vidita enjoyed when working at the University of Oxford was having tea. Every afternoon at four o'clock Vidita’s research group and supervisor would have tea. And it was not okay to miss tea.

Vidita Viyada 6:35

Because tea is way more than tea. It's not about the consumption of the beverage, it's about the bonding, you know. It was amazing, because the person I was working with first was a significantly older, senior professor.

There were many younger professors sort of under the umbrella. And that was actually really a different model from what I'd seen in the US, where the sort of principal investigators and professors were very young. This was a more hierarchical model, but also equally nurturing in its own way.

So it's very interesting to watch how, even though culturally it was different from what I was used to, it's still centralized the idea of the collective, putting people together, you solve the problem together over a cup of tea.

Julie Gould 7:18

One of the roles of being a mentor is to support your researchers and to prepare them for future careers. Now, this support and preparation can look different in different countries.

In Japan, for example, although the majority of PhD researchers are self funded, it's the professor's responsibility to make sure that they pass their final exams, says John Hernlund, the Vice Director of the Earth Life Science Center at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan,

John Hernlund 7:43

What I see my colleagues doing often is, as the exams approach for their PhD defence or their Master's thesis presentations, they will closet up with the students in these seminar rooms, and they just keep on going over and they're finishing everything and they're working in a frantic pace to try and make sure that everything is ready. And it tends to be this kind of final crunch towards the finish line.

And they'll they'll spend, you know, 12 14, 16 hours a day just sitting in this room, if that's what it takes.

Julie Gould 8:16

Earlier, we heard from Martin Gargiulo about the strict hierarchy at many universities in East Asia. So I was curious. I asked John Hernlund if this meant that students just did as they were told by their supervisors without thinking about their own ideas, or wellbeing,

John Hernlund: 8:32

Yes, the culture is more, the students are willing to accept what the professor asked them to do, and they're willing to go along with it more than a Western student is, but not universally. It's just kind of maybe a correlation, but not every student is that way. I've come across Japanese students who would very much be willing to challenge a professor and question their views or say, “No, this is wrong, you should think about this.”

But the expectation is not there in Japan, I think, for students to do that. When I was a student in the US, I felt like I was almost expected or compelled to be outspoken, to question my professors, to challenge the answers they gave to me, and say, “Wait, what about this? Did you think about that?”, You know, kind of almost like the student is interrogating the professor.

Julie Gould: 9:29

But when it comes to mentoring, wherever you are in the world, it's not so much about cultural differences, as it is about the individual differences and drivers, says Vidita.

Vidita Viyada 9:39

Certainly labs and certain individuals value mentorship immensely, and they place it front and center in their scientific journey. And when you're lucky enough to be in an environment where someone has placed mentorship as central to their focus, then you benefit immensely.

And I think that that's the culture…. I was very lucky, I had some amazing mentors along the way. And when you watch what it does to the way they deal with their science, the mentorship is central. It's not an add on. It's not a “I do science and then I also happen to be a mentor.”

Mentoring is almost as critical as the journey of science itself.

Julie Gould: 10:43

For something so important to the journey of science, you think it would be something that was pretty intuitive? It turns out but it's not.

Being a mentor can be very challenging, particularly this last year and a half during the pandemic, when a lot of collaboration has become virtual. In the next episode, we'll find out how mentors do their mentoring, how to avoid negative mentoring experiences, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed mentoring relationships. Thanks for listening. I'm Julie Gould.


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